Listen to the young people of the worldwide March 15 climate strike and you can feel the frustration. They see us at the brink of climate catastrophe. Why can’t everybody else?
How much more evidence, these young activists wonder, do people need? We already have a ton of data before us, and the scientists who’ve gone through all this research give us, at best, a dozen years to get our climate act together. So why aren’t more people feeling a sense of urgency?
Do people need to see more anecdotal evidence in their daily lives? Beyond the floods? Beyond the forest fires? In Phoenix, the summer heat can now become so intense that even mailboxes are melting. In America’s mountain west this week, people are talking “bomb cyclones.” The bomb that’s just blasted the Rockies, notes Colorado State University climatologist Russ Schumacher, has been — “in terms of the sheer power of the system” — “one of the strongest ones we have ever seen.”
At what point will people finally say enough? At what point will our societies finally demand serious, sustained, significant action on climate change?
Good questions. Psychologists have some answers. They can give us valuable insights about denial and the various coping mechanisms that can help explain how individuals react to impending doom. But why isn’t the “collective wisdom of crowds” kicking in here and helping us overcome whatever individual hesitations keep our societies from confronting hard climate realities?
We need a broader focus if we’re going to understand why our societies are moving so slowly on the climate-change front, and that focus may come down to a single word: inequality.
Why should unequal distributions of income and wealth blind us to environmental degradation? In any society where income and wealth have ferociously concentrated, some people — the richest and most powerful among us — never have to confront hard environmental reality. They can buffer the “inconveniences” climate change can create. Whatever inconveniences they can’t buffer, they can flee.
The affluent of Phoenix, for instance, can spend their summers in the higher elevations — and much cooler temperatures — of Flagstaff. In the process, they force up prices in Flagstaff’s housing market and force out from Flagstaff the lower-income families that can no longer afford the higher rents. Add these families to the growing list of climate-change casualties.
America’s ultra rich are fleeing much further afield than Flagstaff, as City University of New York futurist Douglas Rushkoff learned when he accepted a 2017 invitation to keynote a “future of technology” conference at a plush luxury report. The generous fee for this one speech would be about half as much as his annual professorial pay.
Rushkoff’s audience turned out to be just five men of ample means. They all came “from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world” and wanted the inside scoop on which parts of the world would suffer the least from climate change. They were looking for locales where they could site their doomsday bunkers — and advice on the high tech that could protect their compounds from whatever angry mobs wanted in.
No bunkers, of course, can ever permanently protect the wealthy from the full-on ravages of climate change. On a frying planet, everyone will eventually fry. But some of our richest believe they can escape even a planet that’s frying. Deep pockets like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are busy plotting escape chutes into outer space.
And the rest of our environmentally indifferent rich? Why don’t they care enough about climate change to demand serious action? Some of our richest simply have a clear conflict of climate interest. They owe their fortunes to digging up and processing the fossil fuels driving us inexorably to environmental disaster.
People of modest means — and better environmental sense — are pushing back against these profiteers on a wide variety of fronts. We’re now witnessing, notes the climate analyst James Joyce, “the ascendance of a new environmentalism” that’s working “to protect individuals who face harm from people who profit from degradation.”
But that work will always be a deeply difficult uphill struggle so long as we tolerate an economic order that lets the rich and powerful keep as much as they can grab. So concludes a NASA-funded study that brought together natural and social scientists to probe whether our industrial civilization could actually be moving toward an “irreversible collapse.”
Down through the millennia, the scientists found, advanced societies have collapsed on a somewhat regular basis. The unsustainable exploitation of resources — coupled with an increasingly unequal wealth distribution — has done in societies ranging from the Roman empire to China’s Han dynasty.
What goes wrong when societies become strikingly more unequal? High levels of economic stratification, notes analyst Nafeez Ahmed, invite the overconsumption of resources. The resulting adverse effects at first impact only the “commoners.” The elites feel no pain. They continue business as usual, “oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory” their societies have come to follow.
We’re riding that same trajectory today. But we can get off — if we start getting at the inequality that keeps us blinded.