Scientists should study Texas. We may be the secret to understanding climate change denial. In fact, the longer they fail to study Texas, the longer it will be before anybody figures out what’s wrong with people.
What’s wrong is President Donald Trump. But Texas. Trump rolled back EPA controls on coal-fired power plants last week in the face of the EPA’s own finding that this new rule will kill 300 to 1,500 people a year by 2030. And his supporters love him for it.
Texas does the same thing. State government under Gov. Greg Abbott flies in the face of overwhelming evidence. It deliberately behaves in heedless, suicidal ways that spell death and disaster. And Texans love Abbott!
There are all kinds of serious shrink analyses by now beginning to look at why people deny climate change. Psychologists use terms like “information deficit” (stupid), “motivated inference” (stupid), “agnotology” (love that one, means stupid, I think). They’re all missing the boat. They need to come to Texas. It’s obvious.
We’re not stupid! We’re crazy!
Take for example the debate about the end of civilization — whether global warming will wipe out all of civilization or just a lot of it with the uber-rich people still surviving in old underground Atlas missile silos converted to 15-story luxury doomsday condos. How is that a debate? What is it a debate about? What’s going on with us mentally? I mean right upstairs in the belfry where all those bats live. How can human beings even be this crazy? Easy. Come to Texas.
Three months ago the Los Angeles Times broke an amazing investigative story: In 2017 in the weeks immediately following Hurricane Harvey when Houston was awash in pollution, NASA offered to perform a comprehensive monitoring of the area using a special aircraft equipped to find, analyze and map pollution hot spots.
But elected leaders and state officials in Texas were already busy issuing blandishments to assure the public that there was nothing to worry about. Oh, sure — nothing to worry about in spite of destructive winds and days of raging floods in the very city where many of the world’s scariest chemicals are produced in quantities sufficient to supply the global poison market. Really?
Yes, really. This is Texas. One of the officials issuing blandishments was Michael Honeycutt, the Texas state toxicologist. The what? Hint: if anyone on an airplane ever hands you a business card identifying himself as the Texas state toxicologist, immediately deploy the oxygen mask.
Honeycutt is infamous among real scientists for showing up whenever some scary industry has a serious pollution problem and testifying that that industry’s particular brand of pollution is actually good for people. He has testified in the past that ozone is so good for people that reducing ozone levels will cost lives. If you want to live longer, you should try to get more ozone.
He has testified that mercury poisoning, while not actually good for you, is not all that bad for you, either. Go ahead, break the thermometer and drink the silver stuff inside. Not to worry that much. Are people like this real? They are in Texas. They’re really real.
Talking to NPR, Luke Metzger, state director of Environment Texas, an advocacy group, gave the impression that Honeycutt’s testimony is one long, totally cray-cray stutter: “Almost every time there's a public concern about pollution, he says there's nothing to worry about,” Metzger said.
He has watched Honeycutt for 17 years. “Almost every time industry takes a position against stronger health protections, he takes their side and contorts the science to advocate for doing nothing. He just doesn't have any credibility anymore.”
So, back to Hurricane Harvey, Houston and that NASA airplane. NASA had already used its special DC-8 aircraft to carry out similar pollution mapping exercises in the past, as in 2010 when the agency executed a fly-over of the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The technology aboard that airplane would have given Houston an overview of the danger it faced after Hurricane Harvey with a level of granular detail not achievable by any other means.
Led by Honeycutt, the happy mercury eater, Texas state officials effectively banished the NASA aircraft from the skies over Texas. In a string of emails uncovered by the LA Times, Honeycutt tells NASA thanks but no thanks: “At this time,” he writes to NASA officials, “we don’t think your data would be useful.” So the flights never took place.
Speaking to the LA Times about that outcome, Scott Frickel, an environmental sociologist at Brown University, came up with yet another term for me to add to my list of expert-sounding explanations for climate denial: “This is a very clear illustration of the politics of knowledge,” Frickel said.
And we get that, right? “Politics of knowledge” refers to the political repercussions of knowledge and the desire of politicians to play the knowledge in order to play the politics. What we don’t know may kill us but not until after it gets us reelected.
If Texas officials had welcomed help from that big NASA jet, the study would have come up with all kinds of findings directly contradicting the blandishments. That would have been major egg on the faces of the people making the blandishments, so those people stopped the jet. None of that is especially mysterious or unpredictable — not in Texas, anyway. At least they didn’t shoot it out of the sky. I might even interpret “politics of knowledge” as meaning, well, you know … stupid.
But here’s the point: A majority of Texans see all of this happening before their very eyes every day of the week, and they love it. They return people like Greg Abbott to office by overwhelming margins, aware that he will keep people like the mercury-eater in the ranks. That’s the thing the rest of us need to figure out. Forget all the public posturing. We need to concentrate on the belfry.
The weather-driven urban infrastructure catastrophes just keep rolling over us and keep getting worse, like a bell in a graveyard tolling louder in every passing hour. We adjust. Two weeks ago when my part of the city went for days without electricity, the putter-put of small gasoline-powered electric generators was everywhere I walked my dogs.
I assumed people had stockpiled first aid supplies and means of storing water. I didn’t even want to think about guns and ammo. I could have stood in an alley at midnight and set off Armageddon by shouting, “We’re coming for your Mountain House freeze-dried food.” No wonder zombie movies are big.
But then we love and reelect the people who tell us to do nothing, to change nothing, to just keep doing what we’ve been doing, covering the prairie with playhouse castles on cul-de-sacs, paving the soil and spending our incomes on plastic from China. Faced with virtual annihilation, we revere the whores who tell us they want our vote and twenty bucks.
We’re crazy. This isn’t about how much knowledge we do or do not have. How can you call it a knowledge deficit when we’re doing everything we can to stop knowledge from reaching our ears? Calling it “motivated inference” begs the question. What’s the motivation? Doesn’t self-annihilation violate the basic laws of survival?
We call the planet the world. But we also still use the word, world, to mean everything. Yes, we’ve been looking at those space station photos for decades now, so at least theoretically we’re supposed to know that our planet is not everything. But behind us and buried in our psyches lie hundreds of millions of years when this place where we live, the planet, was infinity. The pictures are new, and not everybody has seen them yet.
What if the problem is not that we’re stupid, exactly, but we’re just sort of limited in our capacity for understanding what lies beyond our own borders — the borders of our physical experience? Now that’s where Texans could come in handy.
I moved here from another very picturesque part of the world about 100 years ago. I had been here only a few months when I was dispatched to cover massive flooding in the Hill Country. I was strapped to the side of a National Guard helicopter with my boots hanging out over what looked to me like a moonscape of rock, dirt, low-growing mesquite trees and brown floodwater. A young Guardsman next to me said over the headphones: “Now ain’t that about the prettiest sight in the world?”
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I did not reply. What could I say? No? It sucks? You must be punking me? I wouldn’t live down there if I was a cow? But now I get it. I’ve been in Texas about 100 years. Last time I drove through the Hill Country, I thought to myself, “Now ain’t that about the prettiest sight in the world?” I’m afraid to even think about what that means.
But maybe that’s what all of it means. Maybe it’s not about being smart or stupid, just the size of our mental world and what that world is capable of encompassing. For example, way before we ever got to the part about the planet burning up and everybody dying, we would have to deal with not being able to have large lawns anymore. Large lawns are an absolute stopping point for most Texans. Beyond large lawns, there will be no more comprehension. People just go quietly hysterical.
The thing that will cut the wolves from the sheep will be the ability of people to grasp the full dimension of the problem — that for anything to survive everything must change, beginning with humanness, the human comprehension of the world and of life itself. The joke is going to be on all those rich people who think they’ll beat it by living in abandoned missile silos. They don’t get the problem, because they are the problem — Vesuvian mummies 15 stories down, still in their Lacoste polo shirts.