Death Warmed Over: Beyond Environmentalism: Imagining Possibilities as Large as the Crisis That Confronts Us

By Shellenberger, Michael; Nordhaus, Ted | The American Prospect, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Death Warmed Over: Beyond Environmentalism: Imagining Possibilities as Large as the Crisis That Confronts Us


Shellenberger, Michael, Nordhaus, Ted, The American Prospect


JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER BEGINS THE LONG EMERGENCY, his new book warning that the world is running out of oil, by quoting psychologist Carl Jung as saying, "People cannot stand too much reality."

The quote is wrongly attributed. It was T.S. Eliot who said, "Humankind cannot stand too much reality." But the quote and the Jungian slip speak volumes about Kunstler and kindred, well-intentioned progressive authors. Like Jared Diamond's Collapse, which purports to explain why once-powerful societies are driven into extinction, and Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, which faulted Kansans for failing to grasp their own economic self-interest, Kunstler's book contends that the ignorant masses are suffering from what the left used to call false-consciousness--in this case, about energy consumption. For the people to be saved, they presumably must let go of their irrational consumer, religious, or ideological fantasies and start recognizing their true self-interest.

When this kind of condescension fails to induce the desired behavior change, environmentalists and liberals become angry or bewildered and see the public as irrational, in denial, or just plain foolish. Which reminds us of something Jung actually did say: "If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool."

Today, with all three branches of the federal government in the hands of the radical right, environmental, liberal, and Democratic leaders continue to believe that the public is with us on the issues. "My view is that the Democrats almost won the election" Kerry media man Bob Shrum said repeatedly after Republicans both re-elected George W. Bush and increased their control of Congress. "I think what we are looking at is the rebirth of environmentalism," one environmental-group executive told The New York Times.

Explain to us again: Who can't stand too much reality?

WE HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY

Here's another thing Jung actually said: "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."

This was certainly the case for us. Before writing "The Death of Environmentalism," the two of us had spent the bulk of our professional careers becoming increasingly irritated while executing failed environmental strategies. We went on this way for years. But eventually we were reminded of Jung's great contribution to the understanding of the human mind: that we project our inner demons onto others.

What if the problem was not that environmentalists just didn't get it? What if the problem was that we didn't get it? Maybe there was something about environmentalism (and thus ourselves) that none of us understood.

So, in the summer of 2004, we set off to find out. We proceeded to interview more than two dozen environmental leaders and funders. We read everything about global warming we could get our hands on.

By the time we were through, we had discovered that, indeed, there was more going on than met the eye. When we started our research we believed that there was something wrong strategically. What we didn't comprehend was that something might be wrong conceptually.

Treating global warming as an "environmental" problem and framing its solutions as technical, we concluded, lay at the heart of the movement's political failings.

The problem was not simply that environmentalists didn't get it. The problem was that environmentalists could never get it as long as we remained environmentalists. The way we conceptualized the problem analytically was getting in the way of what we needed to do politically.

We suspected that this finding might irritate some people. But we could no longer pretend that the problems we faced were nothing that a few more media campaigns (stopglobalwarming.com), or even a new name (sustainability), couldn't fix.

We expected controversy. What we didn't expect was that the essay would become a projection screen for the hopes and fears of the broader progressive movement. …

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