September 16, 2013

Global Warming Denialism May Have Origin in the Victorian Frame of Mind

In the face of ample scientific evidence that the earth's atmosphere and oceans are warming, and that the global warming is caused by humans, why do so many Americans (47%) believe that humans don't have a hand in the global warming ? Why is it that 13% of Americans aren't sure that there is warming at all, and that a further 8% are sure that there is no warming?

Climate scientists in particular are baffled by what seems like a stubborn refusal by a surprisingly large part of the American public to accept what the scientists see as the self-evident truth. What the scientists see looming in our future is deeply disturbing, and they are vexed by the lack of will to ward off what can be described as nothing less than a catastrophe on a planetary scale.

Where is the disconnect?

There is a lot of hand wringing over scientists' inability to communicate the science to the general public. I don't buy that argument. Climate science has been brought to the public by quite a few who command both the climate science and the communications skills. There are plenty of books, movies, documentaries, websites that correctly reflect the scientific consensus of human-caused global warming and the urgency of the threat.

There is even more talk of the human psyche having a hard time accepting an idea so scary as global warming and its consequences: floods, droughts, famine, wars. But I don't buy that argument either: Anomalously large fractions of people in the United States and Britain (as well as Japan) don't believe in global warming. But I can't accept that American humans are all that different from other humans. After all, the United States is famously a melting pot of humanity.

The next obvious culprit are companies protecting their bottom lines. In particular, corporations have been accused of deliberately spreading misinformation on global warming. Certainly, corporate culture is very strong in the US, and it is precisely conventional corporations that have the most to fear from any measures to combat global warming. The proposed solutions - to burn less fossil fuels, to impose a carbon tax - strike at the essence of their profitability. But corporations can't be the only culprit: after all, they act on a global scale now. If they do engage in spreading misinformation, their message must fall on particularly fertile ground in the United States. So the question remains: why is the American public so susceptible to climate change denial?

I think the answer can be found, at least in part, in the connection between the American psyche and that of the Victorians.

Wait. I'm joking, right? Aren't the Victorians those 19th century English who are so prudish and sexually repressed? -- Well yes. The Victorians were indeed prudish: they had good reason to be (more on that below). But there's a whole lot more to the Victorian psyche than that. This is explored in Walter E. Houghton's book, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870.

I personally have never seen such a complete picture of the era, assembled from the seemingly disparate pieces from the social, scientific and religious realms. To me, it has been eye-opening. The upheavals that pervaded all areas of life in this period amounted to nothing less than a violent revolution inside people's heads and hearts - and while the time was pervaded by aggression (think of the opium wars in China, and the coining of the phrase "Might is Right", by Thomas Carlyle), it is a miracle that the anger never manifested itself as the kind of physical violence that accompanied the French Revolution (the Bastille fell in 1789).

Social Changes.
Of course, the Victorian era was preceded by the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830): There was a mood of self-congratulation and self-confidence flowing into arrogance, over the accomplishments of industry. The use of the steam engine (James Watt) in manufacturing had shaped a new sector of the economy that brought immense wealth and created a new middle class, but also brought suffering to a new class of factory workers, and despoiled the formerly green and pleasant countryside with what William Blake called "dark Satanic mills". Remember all those factories were powered by coal.

"Manchester from Kersal Moor" by William Wylde (1857).

Working conditions in the coal mines and in the new factory towns were miserable, and unions were ruthlessly squashed; see the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. There was a great deal of denial in the discussion on whether and how the working poor contributed to the wealth of the "masters" of the factories, and whether or not they "deserved" to be poor.

On the other hand, the Reform Act (1832) caused a major re-drawing of electoral districts, with the newly burgeoning factory towns gaining parliamentary representation; it also caused the vote to be extended to the growing middle class (but not to the poor, and not to women). This was not exactly a revolution, but still a major step toward representative democracy.

Advances in Science.
Another thing that spread like wildfire among the general population was the pursuit of science. In Sir Isaac Newton's day, what was then called "natural philosophy" was an elite occupation, and most of the Fellows of the Royal Society belonged to the leisured classes. Those days were past, and lots of people took up the study of science with a giddy enthusiasm, from the worker in the textile mill who spent his sundays collecting insects or plants, to those who shaped science as we know it today.

A list of the scientists of the day reads like a Who's Who of the foundations of modern science. A tiny handful of examples: William Herschel, whose telescope opened the heavens. James Hutton, who showed that the Earth's geology is much, much older than suggested in the book of Genesis. Alessandro Volta, who wrote the first paper on the chemical battery. Francis Beaufort, who invented the Beaufort wind scale. Edward Jenner, who developed the smallpox vaccine. Benjamin Franklin, who needs no introduction, a corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society. And the scientist credited with stirring the pot to the point of nearly overturning it: Charles Darwin.

So there was this overflowing enthusiasm for science. You can read more about science in the febrile period of the Industrial Revolution in Richard Holmes' marvellous 2008 book, The Age of Wonder - How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

Religious doubt.
But the very same things that had brought wonder and excitement also brought despair of unforgivable depth. For science had broken religion.

Consider this: cosmology has displaced mankind from the center of the universe to a clod of earth orbiting a minor star on the outskirts of a random galaxy. And evolution has displaced us from the crown of creation to a mere random twig on the tree of life. These are huge, disorienting changes in the way we see ourselves.

There was an awful rainbow once in Heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings.
                     John Keats, from Lamia

"Woof" (or weft) is found on the weaving looms of textile manufacturing, as in "warp and woof". "Philosophy" means science, as in natural philosophy; people who have made it through graduate school are still called "Doctors of Philosophy", shortened to Ph.D.

I always thought the "Angel" referred to Lamia and all she stands for, like the life of the heart and the Imagination (Coleridge's capitalisation); but now I'm realising that the Angel refers to religion, and Keats' choice of example significant, since the awe-inspiring rainbow is the symbol of God's covenant with Noah. (Duh. How could I have missed that?).

"Lamia" by JW Waterhouse (1905). Note the snakeskin.

"Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings": Science was breaking religion. And then, in a sense, the Avenging Angel arrived to throw the Victorians out of the paradise of certainty that their forefathers had enjoyed.

Science, with its fact-based approach, its reproducible experiments, its ice-cold logic probing into the mysteries of Nature, had sown terror in the shape of seeds of doubt that had worked their way into people's hearts and germinated, and then proved very hard to eradicate (= to pull out by the roots).

Scientific uncertainty.
And it was everywhere; the era saw an explosion of scientific advances, and the public followed it, read about it, participated in it. Following the Humanist tradition, everybody tried their hand at poetry and music and art, and everybody studied science, whether through books or through the many philosophical societies. But it was all so new: the science was new; the study of it was new, and, as it happens in any emerging field, all was rife with debate and disagreement.

In short, there were only a handful of people who could be called scientists by our current definition. However, next to these few experts, there was a multitude of amateur scientists, who, like many newly introduced to knowledge, all thought they knew all there was to know about the subject.

Comparable confusion surrounds today's science. Take the discussion about heart disease: Should you take aspirin or the more expensive Statin to lower your cholesterol level? Or is enjoying a Mediterranean diet enough to ward off a heart attack? The jury is still out. A similarly tangled discussion surrounds the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In comparison, Newton's equations of motion are beautifully simple. But in a way, they solve "toy" problems in which pesky realities like friction are either highly simplified or ignored altogether. The scientific problems tackled in the 1800s were much more complicated than that, and were openly discussed in all their complexity. It was (and is) perhaps exactly because so much science was debated in public, that the public developed a deep distrust of the real experts.

Science vs Engineering.
More than that, in the realm of practical matters science, unlike engineering, was seen as a diversion. The Industrial Revolution was driven by empirical inventions: as Thomas Huxley put it, in the 1850s "Practical men still believed that the idol whom whey worship - rule of thumb - has been the source of the past prosperity, and will suffice for the future welfare of the arts and manufactures. They were of opinion that science is speculative rubbish, that theory and practice have nothing to do with one another, and that the scienfitic habit of mind is an impediment, rather an an aid, in the conduct of ordinary affairs."

Fragmentation was everywhere. In religion, people found their own private solution, which spans the Church of England, to intelligent design, to deism, to the Natural Religion espoused by Romanticism; sometimes all of these were found, albeit sequentially, in a single person. Families fell out over this. Parents stopped talking to sons and daughters. Uncles and nieces got cut off.

A dogmatism developed on all fronts, not so much because beliefs were deeply held, but precisely because they were not.

Imagine: you've gradually come to the realisation that the religion that had served as a steadfast beacon to your forefathers for countless generations has stopped making sense to you. Suddenly, you're cast adrift. After a period of denial, anger and despair you've managed to cobble together your own spiritual solution. You cling to that - one hesitates to call it faith - like a shipwrecked sailor to a piece of flotsam. In such a desperate situation, you don't want anyone prodding their finger into your life raft: you're too afraid it will turn out to be worm-eaten and might not carry you to the coast after all. You don't want to think about that, so you defend that piece of wood with an outsized belligerence toward anyone who even touches it with a finger.

The belligerence and aggression spilled over into discussions of scientific and social issues. Ad hominem attacks were common.

In the face of all this upheaval, people started clinging to the reduced family inside their own home, much like in the wake of 9/11 people's instincts were to gather their immediate family, and bunker down at home. The home became a sacred place, where you could hide from the hubbub outside. In Victorian times, this led to a worship of Woman, the "Angel of the house", whose purity and chastity must be defended at all costs. Any reference to sexuality, or indeed any bodily function, was regarded as on a slippery slope to loose morals, adultery and the disintegration of the family unit. It could not be tolerated. Hence silly sayings like "Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow." Hence the rest of the prudery which we find so ludicrous now. But at the time, the prudery make profound sense.

One more Victorian reaction to the changes in their time, worth mentioning here, was what Houghton calls "evasion", by which he means "a process of deliberately ignoring what was unpleasant, and pretending it did not exist" - In other words, denial.

Our Inheritance.
I think in many respects we in the West, and Americans in particular, have not outgrown the Victorian era. Sure, American independence was declared in 1776. But the imprint of the British Empire is still with us. Think of how US law has its roots in English common law. Think of even such a small thing as the worship of grass lawns, even in places like Chicago and Phoenix, whose climates are far removed from the mild wet climate that makes green lawns like those seen in Downton Abbey effortless in the British Isles. Heck, think of how we still speak English (not "American").

Photo by Gary Bembridge via Wikimedia Commons

Here are a few striking correspondences between [the way people lived in the Victorian era] and the way we live now: We are still a very polite society. We avoid talking about [politics, religion and evolution] politics, religion, evolution and global warming, for similar reasons: not only because we don't want to put our fingers on our friends' sore spots, but more importantly because we don't want our friends to put their fingers on our sore spots. We congratulate ourselves on our technological achievements; but it is those same achievements that have brought us our current despair. And we have developed unspoken but deep-seated fears about how [the poor] climate refugees might bring rioting and war to our own streets, the way it happened in [France] Syria. We seek escape in drugs like [opium] Molly or, more commonly, in the newly invented [novels] internet. And so on.

In the context of climate change: today's general public still harbour a deep-seated distrust of basic science. Scientists have mostly forgotten, but faith is a kind of earthly paradise, that rock in the stormy sea thing. When we speak of evolution or climate change, a religious person (who might harbour his own doubts deep inside) might just see, not the voice of reason, but rather a large snake.

Scientists are seen as "eggheads" who pursue such esoteric projects as the hunt for the Higgs boson. Inside industrial R&D departments there is a palpable near-enmity toward the Research side, which is invariably much smaller than the Development side, but per scientist much more expensive.

When I worked in such a research lab, there was a lot of talk of whether the lab actually contributed to the company's bottom line, or whether we were decoration, or "court musicians" as the term went: a sort of status symbol, pleasantly diverting, producing beauty, but otherwise quite useless, despite the fact that we were encouraged to write patents as well as peer-reviewed journal papers.

This disdain is, I believe, another relic of the Victorian era. I also believe it is misplaced. For instance, it was basic research on quantum optics that, years later, led to a demonstration of amplified stimulated emission of microwave radiation (maser for short), which eventually led to the widespread use of semiconductor lasers: embedded in cash registers' UPC scanners, inside the DVD players we use to watch movies, in the routers that drive internet traffic, and in numerous other devices where we may not even be aware of the presence of a laser. Such a long-term result is the exception rather than the rule, but the maser did develop into a killer app.

Global warming, which has until recently been largely invisible in daily life, is bigger than social upheaval or scientific revolutions. The science of it is still emerging. It threatens disruption, not just of our culture but of our very species. And it springs directly from the progress in science and engineering that has shaped that culture, and that until recently gave us, especially in the US, so much pride, not to mention a cushy existence in air-conditioned homes and large cars, with big meaty barbecues any time we want.

So it's not surprising that climate change has fully awakened the Victorian frame of mind that still pervades the US. It's been there all along. Think of evolution denial: as of 2012, 46% of Americans hold creationist views.

I'm not sure how knowing all this will make any difference to the hard work of remedying climate change denial. But as a scientist, I say Knowledge is power. So I offer the above as a relevant perspective to anyone who is concerned about global warming and about our inaction, and to climate change communicators: I hope this is useful to you.

Certainly, it is heartening that the American perception of climate change has started to shift: between 2010 and 2012 the fraction of Americans who are "alarmed" about global warming has increased from 10% to 16%, while the portion of those who are "dismissive" of any warming has halved from 16% to 8%.

Even so, as of April 2013, 16% of Americans don't believe global warming is happening. You can argue about who is sowing the doubt, but certainly any doubt sown has a disproportionally large impact on us all. So the task of climate change communication is far from over: we need to keep getting the message out on global warming, and on the urgent need to fight it.

I'll do my bit. Last year I gave a talk at a neighbourhood salon which a friend hosts at her house. The talk was on global warming and what we as individuals can do about it (so yes, it included a pep-talk on fuel efficient cars). I've been asked to re-tool that talk so it's appropriate for a middle and high school audience, and to bring it to schools in the area. I think I will.

Meanwhile, I'm going back and re-reading Keats, Coleridge and Tennyson, Eliot and Trollope, and all the rest of the Romantics and the Victorians, plus a few others new to me, like John Stuart Mill. With new eyes. Watch the "Bedside books" space on this blog.


Shared at Green Living Thursdays



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  1. That is absolutely fascinating! I would never have seen a link between Americans and Victorian thinking, and I think there could be a great deal of truth behind that theory.
    But the US and UK are 2 of the top 3 climate change deniers according to polls. I wonder what makes Japan so sceptical?
    Thanks for (another) excellent blog CelloMom, and I hope you do talk to schools - those kids are already buying consumer goods and will soon be making decisions in companies.

    1. Thanks, Clare! I did see that result about the Japanese being even more doubtful of global warming. My personal guess (with no research to back this up) is that the Japanese are already primed for denial: how else to live on an earthquake-prone land? On which they've built nuclear reactors? Even if those are said to be earthquake-proof?

  2. which ample evidence that its man made are you referring too? which control earth are they using for the comparison? i feel like i may have missed that.

  3. which ample evidence that its man made are you referring too? which control earth are they using for the comparison? i feel like i may have missed that.

    1. From ABC News:
      " Top scientists from a variety of fields say they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill.

      They are as sure about climate change as they are about the age of the universe. They say they are more certain about climate change than they are that vitamins make you healthy or that dioxin in Superfund sites is dangerous."

      Article here: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/95-certainty-warming-means-scientists-20357334

  4. Hey CelloMom! Thanks for sharing again! I found this very well written and certainly appeals to my sensibilities as an historian!

    My take is that the "cult of progress," or the idea that we're moving inexorably forward in our development as a society is difficult to reconcile with the idea that we may actually be backtracking. Many schools of interpretation share this view, including Victorian era Whiggism, but also (strangely) certain Marxist schools of thought.

    Another possibility is that the public is waiting for a scientific or technological innovation to bail us out. That would support the world-view that we're moving forward, but at the moment I consider it to be more of a hail-mary. Most environmentalists believe that the only way out is hard work, and a concerted effort by everyone, and unfortunately I don't see it happening any time soon.

    1. Thanks! and would you PM me where I can read up on the backtracking issue? You've piqued my interest.

      A technological bailout would be convenient for many reasons, foremost of which is that we can carry on as we have. But the carbon capture and geo-engineering schemes that have been proposed seem a huge risk to me.


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