On thinking

Given the global threat posed by climate change, there could be no more crude and irresponsible statement from a political leader than Tony Abbott’s remark that ‘climate change is crap’. The comment could perhaps be dismissed if it were an isolated tag on a toilet wall (pun intended or not), but it’s much more than that. Abbott was at one time the prime minister of this country, and he has continued to adopt a regressive position on climate change in the years since his removal, with the support of a range of extremist wingmen (and the occasional woman, namely Peta Credlin), to the detriment of his own government, the Australian population and the global community.

Whether Abbott’s position is genuinely held or simply a vindictive political gesture is difficult to assess. I don’t think it matters as much as his goal – the goal of denialists more generally – to ‘keep minds turned off on the meta-level,’ as philosopher Elizabeth Minnich puts it, so there are ‘no questions about [the issue], no looking back and wondering, no reaching for connections to beliefs.’ Strategic ignorance, from Minnich’s perspective, operates for the benefit of those who gain from inaction:

Power lies in the ability not to hear what is being said, not to experience the consequences of one’s own actions, but rather to go one’s own self-centric and insulated way.

Being co-opted into a state of non-thinking produces what Minnich terms ‘extensive evil’, a communal act of negligence, as opposed to the ‘intensive evil’ of individual actions (she provides the example of a pyromaniac). If the word evil appears dramatic in the context of climate change, it only remains so if we refuse to seriously think about the consequences of not thinking, as outlined by Minnich:

You know well that not thinking about how to preserve a healthy environment for ourselves and other creatures also does extensive harm to us, now and into the future. Not thinking … leads us to do terrible things to those people, to those animals, that forest — whatever we ‘simply’ do not think about.

Thinking about climate change – not just our responsibility for it but also the actions we need to deal with it – requires something of each of us. It’s true we are not all in the same boat when it comes to the immediate and near-future consequences of climate change. Nor are we equally responsible for the damage being done to the planet. After all, the carbon footprint of the wealthy and consumptive west has been destroying ecological systems and damaging country in excess of 500 years. Primary responsibility lies with those who have benefited from the global extraction and exploitation project at the expense of the vulnerable. And yet, in settler-colonial societies such as Australia, Canada and the United States, the wealthy and powerful continue to fiddle while country burns, dies or disappears. Deborah Bird Rose, who spent her life as an active thinker and ecological collaborator, understood the extent of what we face if we are ever to act with responsibility:

Any conversion we humans may wish to start up concerning the living world, our place in it and our responsibility toward it must bear the knowledge of the terrible harm we have done and continue to do.

So, at present, is our thinking open or closed? I am certain the minds of climate denialists are closed, although it is difficult to say whether this is wilful, strategic or just plain stupid (or perhaps a combination of all three). But what of the rest of us? Many of us are concerned, some of us are activists, and others live in a state of what is being currently labelled as ‘ecological grief’. It’s understandable that we have a deeply emotional response to the loss of non-human species, natural habitats and places of attachment. But it is vital, I believe, to be active in confronting the threat of extinction and loss. To be passive in the face of potential genocide will only heighten the emotional rupture caused by the destruction and loss.

Thinkers like Rose and Minnich offer direct and vital guidance with regard to our need to be active participants in our own future. Rose asserts the necessity for ‘eco-conversations’, for a political and social environment in which ethical dialogue is welcomed and nurtured: ‘dialogue begins where one is, and thus is always situated … dialogue is open, and thus the outcome is not known in advance.’ In Minnich’s writing on ‘teaching thinking’, she also values openness: ‘Thinking is neither coerced nor coercive,’ she writes. ‘It is exploratory, suggestive’. Minnich does not regard thinking as relative, in a passive or negating sense. For her, the teaching of thinking is an active and energetic exchange, with students hopefully ‘emerg[ing] as more thoughtful people who will continue to seek meaningful lives.’

Thoughtful people seeking meaningful lives – this is the real threat that climate denialists fear. They want nothing more from us than passivity, apathy and defeatism. Nor do our feelings of grief concern them. As long as our emotions render us inactive, as long as we remain in a state of utter powerlessness, the denialists gain the satisfaction of having done the good work of ignorance. We can’t allow this situation to occur. In an age of diverse and at times fractured political allegiances, we desperately need to connect, cooperate and build sustainable alliances. If we don’t, we have little chance of combating the vandalism and violence leading us to certain destruction. We need to proactively support each other, and work for the betterment of non-human species and the protection of country. We need to realise that mutual respect and support are our only means of survival. And we need to remember Deborah Bird Rose, a remarkable and ethical thinker who passed away in December 2018.


Image: Mark Garten / Flickr




Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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