The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an alarming report recently. The globe is warming. Things will get worse. Drastic solutions are needed.
But we mostly shrug our shoulders.
A Wall Street Journal editorial on Oct. 14 complained about “peak alarmism” regarding climate change. The predictions about climate change are too depressing. Proposals to prevent it require too much change and cost too much. The Journal asked, “Why turn the entire global economic system upside down if we are all doomed anyway?”
This kind of response is a problem I identified a decade ago in an essay called “Nero’s Fiddle.” In the face of catastrophe, complacency can be rational. If Rome is burning down, it makes sense to play your fiddle, as Nero supposedly did.
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Nero was a narcissistic emperor, drunk on his own power. He satisfied his own selfish urges. When things got bad, he blamed others —including the Christians, whom he slaughtered.
The image of Nero fiddling is about leadership. We expect a leader to take decisive action for the good of the whole. A good leader is responsive to the facts. A good leader does not aggrandize himself or fiddle around when things are falling apart. A good leader creates hope by leading by example.
But these days, our leaders avoid the facts or deny them. They don’t want to give up on short-term economic benefit. They do not seem to be preparing for the long-term. Instead, with regard to a number of issues, our leaders offer a superficial self-congratulation that ignores the hopelessness afflicting many of us.
It seems that there is not much we can do about climate change, peace in the Middle East, corruption, sexual harassment and our broken political system. The world’s problems are too difficult. Our leaders are too feckless.
In a hopeless situation, denial and distraction make sense. Give us bread and circuses, if you can’t give us hope. Tell us more about Kanye West and Stormy Daniels, if you can’t solve our problems.
Denial is a coping mechanism. Some call climate change a hoax. Or they claim, as President Trump did in his recent “60 Minutes” interview, that science is political motivated or that the heating planet could cool off on its own. Or they shrug, like the Wall Street Journal did, claiming that we’re doomed anyway.
There is a convoluted and sophisticated strategy of deflection and distraction here. It goes something like this. There is really nothing to worry about. Don’t listen to the experts. Things could fix themselves anyway. And if you are worried, there’s nothing you can do about it. So, don’t worry. Have a little fun. Think about something else.
This is drunken logic. The alcoholic says, I’ll keep drinking because I don’t really have a problem. I don’t trust the doctors anyway. And if I do have a problem there’s nothing I can do about it, since, after all I’m a drunk. So, I might as well keep drinking. Blake Shelton put it this way, “the more I drink, the more I drink.”
This makes sense when hope is lost. Without hope, problem-solving look like a waste of time. This is especially true when leadership is lacking. If Nero is not taking things seriously, then why should we? If Nero is fiddling, we might as well join in.
This response obviously makes things worse. If we are hopeless, we will avoid taking steps to restrain ourselves and change our behavior. This means the flames will grow faster. And the faster they grow, the less we will do to stop them.
An obvious solution is better leadership. If Rome really is burning, Nero needs to stop fiddling. Inspiring leaders confront the facts, imagine solutions, and arouse hope by rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.
But in a democracy, leadership is only part of the solution. In a democracy there are no Neros. We get the leaders we deserve. It’s up to us to demand change. It is we, the people who must remain hopeful — about the system and about ourselves. If we don’t believe we can fix things, then we might as well have another round of drinks and tune up our fiddles.