The Freedom Delusion
On Monday 30th January, Myron Ebell, adviser to Donald Trump’s administration, who has has denied the dangers of human-created climate change for many years, denounced the world’s environmental movement. “The environmental movement is,” he said, “in my view, the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world. Our special interest is, I would say, freedom.”
What are we to make of these comments? On the face of it they seem the standard declaration of any right-wing American man, but in this blog post I thought it might be worth delving a little deeper into Ebell’s climate change denial, and also putting such claims into the context of American culture.
First, it’s worth noting that the phrase ‘climate change denial’ has a satisfactory tone of negativity to it, like the phrase ‘holocaust denial.’ As with evolution by natural selection deniers, the overwhelming majority of climate change deniers have no grasp of how science works. Science is a human activity, and at its leading edge is prone to error, fraud, and even an occasional ‘epic fail’ (to use Brian Cox’s term). But what makes science true and useful is its irreversible and profound attachment to reality. Regardless of the details Darwin got wrong about evolution, and regardless of what details climate change scientists get wrong, the central core of evolutionary theory and of climate change theory are unassailable – which is why the overwhelming majority of scientists accept them. They have changed from hypotheses to theories.
What then is the motive for denying human-induced climate change? Well, let’s consider the context. Americans consume and discard five times the average Western amount of products and consumables – and vastly more than that compared with the global norm. Theirs is a world of consumption based on the standard capitalist assumption that perpetual economic growth is possible on a finite planet. So it can be seen already that such a people, given the opportunity to relinquish 4/5 of their consumption, are not likely to take up the offer.
Of course, Americans might be persuaded to pull back most of their consumption if they could see the damage it was doing to themselves and to the planet. Is there then anything stopping them from taking such a view?
There is – and that thing is exactly what Ebell referred to in his denouncement. It is freedom.
For Americans, freedom is sacrosanct. Freedom for the vast majority of Americans is the heart of what their country is – the ‘land of the free.’ But could they have taken that notion to an unrealistic extreme?
Recently I’ve been writing about narcissism, using the word in its general sense rather than the specifically ‘vain’ sense. Erich Fromm said: The narcissistic orientation is one in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous. But it isn’t just individuals who suffer from narcissism. Fromm himself was eloquent on the subject of group narcissism, in which the attitudes of a collection of people are similarly divorced from reality. We see this phenomenon in football matches, in religious violence and in cultural bigotry. In any situation where there is infantile tit-for-tat revenge you can be sure group narcissism is at work amongst narcissistic individuals. As Frank Herbert observed: revenge is for children.
Most Americans – especially the libertarians and the right-wingers – are wedded to freedom in an entirely unrealistic manner. Theirs is an attitude of freedom at the expense of everyone and everything else. And this is a specifically narcissistic attitude. It says: what matters above all is not the community, not the society, not the culture – it is me. My freedom trumps all other concerns. This unrealistic extreme exists in Europe too.
Is theirs a reasonable attitude? No. There is no such thing as complete freedom in the American mode. That is an delusion caused by cultural narcissism, a specific refusal to accept that human beings live in communities; in societies. In fact, we human beings enjoy quite limited freedom. We are restricted by the finite planet that we live on, but also by hundreds of smaller concerns, such as the communities we live in, to which we have many obligations. But to the narcissist such obligations don’t exist. All that matters is personal freedom, to the detriment of community, of culture, of the planet.
This, unfortunately, is what is happening in America right now. Myron Ebell said, “The environmental movement is… the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.” By this he meant it was the greatest threat to his self-centred enjoyment of products and consumables made at the expense of the rest of the human world, and of the planet. “Our special interest is… freedom,” he added. By this he meant that the restrictions of life created by the existence of the human race should not apply to him. He must be free at the expense of all other concerns.
This attitude exists right across the globe in a myriad of forms. We remain a primitive race when considered in terms of 40,000 years of scientific progress (i.e. understanding of the real world) and cultural development. The absurd attitude lies at the heart of the British class system, of the Indian caste system, of patriarchy, of capitalism, fascism and communism, of prejudice, bigotry and all forms of wilful ignorance.
There is still a lot of work to be done. All cultural attitudes that ignore, brush off, pervert or re-work the real world betray the narcissistic orientation. It is the great infection at the heart of human life, one we are all born with, and which we all have to overcome individually and as cultures. But that work is difficult. Self-deception is the strongest weapon in narcissism’s armoury – the hardest one to beat, by far. The planet will survive humanity’s appearance, but we will not if we consistently reject reality.
Narcissism is, in my view, the greatest threat to happiness and sanity in the modern world. Our special interest is, I would say, humanity.