It’s not enough to point out that our political system is saturated with money, including money from coal and oil and nukes and gas. Of course it is. And if we had direct democracy, polls suggest we would be investing in green energy. But saying the right thing to a pollster on the phone or in a focus group is hardly the extent of what one ought to sensibly do when the fate of the world is at stake.
Nor do we get a complete explanation by recognizing that so many of our communications outlets are in bed with our political system, cooperatively pushing lies about our climate and our budget (defunding wars and billionaires is not an option, so there’s just no money for new ideas, sorry). Of course. But when the planet’s climate is being destroyed for all future generations, most of which will therefore not exist, the only sensible course of action is to drop everything and nonviolently overthrow any system of corruption that’s carrying out the destruction. Why don’t we?
Misinformation is a surface-level explanation. Why do people choose to accept obvious misinformation?
Here’s one reason: they’ve already chosen to accept other obvious misinformation to which they are deeply and passionately attached and which requires this additional self-deception. The beliefs involved correlate with poor education, so government choices to fund fossil fuels and highways and prisons and Hamid Karzai rather than schools certainly contribute. But perhaps we should confront the misinformation directly, even while pursuing the creation of an education system worthy of a civilized country.
According to a Newsweek poll, 40 percent of people in the United States believe the world will end with a battle between Jesus Christ and the Antichrist. And overwhelmingly, those people also believe that natural disasters and violence are signs of the approach of the glorious battle—so much so that 22 percent of Americans believe the world will end in their lifetime. This would logically mean that concern for the world of their great-great-grandchildren makes no sense at all and should be dismissed from their minds. In fact, a recent study found that belief in the “second coming” reduces support for strong governmental action on climate change by 20 percent.
Apart from the corruption of money, whenever you have 40 percent of Americans believing something stupid—combined with the forces of gerrymandering in the House, disproportionate representation of small states in the Senate, the Senate filibuster, the winner-take-all two-party system that shuts many voices out of the media, out of debates, and off of ballots, and a communications system that mainstreams Republican beliefs—it’s almost guaranteed that the 40-percent view will control the government.
Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) says the planet is in fine shape and guaranteed to stay that way because God promised Noah as much.
Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) says that only God could possibly change the climate, and we should stop being so arrogant—as if taking $1.4 million in campaign “contributions” from fossil-fuel profiteers and imagining that your positions are purely determined by your access to an all-powerful being who runs the universe on behalf of the 30 percent of the world raised on the same fairy tales as you isn’t an arrogant belief. (Incidentally, after a tornado devastated an area of his state in May, Inhofe accused the “liberal media” of exploiting the tragedy by asking whether the event was linked to climate change.)
In something of a refreshing turn, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who claims to be a theist but not of the Inhofe-Shimkus variety, publicly denounced an unnamed colleague recently for pushing the don’t-worry-God-is-on-the-job line.
But when a large portion of the population believes that catastrophe is a good thing rather than a bad thing, and wars are celebrated and crises bring excitement and solidarity to our lives, the influence is toxic. Of the 40 percent who believe Jesus is on his way, some no doubt believe it more than others, and allow it to shape more of their other beliefs and actions. Of the other 60 percent, some are no doubt influenced to varying degrees by the armageddonists.
Belief in theism is espoused by as much as 80 percent of the United States and includes strong activists for sustainable policies, including some who passionately proselytize using the argument that only theism can save us from our apathy in the face of global warming. And there is no question that among our most dedicated peace and justice activists there are some strong religious believers. But theism is essentially the belief that some more powerful being is running the show. Perhaps the armageddonists haven’t really found a solution to the problem of evil (“If there is a God, he’ll have to beg forgiveness from me,” said a prisoner in a Nazi camp), but the non-armageddonist theists have never found a logical solution to the problem of free will, either. Theists can go either way, but they must all, out of necessity, promote the notion that a more powerful being is in charge.
And where does that belief show up to damaging effect? In our politics it shows up primarily as an attitude toward presidents. While President Obama has spent five years actively promoting fossil fuels over renewable energy and doing very little to preserve our natural environment for future generations, the largest block of those concerned about global warming have spent their time telling each other to trust in God, that he works in mysterious ways, that he is up against the “evil one” and must be allowed time to succeed in his battle. You see, the problem with theism is not that some of its spin-off beliefs succeed in an undemocratic system. The problem is that theism is anti-democratic at its core. It moves us away from relying on ourselves. It teaches us to rely on someone supposedly better than us. And the same 80 percent or so also believe in something called heaven, which renders real life far less significant even for those generations that get to experience it.
This, in turn, fuels a belief in optimism. We are all told to be optimists regardless of the facts, as if it were a personal lifestyle choice. Combine that with a belief that everything is part of a secret master plan, and you’ve got a recipe for submissive acceptance. I’ve had great activists tell me that everything will work out for the best, either because that keeps them going, or because they’ve learned that saying anything else earns them fewer speaking invitations. Hardcore optimism is compatible with active engagement. But the net effect is almost certainly a contribution to apathy.
Still, I’m not advocating the equally dumb position of willful pessimism. I’m proposing the unpopular position of taking the facts as they come, acting accordingly, and acting cautiously when it comes to the fate of generations as yet unborn—even if that caution requires huge sacrifices.
There are other powerful forces weighing against action. There’s our love of technology, including our fantasies about inventing our way out of catastrophe, colonizing other planets, and re-creating species. Maybe our senator friend is onto something after all when he points to arrogance. There’s also greed, including our fear that living sustainably would involve living with less of the materialistic nonessentials that currently clutter our lives and fuel our obesity. And there’s the myth that we’re powerless to effect change. It’s not enough to believe that the world is being destroyed and that we humans are on our own with the plants and the other animals if we’ve fallen for the biggest scam governments pull on their people—the lie that says they pay no attention to us. History teaches the opposite. People’s influence on their governments is much more powerful than we usually imagine. It’s weakened primarily by people’s failure to do anything. Impotence is a self-fulfilling loop. Those longing for the end of the world are far from alone in imagining that we don’t have the power to make the world over ourselves. Nonetheless, among the things we should be doing right now is explaining to our neighbors that Jesus isn’t coming back.