I just went to CVS to get D batteries for my flashlight, but they were all sold out. Bostonians are getting ready for Hurricane Sandy, and Governor Patrick has declared a state of emergency. It’s always a challenge to separate hype from reality, but Sandy has been described as potentially a “Frankenstorm”, because of the unusual convergence of the collision of the hurricane with a dipping jet stream, as well as a strong high pressure system moving south from eastern Canada, creating the conditions for a “perfect storm”.
This is in keeping with the “new normal”, severe weather incidents and patterns that scientists agree are a result of global warming, typified by three events this past summer: the drought which devastated the midwest, the forest fires in the Colorado, and the dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice, setting off new warnings about the rapid pace of change in the region. This last is particularly alarming as Arctic sea ice has been described as the “earth’s air conditioning system”, and the consequences for the planet of its loss is yet unknown, but will potentially contribute to even greater extremes of weather.
Yet we are 9 days away from the election and neither candidate mentions climate change. Romney mocked Obama’s concern with global warming during the Republican convention, “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans — (pauses for audience laughter) — and to heal the planet. MY promise is to help you and your family,”. Obama only dared a passing nod to climate change during one debate. Instead there is a persistent focus by both candidates on a commitment to drilling for new sources of fossil fuels.
In the Opinion Pages of the Sunday Review of the New York Times a piece appeared a week ago called “The Opiate of American Exceptionalism” . The photo at the beginning of this post is from that analysis. Here is an exerpt:
“IMAGINE a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States lags its economic peers.
What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4 year olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.
The candidate might try to stir up his audience by flipping a familiar campaign trope: America is indeed No. 1, he might declare — in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China; in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan; in energy use per person, with double the consumption of prosperous Germany.
How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Nowhere fast. Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.”
When I was in medical school doing an elective in psychiatry, I was introduced to the concept of the “Hierarchy of Defenses”. A defense mechanism is an individual’s automatic psychological response to internal or external emotional stressors or conflict. Defenses are hierarchically ordered from most primitive to most mature. Humor, anticipation and self-observation are considered examples of the highest level ways of coping with stress and conflict, defenses like rationalization, projection and denial are the most immature and maladaptive.
Why is denial so problematic? It is because though denial may in the moment make a situation feel more bearable, it has a high price tag in terms of precluding an adaptive coping response to reality. In other words, if we do not acknowledge the enormity of our environmental and social problems, we cannot think creatively about how to solve them.
Here is a link to a very thoughtful talk by Patrick Hamilton, director of The Global Change Initiative at the Minnesota Museum of Science. The title is Adaptation, Mitigation and Innovation. His discussion reflects an opposite approach to dealing with global warming than denial. Hamilton emphasizes the need for our cities to adapt to the current reality of climate change that we are now confronting, the importance of actions that could mitigate against making a bad situation worse, and the need for innovation that could have a significant impact on the situation.
He contrasts two approaches, the AD HOC characterized by a haphazard, chaotic and reactive response, and the BLUEPRINT, which is much more intentional, anticipatory, thoughtful and deliberate. If denial is the modus operandi, then the AD HOC response will be our only option, whereas if reality is acknowledged, a careful blue print can be designed. I wish our culture was one where presidential candidates who outlined the best plans to deal with the real issues we are facing as a nation and as a planet would be elected, instead of one where we only can bear to hear how special we are.