Getting One's Polar Bearings on Climate Change

It's an interesting phenomenon to live in a town where the level of
public vitriol over nearly every political question runs incredibly
high. Here in "high Sonoran" Arizona, we enjoy an amazingly diverse and
oftentimes starkly polarized topography -- you can go from snow-capped
peaks to wind-blown deserts in very short order -- and the cultural
landscape seems to follow suit when issues such as immigration, health
care, education, or warfare are raised in the public dialogue.

I imagine there are many places where opinions are similarly split over
these sorts of matters. But it's also the case that in many locales
there's likely a dominant viewpoint that essentially renders one side
or the other as a mere "loyal opposition" that wields virtually no real
sway in the local debate. One of the things I love most about living in
a nascent "purple state" like Arizona is that the polarities are
evident and dynamic. It makes for a vibrant discourse and provides a
much-needed reality check no matter where one is situated on the
political spectrum.

It's one of the reasons I enjoy writing a regular column in the local newspaper, where my blatant advocacy of social and environmental causes
regularly draws a mix of brutally hostile and gratefully supportive
comments. Being called a "hard-line Marxist" for advocating tame
propositions like public transit, open space preservation, or human
rights for migrants -- and actually having that critique taken
seriously -- keeps one grounded in ways that are useful and distressing
all at once.

Among the hotly contentious issues here that I've written about over
the years is global warming -- somewhat ironic given that we live in a
desert region where the water is drying up and the drought cycle is
deepening. A recent film event sponsored by our local Tea Party
contingent drew about 1000 people to an auditorium to debunk the
"socialistic" myth of climate change in particular and the
environmental movement in general, which apparently have the combined
effect of driving Americans into unemployment and poverty plus
condemning African children to starvation and death. The film's host
was quoted in the local mediaas saying that "Cockroaches make more CO2 than we do" -- although no
cockroach was seemingly available for comment or rebuttal.

Now I'm not relating this tale because I think that you necessarily
care about the goings-on here in tiny Prescott, Arizona. You probably
have your own issues to confront and battles to fight wherever you
reside, and reports about meetings of the Flat Earth Society or the
Phrenology Club or the Global Warming as Socialist Conspiracy Group
aren't particularly germane to you right now. But I do want to share
something about the nature of these events that may be of use to you in
the struggles that define the public dialogue wherever you happen to be.

First, the teabagger perspective is an intriguing mix of FOX News
knee-jerkism and genuine principles about limited government. One can
hear the scripted talking points in the "Green is the new Red"
commentary as if they were some sort of secret society incantation.
Plainly, if given a choice between corporate takeover or governmental
takeover of our lives, the former would be preferable and, indeed, more
American.

Second, and more to the point, the global warming debate isn't really
about science or economics at all. It's actually a question of
theology. One side argues that human activities are the largest causal
factor driving climate change processes, whereas the other contends
that it's all part of a natural cycle that transcends human influence.
In many ways, I resonate with the naturalist argument, since humans are
part of nature and if we do something it can thus be said to be
"natural" on some level. I also appreciate the implicit reverence for
natural cycles and the sense of humanity as less than omnipotent.

But that's not the upshot of the climate change deniers. It's really
our generational version of the evolution debate that's going on here.
Placing the changes we're undeniably seeing (and no one disputes that
changes are occurring) in the realm of "natural cycles" is akin to
putting it in God's hands and hence removing it from humanity's. This
has the effect of reducing human activities and choices to becoming
nearly meaningless, and thus bringing our free will almost down to nil
in the process. Because the planet goes through cooling and warming
cycles regardless of our presence here, there's no point in worrying
about recycling, conserving, or consuming wisely. There's simply no
reason to be green, and in fact being so is essentially heretical.

Melting ice caps, rising tides, devastating storms -- all seem to fit
the eschatology of human insignificance in the face of almighty forces.
The hubris of thinking that somehow we can influence our own destiny
and that of the earth itself is seen as self-aggrandized hypocrisy
(e.g., Al Gore) and misanthropic lunacy (e.g., Rachel Carson) on a
biblical scale. The ancient texts are filled with similar accounts that
ultimately led to God's wrath being visited upon the transgressors, and
to the use of calamities to restore order.

The infotainment architects at FOX and other outlets know this history,
and are happy to use political wedge issues to (almost literally) fan
the flames of people eager to revel in revelation. This is the central
cultural rift taking hold here, namely that between secular humanists
and religious determinists. That it permeates issues across the dial is
remarkable and yet predictable. It's an age-old divide, after all, and
one that seems to be growing with each passing year. Interestingly
absent from the polarized debate, however, are the myriad religious
humanists in our midst who see the divine in humankind and the power it
can wield for positive purposes, and the secular determinists who
believe that there's a plan but argue that we're the ones responsible
for creating and implementing it.

Finally, the news of our little local soiree made me think not only
about polarized opinions, but polar bears too. I had this vision of a
giant white creature alone on a melting fragment of ice, not
particularly caring whether it was God's apocalypse or one made by
humans that caused its plight. As it circumnavigates the globe on its
dwindling ice floe, the bear suddenly finds itself face-to-face with a
saguaro cactus, in a vast ocean that was once a desert (and before that
once an ocean). It ponders the meaning of life and the miracle of its
experience, enjoying the newfound quietude yet wondering whether such a
peace, achieved at the expense of polarization, is really all that
desirable in the end.