How do we get around climate-change denialism that’s linked to religious conviction?
Hardcore denialism is one of a constellation of attitudes orbiting a single premise: that a Christian God decreed white male heterosexual dominion.
It’s a premise as old as Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. God created Adam in the image of himself, and only afterwards created Eve to be his “helpmeet.” He then instructed Adam to take dominion over the earth and all that was upon it.
In a powerful, circular dynamic, that premise of white male dominion has been ratified by events. White men have dominated the world for centuries. Like all men, they were unburdened by childbearing through the evolutionary accident of dual-sexed procreation. While that obliged them to work outside the home to ensure family and community survival, it also freed them to roam and explore.
One of their most history-altering discoveries was the magic of fossil fuels. What are oil and coal but gifts from God earned through the ingenuity, hard work, and daring of white men to fulfill the dominion He decreed in Genesis?
Fossil fuels amplified the ability of white men to dominate by making great machines possible, machines that annihilated time, distance, and labor. They delivered much more good than bad to every Westerner of either gender or any race.
Wait: didn’t fossil fuels also give us the ability to annihilate people in mechanized war? Didn’t they give us pollution? Yes, but I’ll bet none of us—men or women, white or otherwise—would make the following bargain: I will give up the fruits of fossil fuels in exchange for the cessation of those evils.
In fact, we are manifestly not making that bargain.
So powerful was this good—transportation opening up new farmland, technology providing more abundant food, better shelter, more comfort, electricity, and medicine—that it didn’t look like dominion at all. It simply became The Way Things Are. And The Way Things Are—the Status Quo—always enjoys primacy in human psychology. We are wired for social stability, even when the circumstances that gave rise to The Way Things Are completely invert, as they have now. Fossil fuels are no longer an unalloyed good. They’re about to wreak tremendous, everlasting damage on all of humanity.
Over the past 200 years, some cracks appeared in the notion of divinely-ordained white male dominion, and we’ve made some changes. Property ownership is no longer limited to white men; women can vote; segregation is illegal; abortion is legal (at least for now); and the environment is protected to some extent.
Yet the core notion of divinely-decreed white male heterosexual dominance remains. It’s deeply embedded by centuries of reinforcement, and so subconscious as to be psychologically ambient. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a cultural tradition that’s part of our makeup, a meme as immutable as any gene.
Throwing off the last and strongest vestige of our collective, centuries-old internalization of the myth of Genesis is asking a lot. But that’s the nut we have to crack if we’re to have any hope of averting a climate disaster. We’ve made that shift before. We no longer live at the center of the universe on an earth created in seven days. Can society move beyond dominion and denial before the climate tips?