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Unraveling the Personal and Political: Dr. Kenneth Worthy on climate change, denial, and collapse

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In 2017, Martin Lukacs published “Neoliberalism Has Conned Us into Fighting Climate Change as Individuals,” critiquing the popular notion that global crises can be addressed at the personal level. He argued that individual changes in consumption habits are ineffective, and draw focus away from more compelling means of mitigation, which require collective action and systemic political change. Over the past few years, the “personal vs. political” conversation has ricocheted throughout environmental communities and remains a point of discussion among scholars and activists alike.

In a recent article, I dipped my toes into this debate. This time, I took a plunge.

Dr. Kenneth Worthy didn’t always study environmental philosophy. Believe it or not, before he began lecturing at UC Berkeley, he worked as a software engineer. His work was enjoyable and lucrative, but he didn’t find it fulfilling. After nine years, he took some time off and decided to engage in what he found most meaningful: environmental philosophy and cultural studies. Dr. Worthy is striving to understand why humans are so destructive towards the environment—he believes these fields are the best way of approaching environmental issues, noting that global climate crises are “the greatest threat to human life” and are “so pervasive they have to be related to something fundamental about the culture.”

A few weeks ago, I dropped by Dr. Worthy’s office hours to pick his brain on the “personal vs. political” debate, and in the ensuing twenty minutes, he provided thoughtful insights on everything from systemic denial to the collapse of civilization as we know it. I started by trying to understand why he decided to study the environment.

Most of the time, the rectification of environmental issues seems to have much less direct and tangible benefits to humanity than, say, addressing food security or income inequality. How did you decide environmental issues are the greatest threat to human life?

A number of reasons. It is true that the benefits may seem indirect and intangible, but as I discovered in my research, that’s exactly the source of the problem. Not only do the benefits of being more environmentally friendly in our everyday life, work choices, or industrial choices seem to be abstract and disconnected from everyday life, but we are in general disconnected from our everyday lives. You buy something and you get the benefits of that purchase, but the environmental and social harms go elsewhere… and because those harms and benefits are so disconnected from us we tend to be more destructive in our choices.

But the second part of the answer is that as soon as you start thinking into environmental problems you realize that they’re all social justice problems as well, because environmental harms and benefits disproportionately affect other people. The people most disconnected from them are the most wealthy people, even though they are also affected. But it’s politically, economically marginal populations that have the greatest risk of global climate change, flooding, and droughts. So you can’t really separate these things. And the same kind of capitalistic egocentric economics that lead to disadvantaged populations, poor people, and homeless people are the same exact ones that lead to exploitations of nature in the long term and in the short term as well.

Reflecting on Martin Lukacs’ article, it does seem like capitalism is set up in a way that makes it difficult to live sustainably unless you have the time and money to invest in understanding environmental issues and taking educated action. So where does that responsibility fall? If someone has the wherewithal to do so, is there a moral imperative to make attempts to reduce one’s carbon footprint?

That’s a recurrent question in all of our thinking about environmental action, and it’s a complex answer. I completely agree with the economic analysis that the neoliberal agenda is to focus on individual action, changing things in your personal life. I also agree that it can distract you from doing bigger kinds of change, political change, and societal and cultural change, but it’s problematic, the article you just cited and others, to think that these two are completely separate, and not to problematize how they affect one another.

For example, if you eat less meat to try to mitigate global climate change in your personal life, you are creating an impact… meat production is down as I understand it in the United States… but [that decision might] also affect your political life. You could take it upon yourself to [do more than] make different consumption choices, because your political life is also part of your personal life. So the difference between personal action and political action may be a false distinction.

But what if you’re making political choices that aren’t reinforced by your consumption choices? What does that do to you personally, psychologically, to have that contradiction in your life? And how does it open you up to people who oppose both kinds of moves as a hypocrite? So the relationship between those areas of change is complex, needs more thought, and enters the psychological realm… we have enough information and hard science to know to act, but we don’t have enough of it to know how. We need environmental psychology and some other fields to get us to actually do it.

So it’s clear that we need to do something, but there seems to be a significant portion of the population that either doesn’t care or is otherwise comfortable in complacency. Others deny this global crisis in the first place. How can we address that as an environmental community? Does that need to be a change in the way we communicate?

“It’s a great question and probably the key question. Most people don’t want to see nature destroyed, most people don’t want to see a loss of species. They don’t want to see cities flooded and human civilization possibly collapsing. And so there are a lot of responses to that. One is denial. There are many forms of denial, one is epistemic denial which is pedaled by Fox News and some other right-wing organizations.”

Epistemic denial occurs when ways of knowing are discounted or disqualified, often as a means of positioning one’s identity as expert and another’s identity as illegitimate or unworthy. When a belief becomes fundamental to someone’s identity, evidence to the contrary is immediately dismissed, despite its presentation or validity. This is something we can easily observe in climate change doubters and deniers like Tucker Carlson and James Inhofe. At this point, epistemic climate denial has gone far beyond individual cognitive dissonance; it’s strategically ingrained in conservative rhetoric and is propagated through the media, legislature, and pseudo-academia.

This form of denial creates a key problem:

It’s pretty clear [climate change] is a massive global issue that needs cooperation among nations and regulation of the industry, but when people come into politics with the assumption that regulation is bad, they aren’t going to do well with big problems like global climate change. They’ll have the incentive to deny. That’s why Fox News does that, and why Republican politicians have been called by Noam Chomsky “the most dangerous organization in the history of humanity” — because of inaction and denial of global climate change.”

But there’s also a more personal form of denial that we all have experience with:

“[Denial] also has a psychological component in which people who even accept the science deny it in the sense of not being able to access their own behavioral responses and have participation with it. That comes from, as my colleague Renee Lertzman analyzes, a psychological mechanism that makes us want to avoid this whole area because it’s so scary.

So there’s strategic denial and then there’s denial as a psychological response to the severity of the problem… how do you deal with those two things? It’s a very hard problem, and something I think about all the time… there are some data on this from the Climate Psychology Alliance and some other organizations. And there are some basic scientific and communication techniques that we can all learn and that I’m going to be teaching in my courses.”

Because of organizations like Fox News, among other right-wing organizations, [climate change deniers] have not been exposed to the science accurately. Rather, it has been withheld from them actively. There’s a lot of strategic and psychological and other forms of denial going on. Renee Lertzman says it’s not apathy, it’s basically people withdrawing and feeling overwhelmed.

Let’s assume we manage to convince the majority of Americans that climate change is real and needs to be addressed. Will changes in consumption habits really be able to achieve the carbon emissions reduction that we need?

I disagree with anyone who says it has to be just political action or just consumer choices. Consumer choices, market-based strategies, have often changed industries, so it is unfortunate when the political organizations don’t appear, and they aren’t. I mean, they have nationally and globally, but at Cal, we have a vacuum. There should be a massive student movement like there was with the Free Speech Movement… it’s really relevant because younger people have the most at stake, and there are scenarios being developed that include widespread global societal collapse, the one estimating that it’s sure to happen within a decade. That’s one scholar’s analysis. Others saying a few decades, others centuries… and we see the origins of it. We see the beginnings of collapse already. Nations worldwide are embracing strong men. That’s historically what people do when they’re afraid. They embrace the authoritarian leader. So if you see the origins of it now, possibly, and you get all these bad messages, and in 8 years it really starts accelerating, how are you going to feel about what you were doing today? What if most people your age now aren’t alive in 15 years from now?  

That’s just scary as hell… why aren’t we up in arms? Why aren’t students shutting down the University or mobilizing en masse and going to Sacramento and demanding greater action, you know? Whatever they have to do to get our huge ocean liner of politics and bureaucracy to turn as fast as it can to another type of society and economy that is not based on fossil fuels. So we need political action here at Cal and elsewhere.

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Whether or not one believes in the severity that Dr. Worthy describes, I think his comments provide a useful framework for addressing the debate between individual action and collectivization. It’s not a black-and-white issue; if someone wants to do their part in successfully addressing climate change, they must become a more conscious and pragmatic consumer, while translating their own change into the political sphere when possible. Both sides of the equation are crucial, and neither are mutually exclusive.

It is equally important to address the various forms of denial that are slowing our societal response to climate change. This must also be done at both the personal and political levels. We can work to convey the urgency of these global threats to friends, family, colleagues, and peers, while also acknowledging that climate change deniers aren’t stupid. There are countless institutions that disgorge steadfast denial, and this rhetorical arena is at least partially responsible for the lingering doubts in so many Americans. Assuming deniers are unintelligent or willfully ignorant is not an effective means of understanding nor convincing them; we must recognize that, like everyone, they are products of their environment and seek to delegitimize and the higher-level institutions that are ultimately responsible.

As our conversation drew to a close, one comment struck me:

“Having hope, not having hope, when collapse is going to happen — all of those things are irrelevant. The only relevant thing is to think about whether you are doing the right thing right now. Are you doing the right thing?”

We are just as much what we consume as we are how we exercise our power — so why not lend consideration to both?

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