Retreat from reason

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Environmental crisis, existential angst and electoral backlash

By David Salt

The story so far: A climate crisis has been called, the Great Barrier Reef is in the process of collapsing and our great inland waterways are dying. The government doesn’t seem to have a reasonable plan of response and, in any event, a national election is underway and no-one gives them a chance of winning. The opposition party has a more credible emissions target but the government says achieving this target will wreck our economy. The nation votes (18 May 2019) and, against all the polling, the opposition is repudiated and the government is re-elected. What’s the story?

Of course, the election outcome was much more than economics vs environment but I think the widespread anxiety about environmental decline was a major factor. But possibly not in the way many concerned environmentalists may have thought.

Future uncertain

Anyone who is aware of environmental issues is alarmed at the state of the world, be it collapsing biodiversity, wild weather or plastic pollution. Conditions are deteriorating, and in many cases the decline is accelerating. Policy responses so far are inadequate.

But even those people not up on the environment know something is happening. The floods are more brutal, the bushfires more horrendous, the heatwaves more cruel.

And life is increasingly complex. We have a world of information at our fingertips – more info than at any time in history – and more options to choose between. Social media means we’re in contact with everyone 24/7 and there are louder voices shouting at us from all directions. Houses are unaffordable, congestion chokes our cities and anxiety is our biggest growth industry. The future is increasingly uncertain.

What do you do when you have no confidence in the future? Indeed, there are people all around shouting it’s not just an uncertain future we’re facing but an environmental cataclysm (“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is!” one young climate activist named Greta Thunburg exhorted).

Three pathways from existential angst

I teach and write about environmental science. I am scared of what the future holds, and I’m saddened by the lack action being taken by our elected representatives. I often wonder how people deal with the prospect of a dark future.

A few years ago a colleague of mine (Richard Eckersley) posed a simple typology of responses to fears of the apocalypse. Now, I’m not saying the apocalypse is nigh, but I found his typology a useful model for how we respond to the existential angst associated with an uncertain future.

Richard suggested there were three basic responses: nihilism, fundamentalism or activism.

With nihilism, we basically give up. We’re going to hell in a handbasket and our individual actions don’t seem to make any difference so why care; let’s party till we drop.

But if you don’t want to give up and are prepared to accept the comfort of a simpler model of how the world behaves then maybe fundamentalism is for you. This might be the acceptance of a religious framework setting out what a good life entails (with a guarantee of heaven or paradise when you leave this mortal coil). Or it might be a secular framework of markets solving all our resource issues and creating a rising tide that will eventually lift all the boats.

And then there’s activism. In this response you don’t give up or accept a simpler model; you ‘act’ to make a difference. You think global but act local. You acknowledge the rotten unsustainability of what’s going on around you but you focus on something that you can do, some little bit where you can make a difference; and you hope that everyone else starts doing the same thing.

All roads lead to…

I’ve often wondered about this typology.

Nihilism and fundamentalism, while not saving the world, have a certain rational appeal to them. If the state and trend of the world is making you anxious, depressed and dysfunctional and you feel powerless to do anything then why not look for different ways of engagement. Drop out or sign up.

Activism*, on the other hand, while seemingly a positive response (in Eckersley’s discussion he describes it as ‘hope rules’ and a constructive response), has never seemed as ‘rational’. You can go ahead and make your own backyard a little more sustainable but it’s impossible to ignore that the surrounding neighbourhood is going to the dogs. Activism only salves the angst for so long before the outside reality seeps in and has you reaching for the bottle (nihilism) or the bible (fundamentalism). (Or maybe that’s just me cause I’ve always been a little ‘glass half empty’. I’ve been trying to make my own little difference for decades through engagement with environmental NGOs, and the angst is still rising.)

In truth, I don’t believe anyone goes down one path exclusively. Rather, we all adopt varying degrees of nihilism, fundamentalism and activism simultaneously in all our thought processes. We all want to make a difference through our actions, conform to some normative ideology without too many questions, and sometimes just forget about life and get wasted.

Why do we do this? Because the world is a complex place and that complexity is difficult and painful to deal with. Attempting to reconcile ourselves with that complexity, to fill the gap between our aspirations and what actually happens, creates a cognitive dissonance that wears us down.

To help us cope with this complexity, and the cognitive dissonance it generates, we will often deny that complexity (nihilism), subjugate it with simplistic models (fundamentalism) or just focus on a tiny bit of it to stop from being overwhelmed (activism).

Get real

So what does this have to do with a poor election outcome in Australia for the environment? To my mind a lot.

The government had been bagged for its abysmal performance on the environment and especially on our pathetic efforts to curb our nation’s greenhouse emissions. It decided it’s best hope for re-election was to keep it simple, make it about the economy vs the environment, play up the uncertain economic conditions coming our way, and damn the opposition for gunning for change (big change, uncertain change, change that will rob you of your accrued wealth).

We’re all suffering from change overload. We’re all carrying a degree of existential angst; angst that is being hypercharged by an environmental movement telling us daily that the end is nigh (climate crisis, extinction catastrophe, pollution apocalypse, blah, blah, blah). And with social media they can send us direct emails telling us this on a daily basis (I know this, I get their emails).

The polls tell us that more and more people are worried about climate change and the future but is it possible that the Opposition and the Greens have got it wrong when it comes to what the voters expect our leaders to do about it?

Fundamentalism: Maybe they don’t want reality and greater connection with the complexity that engulfs us. Maybe they want a simple answer or model of how things should work; take the government’s simplistic solutions on faith. (Maybe our emissions targets will prove to be adequate and we really will reach them in a canter despite all the evidence to the contrary.)

Activism: And maybe the comprehensive prescriptions of the opposition were too much to handle, and a more constrained form of engagement is all the electorate was after, or could cope with. (50% renewable energy sounds like a big change, couldn’t we just do a little more recycling?)

Nihilism: And if simple solutions or constrained actions still won’t help you deal with reality, why not damn the lot of them and vote informal (or worse, cast your vote for those absolute nutters on the far right, a hell of a lot of voters did).

Tell me I’m wrong.

*On activism: All models are wrong but some are useful. The ‘model’ presented here is my interpretation of how we cope with a complex world and growing existential angst. To me this model (in part) explains why a compelling rational case for a change in government, partly based on a better environmental policy, found no favour in the broader electorate. Beyond this explanatory value (and the guide it serves for messaging future campaigns), my model also suggests there’s no point in doing anything as we’ll eventually withdraw from the complexity of the environmental challenges we’re involved in (which is really another form of nihilism). What’s the point of being active? The point is that while acting may sometimes not achieve what we desire (in this case a sustainable future), it is our only realistic pathway to finding hope. Not acting, in contrast, simply leaves us hopeless (which is how I felt after the recent election result, but I’ll get over it).

Image by Maklay62 from Pixabay