The Perfect Clarity of True Belief

Recently, I posted an essay in this space on the very topical issue of climate change, a subject I happen to care about, and on which I have strong opinions. I did this with some minor reluctance because the subject is a hot-button issue, and my opinion, though well-reasoned, is not exactly mainstream. It was at least theoretically possible that by stating this opinion publicly I might offend somebody and lose their business.

Like a good idealist, though, I ultimately decided that it was more important to speak freely than to play it safe. Besides, I reasoned, anyone thin-skinned enough to react unfavorably was probably not someone I would want to have as a customer anyway.

Sure enough, I received a comment a couple of days ago from Steve, who decided after reading my post that he would not be requiring our services after all.

Now stop for a moment to consider the implications. I am a computer guy. I fix laptops and desktops when they break. What difference does it make what I think about global warming? Shouldn’t a potential customer be more concerned with, perhaps, my competence, professionalism, and integrity?

Choosing NOT to do business with me because I have a contrary opinion on this subject is like choosing not to hire an accountant or contractor because he belongs to a different political party. Which ought to be ridiculous, but may, I suspect, actually be sadly common in this polarized and hypersensitive era.

It’s also a lot like choosing not to do business with someone because you don’t approve of that person’s religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Steve probably did not intend it, but those two little lines speak volumes about he who wrote them. To begin with, note the uppercase, emphatic “my” of the first line, which suggests a person who thinks rather highly of himself. The sentence fairly seethes with self-importance. We get a further glimpse into the mind of Steve with the second line, which reveals a didactic, impatient quality, a nagging chronic exasperation with the laggards and simpletons–the preferred term is “deniers”–who somehow fail to perceive what Steve clearly sees as a blindingly obvious, imminent threat.

Steve’s use of the word “crisis” is illuminating as well. An overused term if ever there was one, our society is perpetually awash in crises, thanks to a mass media given to waxing apocalyptic about every little glitch and kerfuffle. And Steve has completely bought into it. And so with two little lines, Steve has created a profile of himself. You very much get the sense of a judgmental, inflexible purist resolutely convinced of his own rightness. Steve is a true believer.

Predictably, Steve missed by a good mile two key points of the essay, which were: (1) The threat posed by global warming is greatly exaggerated. It is exaggerated by a consortium of interested parties, well-meaning but ill-informed Greens, and a lazy, credulous media eager for ratings. This is my opinion only in that I say “greatly” exaggerated. Otherwise it is basically indisputable. (2) There is no viable operative plan for replacing the energy currently supplied by fossil fuels, which meet the vast majority of world demand. This is most definitely not just my opinion. It is a fact, and you cannot blithely wave it away. But this hardly mattered to Steve, who reflexively quoted word for word from the alarmist playbook, thinking it would put me in my place.

This is not to say that everything is alright. It isn’t. We can and should take better care of our home planet. The human footprint is substantial and growing daily, and the strain is starting to show. But to claim that the Earth is facing an “existential crisis” is hysterically overblown, historically ignorant, and scientifically unsupported.

You don’t have to be an especially perceptive person to recognize that the Earth is an extraordinarily complex and dynamic thing, and that our grasp of its workings is very incomplete. Neither do you have to be a genius to understand that the future has a way of turning out quite differently than anyone expects. But the Steves of the world are complete strangers to such uncertainty, because they know with the clarity born of absolute faith exactly how things are going to be, and won’t hesitate to set you straight if you happen to think differently.

If I had to guess, I would wager that Steve spends a lot of time cruising the Web, visiting the usual slanted sites, feeding his confirmation bias. This is part of the problem. The Internet, and for that matter the entire world, is awash in sensational content, and the constant drumbeat of alarming rhetoric and images would rattle anyone’s cage. You cannot help but become agitated and fearful, imagining the worst. This is similar to the way in which nonstop saturation coverage of crime in the mainstream media has inculcated a siege mentality in the public, with everyone convinced that we are surrounded by perpetual danger. When in fact the crime rate is lower than at any time in fifty-plus years, and we are safer, statistically speaking, than we have ever been.

And there, as they say, is the rub. Unplug from the media noise machine for even a few precious hours and you will immediately find yourself thinking and feeling differently. I recently had the good fortune to pass some time in a remote and quiet place with two agreeable companions. For several days, there was no television, no radio, no computer, no clocks. Time was spent walking, talking, socializing, and paying attention to small things: the sound of the wind, the play of light upon dappled waters, the chirrup of birdsong, the gradual reemergence of life from the hiatus of winter. Freed of constant, frantic, synthetic stimulation, time no longer raced by. It is at such moments that you begin to realize, if you are receptive to it, that in reality the pendulum of life swings very slowly, driven not by the news cycle, but by the rhythm of seasons. By this frame of reference centuries may pass without note, and a human life is but a flash. In this quiet space you detect no ominous portent, and you hear no menace in the wind. There is only the faint background hum of the Earth, its wavelength long and steady, its signal always bearing the same message: I forever abide.

Following Steve’s digital footprint, I determined that he is, among other things, the current President of an organization devoted to “saving” a certain well-known Austin waterway. Noble work to be sure, and Steve deserves our thanks for caring enough to get involved. But this explained a lot. Steve is a Social Justice Warrior.

Generally speaking, social justice warriors are not a happy lot. They go about their work with grim determination, driven by a sense of perpetual outrage, a belief that things have gone horribly wrong, and a certitude that only they have the power to make it right. You witness this among  climate-change activists, who see a planet in mortal danger, begging for relief from her heedless human masters. Gaia needs us! This impulse to Do Something seems at first glance like a positive thing, but in reality it springs from an unhealthily inflated sense of self-importance. Blinded by delusions of omnipotence, the activist never perceives the staggering irony of the flea believing that it controls the fate of the elephant.

In the end, Steve’s comment illustrates to perfection another key point of my essay, which is that global warming activists trend unreasonable and do not tolerate dissent. They aren’t interested in discussing the issue outside the echo chamber. In their minds it is settled, period, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot, a dupe, or a threat, and must be silenced. And like all true believers, they demand absolute ideological purity, not just among their own, but among anyone with whom they might have contact, as though merely being in the presence of contrary opinions would be contaminating.

This is not lucid thinking. It is the reasoning of zealots, and has much in common with the fanatic, absolutist mindset that propels ISIS today, motivated Shining Path twenty years ago, inspired the Khmer Rouge twenty years before that, and so on, as far back into history as you care to go. The Inquisition, that reign of terror lasting the better part of four centuries, was the brainchild of the truest of true believers. Blissfully unencumbered by doubt, conscience spotlessly clean with the certainty that God was on their side, a dozen successive generations of Inquisitors imprisoned, tortured, and put to death untold thousands in a never-ending holy quest for absolute doctrinal conformity.

No doubt Steve would balk at being lumped in with such company. We happen to be in the right, you can imagine him saying.

Of course that’s what they all say.

But seriously, Steve. The next time you brand someone a “denier,” consider that maybe what you really mean to say is “heretic.”