Psycho-Activists' Lack-of-Substance Abuse

Last month, we mentioned a conference at the University of the West of England, which set out to diagnose the debilitating condition suffered by those who fail to subscribe to the environmental orthodoxy.

We suggested that it’s a sure sign that environmentalism’s political arguments are failing when its adherents resort to the pathologisation of dissenters. Climate psycho-activist George Marshall had followed up his opening address to the conference with a Guardian piece explaining that ‘the greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information’.

What he meant by ‘we’ was ‘them’. But that’s the trouble with psychology: we all have one. If scepticism can be reduced to a psycho-pathological phenomenon, then so too can willingness to toe the line of green orthodoxy. Things get even more difficult for Marshall because, given that the majority of the world’s population would count as sceptics (and Marshall’s despair over the results of various opinion polls would suggest that he’d agree with this), it seems rather odd to be writing off such views as an aberration.

We suggested that his analysis could be thrown right back at him just by reversing the meaning of each of his arguments. The same goes for a similar analysis from green campaigning philosopher James Garvey, which we missed at the time. Garvey drew on Mayer Hillman’s ten excuses for inaction on climate change:

1. I don’t believe in climate change.
2. Technology will be able to halt climate change.
3. Others are to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those calling for action.
5. It’s not my problem.
6. There’s nothing I can do about it.
7. How I run my life is my business.
8. There are more important problems to tackle.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. We are already making real progress on climate change.

Once again, with just a modicum of tweaking, these can be transformed into ten excuses to do ‘something’ on climate change:

1. I believe in climate change.
2. Technology won’t be able to halt climate change.
3. I am to blame.
4. Various ad hominems directed at those criticising action for its own sake.
5. This is personal.
6. There’s something I can do to make myself feel better about it.
7. How I run my life is everyone’s business, and theirs mine.
8. I haven’t got anything better to do.
9. At least I am doing something.
10. Climate change is worse than previously thought.

Meanwhile, Marshall continues to clutch at the straws offered by eco-psychology. He has recently posted his Guardian piece on his blog with a postscript in which he lists some of the responses made to the original ‘which are mostly text book examples of the various denial strategies we know only too well’. It’s all he can do; he has nowhere else to go. No point countering with political arguments. Because the outcome of Marshall’s argument is that politics itself is reducible to the sum of the expression of our psychological idiosyncrasies. It’s the only way to resolve the conflict between his statements that A) psychology is the biggest determinant of one’s willingness to act on climate change, and B) ‘political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change’:

Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”

If ‘denialism’ is a pathology, so too is Republicanism. And who argues with madmen? Handy.

Last year, Ben wrote a review of Garvey’s book The Ethics of Climate Change. Since then, Garvey’s argument hasn’t got any more sophisticated, nor even more philosophical.

A more philosophical question might be ‘what are the ethics of treating people with different views as though they had a psychological disorder?’ But indeed, the tendency to psychologise political difference rather than face awkward philosophical and political questions is symptomatic of what we have described as the orthodox-interested category of players in the climate change debate. If it is possible to characterise climate change ‘denial’ with a list of symptoms, then it is legitimate to do the same with their counterparts, as above.

Garvey, like many climate change activists, hides his ethics (or equally possibly, his lack of them) behind scientific authority. But he escapes being head-shrinked into a category by claiming that ‘the science’ justifies his outlook – even though, as he admits, he doesn’t actually understand the science. Knowledge of the material world that informs his ethical perspective comes to him from authority – science academies, the IPCC. Garvey might wish to consult a number of philosophers who point out that experience is prior to science. Science’s aim is to build an objective picture of the world. But it is not executed by objective beings. Nor is it viewed by objective beings.

Hillman’s ten arguments give us a view of what a ‘sceptic’ might say, each implying that the individual hasn’t been sufficiently exposed to the official scientific truth. But as our own ten points demonstrate, it is easy to form an equally ill-informed perspective the other way. Garvey, like Hillman takes what he understands to be an objective, scientific fact – climate change is dangerous and is happening – and runs with it. Where does it take him?

It takes him, Hillman, and Marshall to a view of other people. The prospect of catastrophe allows Garvey to reinvent a system of ethics to explain how people ought to behave. It allows Hillman to speculate on the nature of other people’s ignorance. It allows Marshall to peer inside the heads of his political opposition. It allows the creation of a form of politics which sees people as little more than a collection of animal drives and instincts – objects, which they have studied, that need to be managed lest they unleash thermageddon.

This is what people object to. It is not an objection that appears on Hilman’s list. He obviously hasn’t reflected very deeply on what an objection to his own view might be. Naturally, this is because he denies that there can be an objection. Science says so. Let us correct him. Garvey’s, Hillman’s and Marshall’s arguments are not formed from objectivity. They are formed at a time in which men such as these struggle to find any way of elevating themselves. They have very little to offer the world in terms of ideas about how to make it a better place. So they instead tell us that it is much much worse place than we can possibly contemplate, and worsening. It is only from their privileged standpoint that the danger can be seen. These three men demonstrate their inability to communicate with the public. Their shrill voices represent an increasingly desperate attempt to shout instructions across the distance between them and the rest of the world.

People can see that this is what environmental politics, ethics and psychology are about. That is because they have a subjective position on the world; they are not mere collections of animal drives. And as subjective beings, it is easy to imagine things from a different perspective. It is easy to sense, if not recognise, that what lies behind environmental catastrophism is a desire to control. Once the subjective position of eco-zealots is understood, it is easy to see that there is not only a way of explaining their alarmism, but also a substantial disparity between what emerges from the ‘objective’ scientific process and the bleak environmental orthodoxy they produce.