Forest fires are stressful. So are floods, droughts, storms and other forms of extreme weather.
They make people feel insecure, anxious, victimized and powerless. So our psychological response to this pervasive uneasiness is to return to the comfort of a remembered past, to imagine a safe and peaceful time before the threats and nervousness destroyed our sense of peaceful normalcy. Fear and flight reactions are close beneath the surface in such behaviour. Emotion takes precedence over thought, and carefully reasoned considerations defer to basic survival instincts.
The psychology that operates in individuals also functions in countries. This is dramatically illustrated by the current race for president of the United States. Lurking beneath the surface of the country’s political, social and economic problems is a host of serious environmental threats, particularly climate change. It is not necessarily foremost in people’s concerns. But it’s nonetheless there, working at a low level of awareness, adding to people’s edginess. It inspires irrational behaviour, warps the interpretation of information, distorts the meaning of evidence, confuses cause with effect, and twists values into parodies of themselves.
The media, of course, is abuzz with the latest titillating news about the presumptive Republican candidate, Donald Trump, and his “Make America Great Again” campaign — the political pundits as hyperactive as Trump has been abrasive. While most of their opinions demonstrate abject silliness, a few insightful ones have been exposing the compounding malaise that is undermining America’s confidence. The causes are numerous: income inequalities that have become socially dysfunctional; taxation policies that don’t adequately fund essential public services; exploding national debt; a political system obscenely distorted by money; polarized ideological intransigence that has paralyzed government; unrestrained corporate power; foolish foreign military adventures that have opened a Pandora’s Box of seemingly unsolvable problems ranging from terrorism and civil wars to economic turmoil and humanitarian disasters.
All these serious problems are darkened further by the shadow of climate change, the intractable enemy that makes Americans feel like they are being attacked from within their own borders. Extreme weather events are forces of disruption and terror that cannot be evicted, defeated or subdued by soaring political oratory or caustic male bluster. Nature pays no attention to promises or intentions. The government agency, NOAA, has recorded 188 extreme weather-events in the US between 1980 and 2015 — fires, droughts, storms and floods — that have each caused damage of more than $1 billion. As they escalate in frequency and severity, these devastating swaths of havoc grind down America’s sense of optimism and assurance, adding to the disquietude that is unsettling the country’s collective faith in itself.
This is particularly difficult for America, a country that firmly believes in its own virtue, righteous power and noble intentions. Climate change is a relentless reminder of its collective guilt, an uncomfortable, incessant and inescapable likeness of the American dream gone awry. It is the unforgiving image of a foreboding future made ominous by an obsessive and unchecked materialism. Hubris is a dangerous failing.
If Donald Trump is to “Make America Great Again”, he must fix the structural problems lurking deep within his country’s character. And, he must also take control of the climate — before the rising seas inundate Miami and other coastal cities.