Why is this country so slow at recognizing the crisis of climate change that is already showing its “scary face” in our country? Yes, I know there can be many answers to this question. There is the whole fossil fuel investment that is huge; there is the whole sense that we are somehow immune or protected from climate change’s effects – it’s happening somewhere else. (There have actually been studies that say our brains literally cannot cognize such disastrous events in the future.) There is always the whole area of consumerism, industrialization and the endless wanting more and better and bigger. And in a very real way, facing into this unique (never been before) crisis demands enormous change which can be both daunting and threaten our very existence.
But I’d like to speak or write about something else which is of another order related to our culture, our history, our narrative, our denial of reality and our denial of facing, what could be called, our shadow.
Speaking in very broad strokes – I’m not a historian – but I think about this question a lot – why are we so slow at recognizing the crisis we are in; it is a question that haunts me.
We are a young country and, in many ways, have benefited from that youth. Although initiated by a monarchy, we quickly felt the sense of freedom that comes from not having that whole structured hierarchical rule dominating us. We also inherited from our past, the ideals of freedom, equality and individuality from philosophers like John Locke and Montesquieu. We inherited these ideals and built upon them a government, by the people, for the people and of the people. Of course, not wholly democratic, but still very new and unique and inspiring – an experiment – with a vast land, not ours, but which quickly became more and more our possession, our acquisition.
We also “inherited” the structure of slavery and elaborated upon that structure for our own needs – it was slavery and racism – a racism that also allowed us to relate to the Native Americans as “less than” us.
So ironically alongside these genuinely noble ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity – ideals also from the French Revolution – we also adopted slavery and that slavery persisted for over 200 years and even after the end of slavery in its gross form, we still have had extreme racism and inequality of race in this country.
As a country, we have never really faced this reality in a way that would have radically changed our consciousness and actions. I think it has conflicted too much with our basic simplistic narrative of being this noble experiment, founded by noble men – an experiment not only of democracy but of people who care about each other, about justice, about all those wholesome values of family, nation, and god. We have preserved, in reality, a very simple narrative and even though we have become more and more sophisticated and complex, that narrative has a strong hold on the psyche of this country. I can feel it even in myself at times. It’s like an imprint on one’s consciousness when very young that doesn’t completely – despite all the facts – dissolve. Like parallel universes that persist.
This denial of the horrors of our past, which includes more than slavery, but certainly slavery and racism stand out, I feel connects with our denial as a country of climate change. Climate change is too awful to let in; too horrendous; too devastating and it would mean a dramatic change in our actions and values.
If we face into climate change, we also have to face into how we have failed; how our basic thrust toward growth, consumerism, what we call progress and capitalism now have to take a backseat because it is no longer serving us – to put it mildly – no, it is doing great damage to ourselves and more importantly to our whole living planet. We would have to face into the reality that we are a major contributor to this damage – not the only ones for sure – but a major one. How does this conflict with our simple narrative of being the “good guys?”
We prefer to live in a “fantasy” world; a world that wants to see itself, its actions, its history in only a positive light and believes in the “rightness” of who we have been and who we are now.
When are we going to crack this narrative to such a degree that we finally as a nation begin to face the reality of our past, present and what is looming in the future?
Part 11 – (to be continued) Cracks in the Narrative