Rage against the dying light and its effect on public opinion in the internet age
“Our response to disturbing information is very complex. We negotiate it. We don’t just take it in and respond in a rational way”.
The negotiation takes different forms, as do the policy responses that sociologist Kari Norgaard considers in her World Bank white paper ““Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change.”
As in all things, we humans are complex both in our aims and ambitions, a point I started to think about when poster ‘watching the deniers’ offered this observation in response to my article Is Science Inherently Socialist?
“Essentially, the argument the deniers put forward is that climate science is political. They’ve made this category mistake because our response to AGW is public policy. They therefore assume that the science MUST be political, a kind of genetic fallacy”.
The observation I want to make is that, in the main, I don’t think climate change denial is quite what it appears to be, and consequently I don’t think the precepts, the drivers of denial, are thoughtfully developed. They may have more to do with reaction – and demographics – than ‘a category mistake’.
Denialism in the wide-angle lens
With no originality whatever, I have observed that climate change denial has many features in common with many regressive movements, agenda or objectives, from creationism to foreign policy via socialised medicine and fear of the ‘other’ (e.g. immigration). The conservative agenda is always laced with anxiety, just as the socialist one is laced with patronisingly paternal good intentions. This kind of conservatism is as much of a problem in business as it is in policy: if you have an interest in the broader topic of denial, you might enjoy this article from the Harvard School of Business: Is Denial Endemic to Management?, including the science-affirming observation that “What gets measured is what gets managed.”
It’s very notable how climate change denial is incoherent as a movement. Ask any denier what’s driving ‘fake’ AGW and the answers are likely to be as diverse as the things that make us anxious – from energy concerns to evil communism, via elitist science, conspiratorial bankers and proponents of world government. More splinters than a wood yard.
The same is true of other demographics. Denial doesn’t depend on race, creed, nationality or religion, employment or social status. In fact, there may be very little common ground between deniers, which is why they don’t actually work very well together – and perhaps that’s just as well. (As an aside, many commentators observe how diffuse the US Tea Party movement seems to be – from disaffected conservative centrists all the way down to the KKK wannabees – hard to ascribe any specific views to the movement as a whole. Only their anger really unites them – and possibly their love of guns – but I anticipate the movement falling apart when there’s something serious to win or lose, and the various factions turn on each other. Christ, I hope so, anyway).
There is one demographic that unites many expressions of dissent, and that is age. It has come to dominate much discourse in the developed nations through an influence whose effects on society we cannot yet accurately assess: the internet.
I used to post a lot in the Guardian climate change threads – not so much now, because the arguments are so silly and so circular. It’s like arguing with my dad, and that’s my point. These people are there every day, all day long. It’s like they are on a mission. Clearly they don’t have jobs, and over time you get to know a little about these folk. They mention grandchildren or pensions. They refer to their profession in the past tense. They are often bad-tempered and irascible, plainly and deliberately contrarian, and occasionally quite confused. As I’ve written elsewhere, I deal a lot with patterns, and here’s one we can all recognise.
So let’s compile a few well-known patterns to paint a picture. A retired male, probably middle-management. Kids have gone, don’t call much. The pension is worth 10% of what he expected, or has evaporated completely. He’s not sure if his life is a success or a failure, but he knows for sure it’s largely behind him. His joints ache and he isn’t steady on his feet like he used to be. Gets his glasses confused and can’t see more than a few feet half the time. He is lonely, bored out of his mind, scared of the future and risk averse, longing for a mythical past he was never really happy in. He doesn’t like to go out so much because he feels like a potential victim. Disillusion, anger, anxiety, resources diminishing as fast as his body is failing. Not much to look forward to, and few alternatives to the mind-pap afternoon TV to occupy him.
Enter the internet. Adopt a nice pseudonym, track down those lefties, and pick a fight. It’s the perfect scenario for those whose minds are rusting up, who can’t take in all this new information, who distrust authority and believe government – along with everyone else – is out to ‘get’ them, one way or another. It doesn’t matter what the agenda is, what the argument is about. There will be liberals to chastise, socialists to taunt, environmentalists to abuse, and of course science to dismiss.
Quite how pervasive is this influence of the aged? Hard to tell, but I’m not merely speculating. I wrote recently about the demographics of environmental sites: I was surprised to find how much the 65+ group were over-represented. But it makes sense. This isn’t something sinister, it’s a combination of obvious effects. Increased life-expectancy means that while my grandfather died at a respectable 65 and was considered to have done well, my parents are still going strong mid-80s, and expect to keep going for a while.
As the retirees multiplied and the pension funds looked increasingly fragile, simultaneously the internet infiltrated homes and offices with a speed that, for once, didn’t quite phase the old folk because they found an immediate affinity with it, an armchair liberation that saved them from decrepitude and uselessness. No longer waiting to die, the internet gives old people a world in which their age doesn’t matter, a re-engagement that makes them feel like an active part of society. Their influence may be profound, but it will also embed the same inflexibilities, the same aversion to risks, the embittered viewpoints tainted with reactionary longing. I’m sorry if my generalisation offends those who feel this is some kind of ageist rant, but before you condemn my analysis, consider in your own experience how many people you know over 70 who retain an open and flexible mind? I find from my own experience that they are in the minority, exceptions that affirm the rule.
My generation expects to live 25 years longer than my grandparents’ generation. We may live longer, but whether we really enjoy the struggle with the decaying machinery of our bodies is another matter. I’m starting to feel pissed off about it, even as I look for the right pair of glasses to read what I’m writing. I need something physically sedentary but mentally challenging. An arena in which I can still fight, still strut my stuff, but one where I can’t get hurt and if things get ugly I can just turn it all off and watch a soap opera. I throw the dice, and today it’s climate change.
Tomorrow? Sorry, not sure I have one, but if I’m still alive I’ll find something to rail at. To paraphrase Brando’s Wild One: “What are you rebelling against, Graham?”
“What do you got?”