Reckoning with Climate Denial

Clifton Granby

“This matter of admitting the true nature of a problem before setting about rectifying it, or even pretending to, is of utmost importance.” – Lorraine Hansberry

Collective refusal to acknowledge the scope and scale of our ecological crisis is a familiar issue. Continued moral evasion in the face of such urgency almost ensures our demise. So much depends on the quality of our willingness to confront this challenge.

But as soon as we examine some of the causes of climate denial and indifference, of environmental apathy and ignorance, the larger mechanics and forces that have contributed to the earth’s undoing quickly come into view.

The powers and interests which brought settler colonialists to the New World involved the violent removal of Indigenous peoples from their land – a fact too often denied or rendered insignificant in the stories and myths America tells about itself. To ignore that history is to refuse to take seriously what has already been done to the land and to the peoples who inhabited it. Climate evasion is just an extension of a much longer pattern of denial.

What also marks our contemporary moment is the sense that we are constantly in a state of crisis. There is the crisis that’s presently unfolding, the crisis that was narrowly avoided, and the crisis that is always to come: the doom that would’ve happened if the banks didn’t receive bailouts, the danger of not prioritizing the Pentagon’s budget proposals, and the crisis of constitutional democracy that continues to be – shall we say – ongoing.

This nagging sense of emergency makes it difficult to widen our sphere of moral concern beyond what is immediate, proximate, and near. It nourishes a vague awareness of urgent problems yet never manages to lead to change – neither in habits and attitudes, nor in policies and collective practices. Focusing on the spectacles of the crisis industry also distracts from slower, less visible forms of violence that happen at different rates, such as hog waste seeping into crops and water supplies long after flood waters have receded. Our challenge includes moving beyond this fixation with spectacle, learning to focus our capacities of attentiveness and cultivating a kind of sensitivity that pierces through the noise. The land, like the spirit, cannot breathe without rest. And there is no healing without rest.

The idea that each of us occupies some other, more pressing position of vulnerability is not by accident. It’s the very thing that fortifies the status quo by shifting attention away from the communities and ecosystems that have always been in peril for lack of education, health care, food security, and so forth. Seriously focusing on climate change means that these wider causes of racial and economic vulnerability must also be addressed. Otherwise, we do well to expect more evasions.

Part of what is needed, then, is a mode of ethical and historical reckoning that acknowledges the underside of industrialization, the darkness of unfettered capitalism, and the ugliness of any morality that is more sensitive to the market than to the earth. We’ll have to devise better ways to hold elites accountable for their racist and patriarchal designs, practices, and aspirations. But we also have to devise ways for persons to earn a living wage, preferably alongside caring for the earth, and this will require organizing our lives around common goods. Not profit margins. Not competition. But genuinely shared goods held in common. What is needed now is a reimagining of the terms of survival and cooperation. It may be that we need a new grammar of power, less sullied by quests for sovereignty and invulnerability, more capacious in its demand for well-placed trust and accountability.

This will require us to tell different stories – about ourselves, about the earth, and about what flourishing in ecological community looks like. We’ll need stories that help us reimagine the terms of vulnerability and interconnectedness.

We’ll also have to make room for lament, because there is too much to grieve. Our task will inevitably involve learning how to inhabit the unfixable. There are no easy solutions here, since loss of sacred life isn’t the sort of thing that can be replaced. But there are more responsible and sensible ways to live, more ways to organize and imagine the commons anew.

So I take hope in the uncertain course of history’s ordinary and unlikely agitators – the unfinished work of freedom struggles and movements already begun but not quite past, and the people who labored and struggled for a vision of the world that they themselves wouldn’t see but one that their children’s children might live. I take hope in the faith traditions that inspire and sustain such visionary work. I take hope in their calls for agitation and rest, their sense of life and time.

Clifton Granby is Assistant Professor of Ethics and Philosophy at YDS. His research interests include African-American religious and political thought, ethics, and environmental justice.