11. The Single Fallacy Underlying Denial of Environmental Facts

Let’s begin with a quote from Laudato Si, the 2015 encyclical released by Pope Francis:

“As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

It’s a common theme on TV news that this or that politician or political party or talking head refuses to accept the fact of climate change or other potentially threatening environmental issues. For scientists and those who understand science, nothing is more frustrating than people in positions of power refusing to recognize facts. We often accuse the deniers of being intentionally stupid or kowtowing to the “slowest common denominator”, otherwise known as the uneducated voting masses. But that is actually dismissive of the real problem….and there is really only one basic problem and it’s a philosophical one.

Any person who refuses to acknowledge the long-term consequences of environmental degradation, of climate change, of the poisoning of the world with fossil fuels, of the dead end path of using synthetic pesticides, of the loss of biological diversity, these people possess a philosophical outlook that prevents them from seeing certain realities. Their viewpoint is based on a single concept that is absolutely central to their way of thinking. It is a concept that determines how and why they react to literally all news about the environment in the way they do. Their underlying philosophical worldview is this: We do not live in a world of limits.

If one believes that statement, then nothing the doom and gloom environmentalists say has any meaning. None of the alarmist scientific reports have any relevance to how we plan for the future. If the world is not limited, there is no shortage of fuel, of water, of energy, of air, of resources. Technological advances will solve any short-term issues we encounter. We can continue with business as usual as long as we care to.

This philosophy is compounded by religious beliefs, specifically those of some Protestant Christians and their very narrow reading of the Bible. The particular chosen viewpoint is that all of the resources on Earth are given to mankind for our use and we have the right to use them as we please. Between having a limitless supply of resources and the unrestricted use of them, there is little or nothing that can be said to turn a denier into a believer.

In a world of limits, we have a responsibility to use resources wisely. We do not have the right to abuse, overuse, deplete, waste, damage, or destroy resources, or behave in a manner that does not respect nature and its inherent limitations. In a limited world, there is such a thing as overpopulation. In a limited world, wanton use of resources is essentially a crime, as is the despoiling of those resource for others. In a limited world, it is not possible for the economy to have 4% growth every single year.

The economic/political conservative of today cannot recognize environmental limits. The Koch Brothers, the Monsantos, the Exxon-Mobils, the WalMarts of the world (to name but a very few) cannot accept that there can possibly be limits to the world. The wealth of these individuals and corporations was and is based on an expanding economy with never ending growth and consumption. The inordinate wealth of the United States is based on a rate of individual consumption that is five times higher than the rest of the world. Although the US represents less than 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s resources.

The single reason underlying the unwillingness to believe in limits is this: acceptance of the concept of a limited world means that the economic model of the United States is wrong. If that is the case, then any economic model that is predicated on perpetual annual growth is wrong. It means the accepted model of corporate structure in America is wrong. It means that the American way of life is not sustainable and is therefore, well, unethical. It means that everything a rabid proponent of American economic values believes in should be questioned.

But denying the concept means we think we are always on the right track and we never have to change our tactics.

While many would point at the Republican Party and say that the Limitless Earth is a fundamental principle, let us acknowledge that the Democratic Party behaves in almost exactly the same way. Although many individual politicians may pay lip-service to the concept of limitations, if we look closely at essentially everything coming out of the US Congress, we can clearly see that such a belief is not part of our working government’s mentality.

The Earth and its resources are finite. This is where denial begins. If that concept is not accepted as the most basic premise of our personal and cultural philosophy, then nothing we do in any other sense has any meaning. No pro-environment action, no change to energy or farming or resource policy has any meaning at all if that statement is not accepted as the starting point for all discussions.

If each of us is able to ask an elected official just one question, make it this one: Do you believe that the resources of the Earth are finite and limited? It is a yes or no question. Any waffling is a ‘no’. The answer you receive will tell you exactly the sort of worldview your politician has and it will tell you whether or not you can expect anything to change as long as that politician is in office.