Our Lazy Relationship with Reality

This week Roy Scranton — combat veteran, author, and Notre Dame professor — published what is in essence a manifesto explaining why, in the face of nearly-assured ecological doom, he chose life. It reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s closing to The Unnamable: “…where am I, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Not long after Scranton published his piece, David French responded in National Review, chiding Scranton for peddling a doomsday religion.

I’ve read some of Scranton’s essays before. I don’t know David French by anything he’s written until today. Let’s agree that the labels liberal and conservative have so been distorted that they’ve lost their value. And yet the punch and counter punch from Scranton and French are an interesting, critical, and repeat example of the uncomfortable relationship many people have with reality.

There’s a common refrain from those who are in favor of things like war and inalienable gun rights, and against things like corporate and environmental regulation. It goes something like this: “The reality is…” Fill in the blank.

  • The reality is, money makes the world go around.
  • The reality is, the bad guys have guns already.
  • The reality is, you can’t have your modern luxuries without oil.

Once that “reality” is established, the “therefore” follows:

  • Environmental (or banking, or consumer protection) laws kill jobs and stifle innovation.
  • Everyone should be allowed guns, and no one should not be allowed to have them.
  • We must extract more oil from the Earth, and assess the consequences later, if ever.

OK, fine.

Logically, folks so captivated with the idea of reality should welcome Scranton’s essay, for his is a heavy dose of it. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he wrote. For instance, I don’t know why he limits his appraisal of our environmental peril to climate change. The human-generated challenges to life on Earth are manifold: soil degradation, falling water stocks, deforestation, pollution, and overpopulation, among them. Limiting the threat assessment to climate change leaves the door open to people who — before jumping to any conclusions or taking any actions — would like to check out the shifting CO2 and temperature averages in a few dozen millennia.

Yet Scranton owns the fact that the damage we’ve done and are doing to the Earth — blindly, purposefully, idiotically, while in denial and in the name of greed, while poked with feelings of guilt and yet unable to change our ways — is an existential crisis. Existential in that humanity’s existence rests on what we have done and what we might yet be able to do. And existential in that if we choose to face the reality of our situation then we must reconcile that reality with what we value and how we will live.

Scranton’s essay is his explanation of how he has chosen to face reality and reconcile reality with his life. Or more accurately, how he is choosing, every day, for the process never ends. Life demands that reconciling repeatedly, endlessly, with each step you take. One alternative to that hard work, which he notes, is suicide. Another, the easiest and the shallowest, is denial.

When you read his account of our reality, denial looks tempting. It’s mostly gloom, for the fact is our man-made natural catastrophe is well underway, and without a massive and coordinated effort there’s no chance the incredible variety of life on Earth survives or evolves in any way resembling a natural process — or without drastic loss and suffering. The reality is the natural world — including humankind — is already suffering.

David French denies this. He denies it by pointing out how capitalism self-regulated away illness and pollution that was much worse just decades ago. The answer to all our problems, and the antidote to Scranton’s gloom, he contends, is the reality that “that restraining growth is ultimately the more dangerous course” forward.

This is what’s so interesting. When faced with someone who is willing to be blunt about what we are facing, those so in favor of “reality” fall back on myth making.

Unrestrained growth cleaned up our water supplies. Myth. It’s what poisoned them.

Unrestrained growth bailed out failed banks and lenders. Myth. It’s what broke them.

Unrestrained growth is putting people to work. Myth. It’s what is pumping billions of dollars into useless apps and scooter rental startups.

Unrestrained growth is bringing greater services to more people. Myth. It is what is choking competition and cutting access to services.

Unrestrained growth is fueling innovation by scientific minds. Myth. It is what allows cronies to resuscitate dying fossil fuel industries.

Unrestrained growth creates an economy without need of welfare. Myth. Corporations desperately need corporate welfare.

These myths are not limited to a single nation. They cross borders. But French’s “way forward” has an American flavor. Compared to the 1970s, he writes, “The America of today is far more populous, it’s wealthier, and it is still an industrial powerhouse.” It is this kind of change that equals progress for French. But it is this kind of American-style progress that hints at perhaps the most favored myths of them all, that America is a country of progress exactly because it is a country of shared values and a country that values all people equally.

The reality is that we know both of those to be false.

Scranton has demonstrated that the tough work of reconciling with at least some realities is underway, among some folks. But denial is thriving among many others. That cop out is precisely why we’re in this mess.