What we argue about when we argue about global warming

British Journalist George Monbiot has been writing a number of pieces about a TV ‘documentary’ which supposedly tried to debunk climate change by doctoring statistics and misrepresenting interviewees. Certainly it was one of the most mendacious things I’ve seen on TV, right up there with ads for shampoo that cures dandruff. Monbiot seems to think this kind of thing plays well because, as he puts it,

“We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths”.

I think he’s completely wrong on this. We are not self-deceiving in this way, and we are not living in ‘the age of stupid‘ as a film with a similar theory put it (although I look forward to seeing the movie). Well, not with global warming, anyway. Dandruff may be another matter. I’ll explain.

Filming a house wrecked by the New Orleans Hurricane
'The Age of Stupid' director Franny Armstrong films a house wrecked by hurricane in New Orleans

According to grid-group cultural theory, developed by anthropologist Mary Douglas,  we humans have very different ways of seeing the world and they are in permanent conflict with one another. This is why we don’t and won’t see eye to eye. It has nothing to do with being stupid or willfully blind. We just have different strategies – heuristics – for making sense of the world and our place in it.

Climate change unbelievers such as the producer of the show, Martin Durkin, are Individualists who believe that there is no problem so difficult that human ingenuity can’t solve it. Besides, what seems a problem to one person is a wonderful business opportunity to another – and what was so good about the status quo anyway? Furthermore, and crucially, nature is endlessly bountiful and will always give plenty to people who apply effort and skill. Those who say otherwise are just whinging.

In contrast, people like George Monbiot are Egalitarians for whom a big looming disaster is a wonderful thing to talk up – it provides a threat against which the group can organise and in so doing become stronger. If it wasn’t global warming it would be something else, and you can just look down the list of George’s articles for a host of suitable candidates, from peak oil to genetic modification by way of nuclear power and economic conspiracies. Most importantly, nature is in a state of depletion and is on the brink, for which the only solution is for us to change our values, share more and become less profligate.

Monbiot seems at a partial loss to explain the actions of Channel Four in systematically presenting an anti-green message. He says:

“So why does Channel 4 seem to be waging a war against the greens? I am not sure, but it seems to me that much of its programming – whether it concerns property, celebrities or contestants seeking fame and money – is aspirational. Environmentalism is counter-aspirational. It suggests that the carefree world Channel 4 has created, the celebration of the self, cannot be sustained.”

I think aspirational programming is actually part of a bigger picture explained neatly and with parsimony by Douglas’s theory.

So who’s right about global warming? Grid-group theory helps us to take a step back and recognise that our interpretations of what’s going on are just that: interpretations. Environmentalists have traditionally been quite critical of Grid-group theory, especially when it has been used by people such as Aaron Wildavsky to ridicule their principled positions. In light of the mountian of  climate change evidence, much of it produced by people with little egalitarianism flowing through their veins, I think the egalitarian view has not been heard enough – not by a long shot. Seeing it as one of four opposing possibilities only clarifies the need for it to become a sharper and clearer, albeit more reflective voice.

What we argue about when we argue about global warming is not fundamentally the number of human-generated carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere. Rather, we are arguing about our vision of society and of how it should be shaped. Grid-group theory reminds us of this, even when, as George might say, we just don’t want to know.

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