Climate Change Denial

September 29, 2010

Collapse Porn?

George Marshall @ 3:30 pm

A movie that is now being launched in the UK called Collapse shows Michael Ruppert chainsmoking his way through visions of social and economic disaster. It is symptomic of the utterly self defeating way that peak oil  and climate change are typically communicated

Ruppert is a media generated phenomenon who brings together a cluster of conspiracy theories under one house brand. His endlessly promoted back story- as the LAPD cop who faced dismissal for revealing the CIA supply of drugs- is the stuff of a hundred good-cop movies . His highest profile accusation, that Dick Cheney personally ordered the 9-11 attacks, is downright nuts.  It is directly descended from the  conspiracy theories that the CIA ordered the shooting of J F and Bobby Kennedy. No big surprise- Ruppert promotes these myths too.

But never mind Ruppert, what is interesting for the Climate Denial blog is the appearance of this film at this time and the way that it presents its case. I have not yet had a chance to see the entire film though have seen long extracts. Here is the trailer – judge for yourself.

I have several observations on this film that relate directly to climate change and the way that these issues are communicated.

The first is that this is not a minor film. The director, Chris Smith has made several excellent progressive documentaries including The Yes Men. Collapse received positive reviews from across the mainstream US media and has a powerful afterlife in the blogosphere and campaign networks.

The second is that it does not speak directly about climate change- its concern is peak oil. Both issues are conflated in the mind of many activists and networks (the Transition Movement most notably). The public as a whole sees them as part of the same world view.

In terms of the documentary form we are clearly in the footsteps of Al Gore who established the box office potential of a feature length lecture by a charismatic (older man) presenter. What is interesting is the way that footage of Ruppert is interwoven with a rolling news format of economic and social collapse. Recent documentaries and disaster movies now frequently use  a collage of rapidly edited random footage taken out of context. This slick style aestheticises  images of destruction and objectifies the suffering of the people who appear, all too briefly, as bodies being blown up or swept away.

Four years ago an excellent report by the Institute of Public Policy Research identified alarmism in words and images as one of the dominant narratives about climate change. Gill Ereaut wrote:

The sensationalism of alarmism and its connection with the ultimate unreality of the movies also serve to create a sense of distance from the issue. What is more, in this ‘unreal’ and awesome form, alarmism might even become secretly thrilling – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’ rather than a constructive message. Alarmism potentially positions climate change as yet another apocalyptic construction that is perhaps a figment of our cultural imaginations. All of this serves to undermine the ability of this discourse

By this analysis ‘Collapse’ is an 82 minute long apocalypse pornfest that further reinforces the association between the visual aesthetics of disaster and concerns about resource shortages, peak oil, and, by association, climate change.

In terms of public motivation this is very bad news. Repeated research has shown that apocalyptic language and images create a sense of powerlessness and actively undermine peoples’ capacity to act.  They can also directly feed a range of associated denial strategies including a short term hedonism and nihilistic cynicism that can be very appealing to young people.

Increasingly- as we are seeing with the political polarisation in the US and Australia- people are not weighing up climate change or other resource issues on the strength of the solid evidence but are choosing between competing worldviews that deliver a package of lifestyle, political and ethical decisions.

On the one side people are presented with a cornucopialist future of endless expansion, built on technical ingenuity and personal freedom. This has now become absorbed into a wider right wing narrative of globalisation, corporatism, minimal government and free markets.

On the other side the apocalyptists promote a future of decline, conflict, corruption, personal guilt, and collapse.  This worldview has become deeply associated in the public mind with climate change and peak oil and this movie reinforces it in every way.

So if Ruppert is right he is following the worst possible strategy for raising concern about Peak Oil. By emphasising and reinforcing the existing worldview divides he is following a script that could have been written for him by those  opposing action.

That is if he is right. But I think he is wrong. I think that capitalism is, for all the reasons that its defenders use, far more resilient than most apocalyptists believe and has repeatedly shown its capacity to postpone the impacts of resource shortages. What is more, there is overwhelming evidence that even when people do face problems they are far more likely to work together and seek collective solutions than to panic and riot. The images in this film of looting and rioting are rooted in a very American fear of the underclass.

This does not mean that I do not think that we are running into severe problems. There is no doubt that our resource use is insanely short sighted and we are already seeing the first shortages. However I do not agree with the timeline of this film or the wider peak oil community.

And the timeline is everything. The boy who cried wolf was not wrong about the wolves- in fact his flock was eaten by the wolf in the end. But he was wrong about the timeline and  he exhausted the capacity of the nearby villagers to listen or trust his judgment.

So every time a film like this comes out and the world does not collapse- as indeed it will not- great harm is done to our interests. In the false dichotomy of competing worldviews, people’s support for the dominant worldview will have been reinforced and future attempts to raise concern will have been damaged.The real issues (climate change, resources depletion,food scarcity) become conflated in peoples minds with  the false panics like Y2K which made similar predictions about the collapse of law and order.

Of all resources, the most precious is the willingness of people to listen and change. This too is finite and only changes between generations. We only get one shot at this and we’re really blowing it.

A footnote

Caspar Henderson, who writes the Grains of Sand blog, just pointed me to the recent book State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook. It quotes a personal ad in the Ecologist from March 1974 from a young man seeking a girlfriend to “share the remaining years of industrial civilisation” and experience the “end catastrophe”. Teddy Goldsmith, founder of the Ecologist, had just published the bestselling A Blueprint for Survival two years later, prophesying that food and essential minerals would run out within a few decades and “the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet” would occur “within the lifetimes of our children”. Source..] Teddy Goldsmith died two years ago and, as far as I am aware, his many children are all fit and well. His book “5000 days to save the planet” is sitting on a shelf behind me . It was published in October 1990, over 7,000 days ago.

11 Responses to “Collapse Porn?”

  1. Phil Korbel says:

    George – a wise post – good to have you back!

  2. Johan says:

    Yeah! Civilizations have never collapsed, except every civilization prior to the one we’re living in.

    TIP: Before you criticize a movie, you should watch it first.

    Most of the solutions capitalism can offer are predicated on abundant energy resources, which we don’t have anymore.

    Read the 2005 report on peak oil prepared for the US Energy Department by Robert Hirsch (SAIC), the Bundeswehr (German military) report on peak oil, the Joint Operating Environment 2010 report by USJFCOM (Joint Forces Command), the report on peak oil by the Australia Institute, the report from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, the report on peak oil by Lloyds of London and Chatham House. Frickin’ read something!

    Ruppert may have presented the peak oil issue in wrong way. But you are far more dangerous than him in that you take a serious issue like declining energy resources, which you clearly know nothing about, and make a faith based argument that “capitalism will solve it”, and offer no evidence to support that claim.

    Luckly you have very few readers. Idiot.

  3. Asteroid Miner says:

    Why would anybody believe a journalist? Or any human? You are supposed to understand science for yourself. You are supposed to believe scientific experiments that you do yourself. Our educational system is obsolete and geared to create employees for an 18th century world. The schools need to be air conditioned so that school can be all year. The extra time should be devoted to physics, chemistry, biology and math. Journalists are notoriously unable to tell the truth. Journalism and all students students should be required to take the engineering and science core curriculum.

    Nature isn’t just the final authority on truth, Nature is the Only authority. There are zero human authorities. Scientists do not vote on what is the truth. There is only one vote and Nature owns it. We find out what Nature’s vote is by doing Scientific [public and replicable] experiments. Scientific [public and replicable] experiments are the only source of truth. [To be public, it has to be visible to other people in the room. What goes on inside one person's head isn't public unless it can be seen on an X-ray or with another instrument.]
    Science is a simple faith in Scientific experiments and a simple absolute lack of faith in everything else. Reference: “Science and Immortality” by Charles B. Paul 1980 University of California Press. In this book on the Eloges of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1699-1791) page 99 says: “Science is not so much a natural as a moral philosophy”. [That means drylabbing [fudging data] will get you fired.]
    Page 106 says: “Nature isn’t just the final authority, Nature is the Only authority.”

    In the book: “Revolutionary Wealth” by Alvin & Heidi Toffler 2006 Chapter 19, FILTERING TRUTH, page 123 lists six commonly used filters people use to find the “truth”. They are:
    1. Consensus
    2. Consistency
    3. Authority
    4. Mystical revelation or religion [another name for several forms of mental illness]
    5. Durability
    6. Science

    As the Tofflers say: “Science is different from all the other truth-test criteria. It is the only one that itself depends on rigorous testing.” They go on to say: “In the time of Galileo . . . the most effective method of discovery was itself discovered.” [Namely Science.] The Tofflers also say that: “The invention of scientific method was the gift to humanity of a new truth filter or test, a powerful meta-tool for probing the unknown and—it turned out—for spurring technological change and economic progress.” All of the difference in the way we live now compared to the way people lived and died 500 years ago is due to Science. The other truth filters have contributed misery, confusion, war, fanaticism, persecution, terrorism, inquisitions, suicide bombings, false imprisonments, obesity, diabetes and other atrocities.

  4. Martin Larner says:

    The moment the author uses the intellectually bankrupt phrase “Conspiracy Theory” along with his smear-attack approach on Mike Ruppert I realised that he has no integrity or honesty whatsoever. A dreadful piece of writing, with distortions and misrepresentations.

    By the way, the fact that the CIA is involved in drug-trafficking is well documented by Congress, as was their involvement in JFK’s murder, as well as the fact that Dick Cheney scheduled the multiple wargames occurring on 9/11 – the only claim Ruppert actually made.

    Furthermore, the world as we know it (industrial civilisation) is collapsing. No-one is claiming this will happen overnight, but it will happen in a few short years and it is now too late to prevent it or for everyone to prepare. That is what the film stands for. What does this rubbish blog stand for?

  5. Innadiated says:

    ” I have not yet had a chance to see the entire film though have seen long extracts.”

    “I have several observations on this film that relate directly to climate change and the way that these issues are communicated.”

    You mean on the “long extracts” you watched? or are they based entirely on the trailer? No mention of the end 30minutes I noticed where Ruppert describes action any person can take now to prepare? No mention of how Saudi Arabia is off shore drilling? No mention of how countries world-wide ae broke? I guess it’s hard to mention facts about a situation you won’t even watch a 2hour movie about.

  6. jimmy says:

    Climate change is a cosmic event, not man made. Nasa have confirmed it.

    Crude oil is declining, hence the wars, bailouts, austerity. Governments/rulers cannot stop it,they are just elements of complex societies that emerge when there is an energy surplus. As energy dissipates, so will they. No elite survives energy contraction, because their very existence is only due to a surplus, and people only tolerate it becasue their bellies are full. Maya, anasazi, Rome, the temples always get burned.

    Replace crude oil with hemp oil, now, and you may have a chance. We do have a choice, but our ignorance has angered the gods, and our choices will get taken away.

  7. Derek Wall says:

    Agree with you on this, George.

    We do need to publicise the good work of Elinor Ostrom and indigenous organisations like Aidesep who are fighting climate change in a calm, effective and inspiring way.

  8. Sy says:

    Interesting post…

    Climate Change activists are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it come to connecting people’s psychological outlook with the science.

    Try to dramatise things or look at worst case scenarios and then they are branded alarmists. Communicate the facts in a calm, unempathic way while maintaining the complexity of the issues and you lose 95% of people who don’t understand what you say and don’t connect psychologically with the way you’re communicating.

    Somewhere in between the two there’s a balancing point where you are intellectually and affectively effectively communicating with people while accurately presenting the evolving state of knowledge. But that balance isn’t an easy thing to find.

  9. Rachel says:

    Sy, thanks for your wise words.
    We are indeed in an impossible position.
    I work in energy efficiency and am constantly struck by what seems to me to be the impossibility of transforming our modern lifestyles to something sustainable. I just don’t see how it can be done, especially at the rate at which we, humanity, are evolving.
    What motivates people is money, more than anything else, but there has to be an emotional spark too. Personally, I am motivated when I see wildlife films and new evidence of climate change from the scientific community. But then I’m a well educated westerner with a compfortable lifestyle. I have all my needs met. I’m not a poor subsistence farmer struggling to survive! We all have to understand things through the prism of our own minds.

  10. Wit's End says:

    “His book “5000 days to save the planet” is sitting on a shelf behind me . It was published in October 1990, over 7,000 days ago.”

    He is still correct, because in order to avert catastrophic climate change, we would have had to switch to clean energy quite some time ago. The heat is in the pipeline now and there is no turning back the clock. We have instigated mass extinctions that will take 100,000 to recoup to the level of biodiversity this glorious Earth possessed before we started, just as fast a humanly possible, to destroy and consume.

    Well before the worst effects – violent weather and rising seas – become incontrovertible evidence even to the most devoted deniers – the ecosystem will collapse and food shortages will cause starvation, millions of refugees, and wars if anybody has the energy to wage them.

    The inexorably rising levels of background tropospheric ozone are reaching concentrations that are intolerable to vegetation. According to a recent NASA satellite survey, the US soybean yield to be diminished by $2Billion annually. That isn’t even counting the damage to other crops – or indigenous forests, or landscaped property, that suffer from prolonged, cumulative exposure.

    Oh, ozone isn’t just toxic to plants. It is well established that ozone causes cancer, emphysema, asthma, and aggravates respiratory infections and allergies. Does anybody not know at least one person in their family or inner circle of friends who suffers from at least one of these problems?

    Society has simply decided to accept a certain amount of impacts on the health of people, animals, and plants in order to maintain a fuel-addicted lifestyle. The problem is, it can’t last. We are exhausting the ability of the biosphere to ward off the pollution that we are creating, and it is in the early stages of total collapse. It will come much more suddenly than most people can dream of, because they’re not paying attention to the obvious symptoms. Like dying trees.

    A post with links that support these assertions here, also at the top of the blog, a page with links to published scientific research:

    http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2010/11/billion-year-old-carbon-caught-in_08.html

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