View from Rue Saint-Georges

The Great Distraction

Why we talk about anything but climate change

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | January 16, 2019
Dulle Griet, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Wikimedia Commons)
Dulle Griet, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Wikimedia Commons)

Over lunch at a Sichuan noodle restaurant in Paris, I spoke with a friend whose wife had recently had a baby (their third) about the increasingly difficult-to-brush-aside sense of despair that climate change imposes on the parental psyche. Seldom does a week go by without ever-more-alarming news flickering across our screens. Just last week, for example, The New York Times ran an article citing a new analysis, first published in the journal Science, finding “that the oceans are heating up 40 percent faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago.” Such information tends to register with us only briefly, after which we throw up our hands and move on to more manageable dramas. Indeed, almost as terrifying as climate change is how we, as a species faced with ever more complex and pressing problems, seem ever more myopically focused on the most trivial identity grievances.

Here in France, where the potentially compelling gilets jaunes movement seized a moment of dissatisfaction over fuel taxes to demand a radical new environmental vision, the most pressing concern, according to an analysis published in the Nouvel Obs, is “overturning the law on gay marriage and adoption.” Back stateside, as award season heats up, countless think pieces continue to be churned out on the subject of the movie Black Panther and the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda.

I admitted to my lunch companion that I often feel as though anything I write, however important it may be, that doesn’t deal with the climate is really only the second-most-important thing I could spend my time on. “Oh yeah, the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour actually has a theory that this is all on purpose,” he replied. “Latour thinks that decades ago, elites realized the climate game was over and decided to secure themselves as best they could while keeping us distracted”—with Facebook, Brexit, identity politics, “thin privilege,” you name it. As Latour explained to Eurozine earlier this year:

[I]n the 1980s and 1990s, some people who had begun to understand just how serious the climate question was, contrived to flee or seek shelter from it. Sheltering can consist in organizing denial of the climate situation in order to hide that they are running away from it. It is perfectly obvious that, within the Trump government—which, in this respect, is very coherent—there is a clear vision of what organizing a departure, a general flight towards offshore havens involves. The metaphor is unmistakable: the construction of a wall around the “American way of life,” which no longer even pretends to be interested in matters of worldwide importance or solidarity. Those conservatives who remained within the boundaries of liberalism never said that it was necessary to abandon the rest of the world to its fate. You have to understand the extent to which “Trumpism” differs from conservative thinking, as well as from liberal or Republican thinking. It is a political anomaly that can only be explained as a reaction to the new climatic regime.

Whether Latour is right or not, the only appropriate question to ask—for our kids if not ourselves—is when are we going to finally get our priorities straight?

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