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Wellness While the World Burns

A friend of mine who is involved in community engagement around local food production texted recently saying ‘I need to talk to you!’, and her tone seemed urgent. I thought that maybe they needed extra help that weekend finishing the construction of the farm kiosk (my table saw can fit in the back of my car, and my small portable circular saw – both lawn sale finds - is coveted by the volunteer group). Instead, she asked if she could come over. Nothing to do with power tools, then.

Sitting on my back porch, serenaded by a chorus of leaf blowers from the adjacent property, my friend blurts out: “Jess says she doesn’t believe in climate change anymore – she says it’s a hoax made up by the government in order to initiate more lockdowns and control people.” She took a breath, then continued: “And I don’t understand because we went to the big climate march together when Greta was here and now I can’t talk to her about it and I don’t understand what happened.” Her distress was palpable. She has three kids (as does Jess). She cares deeply about their futures.

Several replies popped into my mind immediately, most about why we should trust scientific consensus, that arriving at it involves a slow process of organized scrutiny of evidence, and that the fundamental uncertainty of science makes people uneasy and distrustful of it, but I paused before speaking. I know that this friend is here seeking my help because I am a climate literacy educator, and I’ve engaged with all sorts of people with just about every belief about climate change you can imagine. I also know that this friend is skeptical of vaccines, and had refused all vaccination against Covid-19 for herself and her kids because she maintained that they were based on “junk science.”

Both of these people, my friend and friend-once-removed (Jess), are also active participants in the wellness industry, primarily as consumers, but they are tight with some influencers. Much has been written about this demographic’s metamorphosis into covid-denial disinformation-disseminators and even foray into fascism, most comprehensively in Naomi Klein’s new book Doppelganger. But now that the pandemic is (not) over, what is emerging amongst wellness influencers and their communities is an outright denial of climate change, with similar claims of sinister conspirators, and some rather astonishing celestial explanations for the ‘natural’ disasters the world has experienced over the past two years. This blend of conspiracy theories with wellness/New Age guidance is referred to by academics who study the phenomenon as ‘Conspirituality,’ and it has tens of millions of followers.

I’ve even encountered this sort of denial face to face: on my last day of teaching at my former college (though I didn’t know it at the time) an acquaintance placed her hands on my shoulders and said “Oh Heather, don’t worry. It isn’t our fault. I’ve been doing deep spiritual work for 10 years now, and the climate is changing because our solar system is passing through negative energy.” This is a person who was an environmental activist and had been tear-gassed and kettled by police in riot gear at one protest.

This move from covid to climate denial is  reminiscent of the one that well-paid ‘experts’ in the tobacco industry and conservative politicians made in the 1980s after smoking was demonstrated to cause cancer, and they pivoted their ‘but the science isn’t settled’ argument to environmentalists and the burgeoning field of climate science. The playbook had been created - it just needed a new topic - and instead of being motivated by huge profits in fossil fuels, wellness influencers are in part motivated by likes and engagement that can be turned into profits. The Global Wellness Institute estimates the industry’s worth was $5.6 trillion in 2022.

But what motivates the consumers of wellness culture to actively (and aggressively) deny that human-caused climate breakdown is a scientific reality? A lot of things: From feeling overlooked by our political and educational systems, to the feeling of belonging to a special club of people who know better, to seeking comfort in simple answers to complex problems. A recent research study found that people who endorsed conspiracy theories in general were motivated by a need to understand and feel safe in their environment and a need to feel like the community they identify with is superior to others. They concluded that even though many conspiracy theories seem to provide clarity or a supposed secret truth about confusing events, a need for closure or a sense of control were not the strongest motivators to endorse them. Instead, the evidence suggested that people were more likely to believe specific conspiracy theories when they were motivated by social relationships. In other words, it is more important for many people, consciously or not, to stick with their social group rather than confront scientific reality. 

Others frame climate-reality-denial as a way to self-guard their health: climate misinformation as empowerment, and lump in climate science messaging with a fundamental distrust of western medicine (and governments that endorse it) – a tenet of the health and wellness movement for over 50 years. This is also a convenient in-route for the old-guard climate change denial lobby, who had already been trying to spread the belief that the ‘climate agenda’ was a precursor to tyranny. In fact, most of the old-school climate denialists have strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, and it is very much in their best interests to deny and delay climate action for as long as possible. This isn’t a conspiracy theory – it’s fossil capitalism.

There are some legitimate reasons to be wary of for-profit western medical research, from historical unethical human testing (on Native Americans), to the fact that many life-saving medicines have patents and are therefore kept from people who need them but can’t afford them. But climate science cannot be put in the same worthy-of-distrust category, because the research never leads to profits. This is why Earth science, climate science, and ecology are chronically underfunded at research institutions and undervalued in higher education in general. These fields of research aim only to understand the biophysical world that we live in, the ancient non-human systems that allow us to exist on the planet, and now, to advise humanity about what we need to do in order to keep living here. 

And what the climate science consensus tells us is that we have a narrow and rapidly closing window of opportunity to stop climate breakdown from progressing far enough to initiate self-reinforcing positive feedbacks that would exponentially increase the impacts of human-caused global heating in the coming decades. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said:

“There are now no non-radical futures. The choice is between immediate and profound social change or waiting a little longer for chaotic and violent social change.” 

This is pretty scary stuff, and denial is a completely human response to very troubling information. We can even deny life-threatening personal illnesses if the truth of a western-medical diagnosis is too much to bear. The climate denial of wellness-industry-participants is, I think, primarily a search for comfort in the form of certainty. The process of scientific inquiry itself does not provide certainty – it is a slow accumulation of scrutinized evidence that builds a picture of what is likely to be true – and in the case of climate science, that truth is a profoundly uncertain but radically different future. There is no comfort here. Some have suggested that, in the end, what draws people to wellness climate denial may be the sense of comfort and understanding they get from their wellness gurus–a warmth they may not necessarily feel with the scientific community. These two social groups are light years apart.

Perhaps those who join a ‘superior-to-others’ club do so because they somehow feel badly that they find the science behind the climate crisis difficult to understand. When I engage with some people in denial of climate science, it can feel like the proverbial high school battle between the jocks and the geeks. The kid with the glasses gets punched in the arm because the bully doesn’t understand their language, so asserts dominance with fists instead. But ultimately both feel badly, and that feeling comes from living in a social -political -economic system that atomizes and commodifies the very thing that enabled our species of Homo to survive longer than any other: community and social cooperation. 

The wellness industry is fundamentally a capitalist invention, and its hyper-individualistic ideology supports and is supported by capitalism: it is self-flattering, connecting morality to health by encouraging people to believe that if they are healthy and have a good life, they deserve it, and those who don’t, didn’t try hard enough. This ideology is antithetical to what we need to do to stop climate breakdown, which is more cooperation, collaboration, democracy, and collective action to put into place a post-growth global economy based on fairness and greater equity. It is not surprising then that some wellness influencers and their followers are enthusiastic about denying the climate emergency. 

So what about my friend and her newly-minted climate change-denier friend Jess? I think that all of the above probably contribute to an otherwise reasonable person endorsing very unreasonable ideas. I told my friend that while it is distressing for those of us who accept the scientific consensus to see people close to us (and those far away!) fall for denial narratives, we needed to be compassionate. Holding the multiple overlapping existential crises that the world is facing now is too much to bear alone – none of us can do that. So some people turn inward, building walls of conspiracies and denial in false community. Naomi Klein summarized this well:

“...we need to reach towards each other. That’s really tricky work. It’s a lot easier to come together and agree on things that are not working and things that are bad than it is to come together and develop a horizon of how things could be better. Things could be beautiful, things could be livable. There could be a world where everyone belongs.”

The rest of us need to keep doing the good collaborative work of building a livable future and trying to minimize catastrophe. Feel sad for them, hope that their children can forgive them, and be open for further discussion, but don’t let it become a distraction. Keep reaching toward others who are doing the same.

Reposted from Ecogather blog with permission.



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