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If only denial were just an unpolluted river in Egypt

Richey Piiparinen  |  02/24/10 @ 8:00am

"We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act."-Janet Swim, Chairwoman of the Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change

Recently, I read the PD columnist Kevin O'Brien's piece touting the massive amounts of snow in DC as proof that the climate is not warming, and then in general: that the human effect on the natural environment isn't all what it is cracked up to be. O'Brien follows this with even less narrative delicateness when in the comments section he states: "Actually, I think it's because human-caused climate change is malarkey…" He wasn't alone. Another commenter echoes: "Some silly notion cooked up by Al Gore that has no meaning. Not the least bit concerned. I refuse to get all in a tizzy over global warming or separating plastics from the trash. I keep my heat up, don't recycle, use plastic bags…Not a team player."

The article and the comments-they made me curious. Specifically, with a growing consensus among climatologists that the world is warming, and then such clear-as-day proof of such man-made effects on our landscape as this and this, I got to wondering: why are people so hesitant to perceive the earth as vulnerable to our actions? Or more precisely: What are we so afraid to admit?

Now, the conjecture that will follow is not your standard everyday waxing of poetics either for or against the proof of manmade harm to our globe. Yet it is important, still, to try and understand the rather complex relationship that humans have historically had with their environment. And while the venue, here, disallows for a long talk on the subject, I feel enough kernels of thought can be thrown in to begin to explore the motivation of those who think denial is just an unpolluted river in Egypt.

First, it is necessary to touch on evolution, or the fact that before we were humans we were one with the earth; that is, life was once just space and matter, water and dirt, and then plants and meat-eating plants and animals prior to legs and then animals with legs. Eventually, some of the animals began to walk like us, eat like us, and then more significantly communicate through the use of symbols which would eventually differentiate man from animal. In short, the Cro-Magnon became the Homo sapien which became the Homo Symbolicus, and thus: consciousness ensued.

Yet with awareness of our self came awareness of our self as separate from the world around us. And with that: an increased awareness of our own vulnerability in relation to potential harm the world could entail. Put simply, there were tigers, and lightning strikes, and mud slides, and poisonous snakes-and in general all those things that can reiterate the fact that as humans our bodies are susceptible to time, place.

Now, what to do with such a threat? Well, there have been numerous thinkers that have argued that we adapted to this growing threat with an increasing reliance on the same power of awareness that enabled the threat in the first place. In other words, the mind took precedence over the more intuitive and organic aspects of both the body and the earth; thus, Descartes' famous mind and body split. The rationale for this was simple: if the world is uncertain and wild, then we can make it less so by relying on rationality as a way to create a certain world-a tamed world. And the list of our conquests, here, is long and growing, and includes: making weapons to make the hunters the prey-paving the earth to get rid of the dirt-burying the water to cross it-and producing food at a clip that would not be possible if not for synthetically overdoing what nature once designed by itself. Yet while human reason has bettered life in many respects, the extent that it has been used as a way to outrun any existential awareness has made us-paradoxically-less secure, and the earth a more volatile, unhealthy, and dangerous place.

Now, what does all this have to do with the likes of Mr. O'Brien you ask? Well, it lends some insight into the motivation behind those who deny our "progress" has affected our earth. As it is an insight that has less to do with political maneuvering than it does with an unwillingness to entertain the insecurity behind the hubris, the wit. Because no matter the proof-the data, the anecdotal stories of loved ones getting sick, the rivers on fire-it is, for some, more important to keep up the illusion that we are in control, no matter if control means sealing a less livable fate.

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