Arnold Schwarzenegger tried posing last week as an environmental muscle-man. Too many guilty thoughts were showing, however, at his speech to a global-warming conference at Georgetown University. “For too long the environmental movement has been powered by guilt,” the California governor told the conference. “You know the kind of guilt I'm talking about: Smokestacks belching pollution and powering our Jacuzzis and our big-screen TVs and, in my case, powering my private airplanes.”
Schwarzenegger went on: “I don't think any movement has ever made much progress based on guilt. Guilt is passive, guilt is inhibiting and guilt is defensive. . . . Successful movements are built on passion; they're not built on guilt. They are built on passion, they are built on confidence, and they are built on critical mass."
Those are impressive lines for the ex-actor, who approves of us driving SUVs and Hummers while trusting in an “enlightened” marketplace to navigate the crisis. As an action-hero, the governor was a master illusionist. Now, he may be fooling himself. Is he now behind the news cameras as a dangerous, actual Terminator in “The Planet of Doom”?
Guilt may be the reason he converted his Hummers to hydrogen and biodiesel fuels. But widespread guilt—what little of it our global-warming inertia produces—is not the reason for the baby-steps, procrastination, and denial. The psychological problem is deeper and more intransigent. The root of our resistance can be traced to our egotism—the flawed mentality out of which history’s greatest denials originate.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, people were gravely offended when Copernicus and then Galileo dared report that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Darwin insulted us just as rudely, putting people and early primates up the same family tree. Freud slapped us in the face with the news of how dramatically our unconscious mind influenced our thoughts and beliefs. Yet our ego is a tough old nut that has survived these narcissistic hurts with hardly a crack.
Global warming is another reality that we want to reject. Through the ego we exult in the civilization we have created. Our advances over death, distance, and drudgery, and our mastery of science, technology, and capitalism, dazzle us with our brilliance. How can we be expected to tear down these monuments to ourselves?
So we play a mind game called “Pretend Land.” Here are the rules: We try not to ruffle our ego, which resides in the inner sanctum of denial. We use soothing words. Here’s one example: Global warming isn’t happening if I ignore it and stay calm. Excellent! Feel how that validates the ego. What else can we say? If I don’t think too much about it, then there’s nothing to worry about. Fabulous! Our ego feels reassured by our indifference. And remember, if we’re alarmed and become involved, that means we care about something beyond our little self-preoccupations. Our ego doesn’t like feeling demoted.
Gov. Schwarzenegger unwittingly gave us a clue to the ego’s influence in our global-warming inaction. He said recently that using biofuels in SUVs “is not like some wimpy feminine car, like a hybrid. Because the muscle guys, they have this thing: “I don’t want to be seen in the little feminine car.’” Muscle guys, as we know, don’t mind being seen in little bikini briefs and exhibiting an overall impression that’s, well, supremely vainglorious. Thick-skulled manhood, more so than womanhood, will die for its ego and bring us down too.
The governor, who was on a recent Newsweek cover with an image of the Earth balanced on his finger, said at the Georgetown University conference in reference to earlier skepticism about him from environmentalists: “Here we are now, 3½ years later, and I’m on the cover of Newsweek as one of the big environmentalists. Only in America.” Is that the Republican governor’s ego flexing its muscles? The law he signed, for which he’s now brandishing his environmental credentials, aims to cut California’s greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020. He deserves credit for signing the law, yet he did so only after Democrats in the Legislature exerted considerable pressure on him.
In that same Newsweek report, James McCarthy, a Harvard oceanographer who studies how the climate crisis affects marine life, is quoted saying earlier to the Associated Press that “the worst stuff [about global warming] is not going to happen . . . because we’re not that stupid.”
Following that remark, McCarthy was besieged with e-mails from annoyed colleagues who adamantly assured him that we are, indeed, remarkably stupid.
That’s one of the ego’s talking points: Hey, we’re not stupid. If there was anything to worry about, we would, of course, be doing something about it.
As false pride incorporated, egotism is itself stupid. It has enabled the fallacy of our dominion and our transcendence over Nature to become civilization’s woeful paradigm. Egotism was a cause of ecological crisis, and its deactivation will facilitate the planet’s healthy longevity.