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Analyze The Collapse of Western Civilization through psychology lens #draft 1

Raaaachel Wang's picture


While feeling heavy and a little desperate after reading this book, I keep thinking what caused the tragedy of human beings. As the question raised by the author, “How did these wealthy nations—rich in the resources that would have enabled and orderly transition to a zero-net-carbon infrastructure—justify the deadly expansion of fossil fuel production?” (p.22), the most confusing part in this tragedy is, in my view, when we clearly see the consequence of it and actually have the ability to stop this tragedy, why we still keep doing harm to the earth?

In the class, we mainly discussed this based on the social factors, like the government and the propaganda. Surely it is a very complicated topic, analyzing it in a psychological way may help us understand this confusing phenomenon. Kathryn Schulz, in her book Being Wrong, tried to explain why sometimes people refuse to accept the facts and hold their wrong beliefs stead.  It may explain why people don’t take action despite of all the solid evidence that the global warming is happening.

In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz introduced the concept of three assumptions, which people may subconsciously make when refuseing others’ belief. The first assumption is called the Ignorance Assumption, which states a phenomenon that “When other people reject our beliefs, we think they lack good information. When we reject their beliefs, we think we possess good judgement.“

The illusion of “Political and economic leaders” and “climate scientists and ‘environmentalists’” that they “possess good judgement” made them fail to realize the problems of “promoting shale gas”.  Such an illusion made them stead hold the belief that “promoting shale gas was an environmentally and ethically sound approach”. However, such a belief actually “neglected several factors“, such as escaped emission which accelerated the warming, and some neglected facts that led to wrong assumptions. (p.23)

And their ignorance of those important facts just caused “fossil fuel production escalated, green-house gas emissions increased, and climate disruption accelerated” (p.24), made the problem of global warming even worse.

Another assumption people may make when deny other’s idea is the Evil assumption. According to Kathryn Schulz, people tend to think that those who hold different attitudes may have some hidden, evil intentions.  And this theory may explain the phenomenon that some people refuse to believe the serious consequences global warming will bring to us in two levels.

The first level is that some people made the Evil assumption of those who attempt to stop the global warming. Need to mention that, here, “evil” is not necessarily explained as guilty or wicked, but having some problematic reasoning or hidden intention that is not in accord with the facial intention. “While they were making some headway, a large part of Western society was rejecting that knowledge in favor of an empirically inadequate yet powerful ideological system. Even at the time, some recognized this system as a quasi-religious faith, hence the level market fundamentalism.” Some people question the credibility of the scientists, and some even question their intention of promoting the system to “take steps to avert disasters”. (p.37)

And the second is, the “powerful industries comprising fossil fuel producers, industries that served energy companies, manufactures whose products relied on inexpensive energy, financial institutions that serviced their capital demands, and advertising, public relations, and marketing firms who promoted their products”(p.36-37), take use of the evil assumption of the public to “maintain the use of fossil fuels”, in order to fulfill their own “self-interest”(p.37).

“Newspapers often quoted think tank employees as if they were climate researchers, juxtaposing their view against those of epistemologically independent university or government scientists.”(p.37) This an example that the interest group take the use of “the Evil Assumption”. By making people believe that those who stressed the serious consequences of global warming were unreliable, or even had some hidden intentions, they “gave the public the impression that the science was still uncertain, thus undermining the sense the it was time to act.”(p.37)

We keep criticizing people’s indifference toward the environment, but it seems we seldom seriously think of the reason of this. Through the psychological lens, I realize that people’s non-action toward environmental problem like global warming is complicated. Maybe instead of endless appeal to protect the environment, we should think of what we can do to encourage others put “protect the environment” into real actions.



Anne Dalke's picture

SO glad to see you developing the idea you described in conference, of “thinking psychologically” about the dilemma traced in The Collapse of Western Civilization. Esp. helpful for me to read this after the election, as we reflect on this divided country: ““When other people reject our beliefs, we think they lack good information. When we reject their beliefs, we think we possess good judgement.“

Next step, for next draft: now what? Given this psychological analysis, what interventions are possible? Does Schulz offer some @ the end of her book? Are they applicable/do they offer ways to intervene in the current-and-upcoming environmental disasters that Oreskes/Conway describe?