Where We Are
In recent decades the public zeitgeist has become chained to a false binary. Chained to the idea that human economic development is diametrically opposed to environmental sustainability. Chained to the idea that the proper conception of the two is not Climate and Capitalism, but Climate vs capitalism.
This idea is not only untrue but dangerously counterproductive, tying humanity down to an impossible choice. The roots of this rhetorical binary's existence reach back over centuries, modern rhetoric around the issue continually strengthens its hold on public thought, and in order to break down the binary in the future, we will have to overcome the ideological possession blinding us to the keys to solving it.
The underlying philosophies responsible for this false binary is the Malthusian and the Marxist notion that human prosperity is a zero-sum game. That with every gain for one interest there must necessarily be a considerable loss for another. For Marx, this meant the worker was exploited for the capitalist's gain.
Malthus thought the earth must be unsustainably exploited to sustain humanity. As a result, both believed in an eventual revolution of some kind due to untrammeled growth and limited resources. Malthus most famously thought that humanity would have to stop its population growth voluntarily in order to have any hope of mitigating mass starvation and die-offs. Work like the “Population Bomb” put this philosophy into the social mainstream in the '70s, shaping our rhetoric going forward. In it, the experts claimed that the science was settled, that the world would effectively end within a decade, and that the only possible way to prevent this was if everyone adhered to particular policies.
The ghosts of these defunct ideologies are still haunting the rhetorical landscape. Like the Malthusians who came before, modern Climate Alarmists are borderline hysterical in their predictions of the immediate and inevitable end of the world. And those predictions hold massive influence over our daily lives and our political rhetoric. So much so that the above video clips are virtually common knowledge, and the gradual warming of the planet has been universally labeled as "The Climate Crisis".
Why is humanity so susceptible to this rhetoric? Why do we believe Greta Thunberg when she says endless economic growth is a fairy tale, despite the fact recent history supports the notion. Why do we believe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she claims the world is going to end in 12 years unless we stop growing when so many of these apocalyptic predictions have been wrong before? Why are we so ready and willing to accept the idea of a climate-capitalism binary? I see three main reasons.
Man v Nature
The idea that man's development is at the expense of nature is a very ancient notion. For the vast majority of human history, nature was a force actively and obviously trying to kill us at all times. The idea of man and nature in conflict is so appealing to us because it has been technically true for our entire evolutionary history. And our best defense against the predations of nature was never our ‘natural’ attributes, but our adaptability, innovation, and technology.
Mythologies across ages and cultures tell of this eternal and archetypal conflict. From Hercules slaying the Nemean Lion to Ahab's hunt for Moby Dick, Man v. Nature is a human narrative constant. It's no wonder we use the same logic here, the story is true, just misapplied here.
This idea only became more articulated over time. Enlightenment thinkers believed that science and reason were what elevated us above the beasts. That same science and reason have been most intensely applied to the development of new technologies, products, and the driving of human prosperity.
In evolutionary psychology, human mythology, and the tradition of western thought, the idea that human technology 'winning' means nature ‘losing’ has always been a given. It's no wonder we're predisposed to believe it here.
The psychological understructure for this type of thinking has been studied as well. No matter what name it’s given; all or nothing thinking, splitting, or binary opposition; the tendency of the human mind to make these oversimplifications is well established. So much so that false binaries are their own logical fallacy.
In an interview with Forbes, Psychologist Andrew Hartz described the allure and consequences of such kinds of thinking.
“People tend to split because they have trouble tolerating “ambivalence”, which in psychology refers to the experience of having conflicting emotions toward the same thing at the same time—for example, acknowledging that we have both strengths and weaknesses. Ambivalence can be anxiety-provoking. In the short term, splitting reduces this anxiety by removing ambivalence and making the world appear simpler and more coherent.
But, the long-term costs can be severe. Splitting leads us to misunderstand what’s happening around us. It makes it harder to solve problems and predict events. Splitting is also emotionally dysregulating, fostering behavioral problems like aggression and leading to psychic pain and mental illness. It also makes it hard for people to have a productive dialogue, and it works against our shared ideals as a society, like love, peace, justice, and unity.”
Acknowledging that pure capitalism and pure environmentalism both have strengths and weaknesses is an uncomfortable ambivalence. Recognizing the nuances and possibilities in the interplay, the ruin, between human growth and nature is difficult and complicated. As Hartz said, believing in the binary makes the world appear simpler. So of course that's how we want to frame this issue.
Given how many major institutions speak on, prepare for, and study climate change, it’s no wonder that the low-resolution perception of much of the public assumes that all of the climate v. capitalism rhetoric is scientifically backed. The collective cultural weight of the UN, NASA, and IPCC is formidable, but it's not all that precise. While these institutions generally only produce data and predictions, not policy prescriptions, the credibility tends to generalize to the binary itself nonetheless. The data certainly shows that there are dangers and threats attendant to climate change, but this generalizing tendency goes a long way to explaining why the culture is so ready to accept this binary: they think it’s backed by science.
These three factors explain why we so readily accept the binary.
While those three factors may form the fundamental basis for this type of thought, the echo chamber of rhetoric built atop them is self-sustaining now. Binary-type thought leads to representations that reflect it which leads to more binary thought. These representations are everywhere in modern culture, and challenges to the loops are few, far between, and virtually unknown.
It’s so ingrained now that when I searched "Capitalism and Climate" on google images, I could not find a singular picture of them together in a positive light. Only negative. Some are shown above
Don’t Look Up
But of course, this rhetoric goes far beyond mere google images. In the satirical 2021 movie Don’t Look Up, the long-term, gradual issue of climate change is compared to an immediate and apocalyptic asteroid impact.
In it, climate skeptics are portrayed as so greedy, so selfish, and so stupidly short-sighted they literally won’t look up to see doomsday bearing down upon them. While this may satisfy the more resentful fantasies of climate alarmists, the truth is that things are a bit more complicated than that.
The world is a bit more complicated than that. And this type of rhetoric does nothing but enforce the non-existent binary.
Lest one think that this is only in the movies, Hollywood celebrity, climate activist, and starring actor in Don't Look Up, Leonardo DiCaprio, echoes its sentiment. He describes the movie as an accurate, "brilliant" analogy that reminds him of what it's like for real climate scientists and "holds a mirror" up to our culture. This sort of belief is not uncommon.
There is a myriad of other movies pushing the same message, such as The Lorax, Geostorm, 2012, all implying that human economic development hurts the environment and is ultimately disastrous for everyone.
But purely artistic expression isn't the only medium through which this rhetoric is being pushed. Even real-world examples are twisted beyond reality to shape the conversation, which has the added effect of lowering institutional trust boy-who-cried-wolf style.
In 2010, the first installment of Gasland, a widely-criticized anti-fracking docu-drama duology, was released. In it, the idea that fracking creates flammable water is held up as fact and is blamed for the death of a family named the Harpers.
But it was fiction.
According to Reason Magazine, "This artfully constructed section of the letter wants readers to conclude that fracking caused the deaths of the Harpers. Yet the wells in question were conventional gas wells; no fracking was taking place. The Harpers were killed by negligence: The company had not made sure that the casings on the wells were properly sealed with cement... fracking technology had nothing to do with the tragedy,..."
A 2013 movie known as The Promised Land banged a similar drum, in which a model farmstead was set ablaze with lighter fluid to represent the dangers of fracking.
Mark Fischetti writing for the Scientific American tore into the movie, calling the portrayal “ridiculous”.
Fischetti continued his criticism:
“Promised Land doesn’t try to resolve whether fracking is dangerous, although the classroom scene seems to take care of that in its poor excessiveness. And it doesn’t try to resolve whether a depressed farm community would really benefit from fracking.”
“As I noted, the movie does not explain what “fracking” really is. My own college-aged daughter left the theater acknowledging that she still didn’t understand it.”
Unfortunately more people watch and believe the sensationalist portrayals on-screen than the niche articles debunking them.
The Polar Bears
Even purportedly objective news coverage is guilty of this same kind of twisting. Like the infamous National Geographic pictures of starving polar bears, which were dishonestly attributed to climate change for the express purposes of shaping public opinion.
Reports of natural disasters becoming worse is also merely a half-truth. First of all, major storms are not becoming more frequent. While the evidence could (the evidence is mixed) suggest that storms are becoming “worse”, deaths as a result of these natural disasters are falling. Which is, theoretically, the real concern. According to Danish environmentalist, Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, who is a visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, there is good news on the death tolls.
“The number of reported events is increasing, but that is mainly due to better reporting, lower thresholds and better accessibility (the CNN effect).” he wrote. But he also stresses that “...the reduction in absolute deaths has happened while the global population has increased four-fold. The individual risk of dying from climate-related disasters has declined by 98.9%. Last year, fewer people died in climate disasters than at any point in the last three decades (1986 was a similarly fortunate year).”
The California Wildfires
The California Wildfires are another example. While universally pinned on climate exchange by the media; the more likely culprits are poor forest management, poor fire safety, and California's pre-existing weather patterns; not minute temperature variations. And while these fires may be intensifying in the context of our limited modern period of measuring them, according to old newspapers and native American histories, they’re nothing new overall. Researchers in a 2014 study even found a declining trend. But of course, nuance on this issue, or any other, doesn't make the headlines. Instead, the rhetorical loop keeps reinforcing itself.
None of this is to say that reckless economic development doesn't have its dangers, nor that environmentalism isn't a worthy cause. In a vacuum, the messages of the art forms mentioned are actually quite good, but as cautionary tales, not descriptions of the now. In the context of the complete echo chamber that is our rhetorical landscape on this issue, it's just more one-sided media. Add that to the glaring inaccuracies and misleading oversimplifications littered throughout these examples, the redeeming value of the work is all but nullified.
No matter what side you're on, the tacit assumption is that there are in fact sides, that capitalism necessarily hurts the climate, that it's climate vs. capitalism.
So it’s no wonder people believe it’s a zero-sum game, that when capitalism advances the environment loses. It’s been the assumed truth in popular culture for decades. From Malthus to Greta, from Gasland to Don’t Look Up, the world is saturated with the idea that this divide exists and is intractable.
It’s a powerful story, virtually everyone is telling it, and it doesn’t seem as naive as the idea that human prosperity can be good for the environment.
It is cynicism masquerading as wisdom, and everybody wants to feel smart.