Climate Change & Dullardism

Inspired by Jenny's most recent post, I thought I'd add a note about climate change. When the post below originally appeared on Hungry Hyaena, in June of 2005, polls suggested that the American public were increasingly aware of the fact that climate change (or "global warming") posed a serious threat to our environmental status quo. In fact, the number of Americans that favored legislative action to curb anthropogenic greenhouse emissions and to mitigate the negative effects of climate change continued to grow into 2008.

Recent studies, however, reveal a troubling trend: Americans' concern about climate change diminished in the last year, so much so, according to some polls, that a majority of United States citizens today doubt that climate change is a threat, and dismiss global warming as a fantasy. Whatever the actual numbers, the up-tick in skepticism is real, even in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus. The frightening anxiety of the burgeoning global village, our contemporary economic upheaval, and the requisite priorities of our elected legislators notwithstanding, action on climate change is no less a moral and ethical imperative today than it was five years ago.

"The problem of modern man isn't to escape from one ideology to another, nor to escape from one formulation to find another; our problem is to live in the presence and in the attributes of reality."

-Frederick Sommer, The Poetic Logic of Art and Aesthetics
Although surveys suggest that most of the American public still believes that climate change is a future threat, many thousands of species are already threatened by shrinking environmental ranges and changing precipitation patterns; some of these species are on the verge of extinction. The negative impact of climate change occurs now and later.

I encourage those readers curious about the subject, particularly those who believe that we will "solve" the problem via improved technologies, to read "Climate Change is Totally Awesome," a recent post at Organic Matter. The author dissects a Telegraph article by Robert Matthews, entitled, "Warmer, wetter and better (or the good news that the climate change lobby doesn't want you to hear)."

Interviewed for the Telegraph piece, Professor Philip Stott of the University of London argues that reducing emissions will not alleviate the threat, and that the steps required to significantly reduce emissions would render us technologically impotent.
"Even if we shut every fossil-fuel power station, crushed every car and grounded every aircraft, the Earth's climate would still continue to get warmer, according to Prof Stott. 'The trouble is, we would all be too impoverished to cope with the consequences.'"
I agree that the warming trend is natural and that, even were we to de-industrialize, the world would continue to warm. But anthropogenic action accelerates climate change to such a devastating degree that biodiversity and, ultimately, human stability are in peril.

Furthermore, Stott's concept of technological impoverishment is misguided. To be sure, if we First Worlders are to transition to sustainable development, we must give up many of the conveniences that we now take for granted. It remains to be seen whether we will make this sacrifice of our own volition or if we will do nothing until Nature demands it of us. In either case, the sacrifice will not make us incapable of coping with climate change.

It will, however, demand a significant restructuring of our cultural and technological priorities. Our taste for spectacle and distraction must be unlearned. Cultural critic and anthropologist Morris Berman, in his outstanding book Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, dubs the social spirit of contemporary, industrialized nations "dullardism."
"With dullardism, the goal is simply to go unconscious, by means of tranquilizers, alcohol, TV, spectator sports, organized religion, compulsive busyness and workaholism, and so on (even though many of these do provide a short-term 'high')."
Dullardism is not endemic to contemporary, industrialized societies. Equivalent symptoms were documented in the late years of the Roman and Mayan civilizations, and I suspect that they also existed in Sumer and other early civilizations.

The human animal is not evolutionarily equipped to flourish in society; our brains remain "wired" for the Pleistocene, and the rapid transition to an agrarian, sedentary, and "civil" existence has been rapid and fraught. We therefore exhibit displacement behavior, seeking escape via fundamentalism, sports, entertainment, and drug abuse.

Does this mean that advanced civilization makes us ill-equipped to deal with environmental catastrophe? Not necessarily (we have to hope not!), but we must reexamine our social mores in order to create something akin to a new social order, one that balances our primitive lusts for progress and power with pragmatism and stewardship. It's a tall order, to be sure, but one that we must fill.


  1. Great post HH. I have been surprised recently by a few encounters with friends/co-workers who consider climate change debatable. I have been searching for sticky messages, something quick with maximum impact, to mention in passing as often these encounters do not allow time for much conversation.

    I'll share my current favorites, useful for human's environmental impact- not just climate change.

    David P. Barash makes an unsettling comparison in his article "We Are All Madoffs" ( suggests our relationship to the natural world is a Ponzi scheme in which our misguided hope that the future will always bail out the present (through new resources, new technologies) allows us to endlessly exploit the environment. To be a compared to Madoff is most unsavory, this had quite an impact on me.

    The other comes from my Dad who concedes that yes, there is also a natural warming trend but a person would have to be quite dense to think human industry would have no effect on the natural world. He uses the easy to relate to example of a closed room and a cigarette. The effects of the cigarette smoke on the room are overly noticeable, our planet and it's atmosphere are a closed system and spewing out heat,pollution,etc. into that are bound to have an effect.

  2. Thanks for the great analogies, Molly! I particularly like the Bernie Madoff comparison. Truly, our use-use-use approach to natural resources is a Ponzi scheme. And we all know the inevitable end point of those.


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