Cognitive Dissonance

On the first of July, 2017, I stood on the banks of the Connecticut River not far from where I live. The great rushing brown river, as it threatened to breach its banks, resembled the Nile or the Limpopo or some other great river of Africa than any waterway that could possibly run between New Hampshire and Vermont. Without much notice, we had experienced what today we call an "extreme weather event." 

In the town where I live, our drainage and culverts were filled to capacity and though we lost a couple of roads, we fared far better than our neighbor to the north. Norwich was harder hit, sustaining over 3.5 million dollars of damage to roads which they are still repairing to this day. For a town with a total annual budget of approximately 6 million, that’s a lot to absorb.  

Considering the frequency and impact of this sort of storm telegraphed throughout the country, some are calling it a game-changing burden. Michael Simpson, the head of the climatology department at Antioch University came to the Hartford Selectboard where I currently serve as Chair and told us that, based on the projections of conservative numbers, within 50 years, the “100-year storm” will take place every seven to ten years. Does that mean that the time will come when local municipalities will routinely be spending half their budget on road repair? According to Kevin Geiger, of Twin Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, “The time may come when we will do nothing but respond to severe weather.” He went on, “So we might as well start working on it now.”

I know how tight a Town’s budget can be. Are we going to be able to sustain anything like municipal service as we know it if we are regularly spending half our budget responding to severe weather events? Not likely. Even if, the weather impacts of climate change were the only threats coming down the pike, it would on its own be enough to indicate that we are in the process of transitioning into an entirely new paradigm for municipal services.

But increased frequency of severe weather events is not the only threat likely to impact our town in the decades to come. For instance, what about the threat of economic collapse? The fact that widespread economic collapse is possible was proven by the Savings and Loan Crisis of 2008, in which the government was forced to bail out a corrupt “too-big-to-fail” banking industry at the taxpayer’s expense in order to prevent the collapse of the global economy. One might assume that the conditions of economic precariousness which made this collapse possible would have been regulated out of existence, but it turns out that these conditions have gotten even worse. For example, economic sector dependance on debt and derivatives has continued to rise.

An often unspoken dimension of the threat of collapse is the ubiquitous aspect of preventing “de-dollarization” in recent economic sanctions and military intervention by the US. De-dollarization is the international trend away from the US Dollar as the Global Reserve Currency. Countries that have both exercised their sovereign right to do business in a currency other than the US dollar and that have received devastating US sanctions and/or military strikes include China, Russia, Qatar, Iran, Venezuela, Turkey, Tehran, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and others. Note that six of the seven countries where the US is currently engaged in air strikes have each taken major steps towards de-dollarization. (These are Syria, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan.)

Speaking of war, what about the increased threats of an all out thermonuclear exchange? The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists currently rates the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight for the second year in a row. This is the highest sustained level of risk of nuclear exchange that has ever happened and equal to the level of risk in 1953 when the Hydrogen Bomb was being created at the height of the Cold War. The reasons cited for this elevated threat level was sighted as the interrelationship between threats posed by vast nuclear arsenals and the threats posed by climate change.

And what about a reduction in global availability of easily extractable fossil fuels? Though the price of gas is low, and though the market if currently flooded with fuels, we can know that we are currently out of the era of easily extractable fossil fuels because of the practices such as fracking. The hydrofracking of natural gas can be understood as an extreme measure both environmental and for economic reasons. Its resultant water contamination and greenhouse gas emissions have been well documented. What is less understood is the simple reality that no fracked gas wells have succeeded in turning a profit. The radical nature of this practice is itself an indication of desperation. The same can be said of shale oil extraction, and for similar reasons.

I am mentioning these four factors, (increased frequency of severe weather events, potential for economic disruption, potential for escalation of war or nuclear exchange, and resource depletion) not as anything like an exhaustive list. It is just a certain cross section of what may be termed the convergent crises of our times. Whatever your list consists of, there are two important points that we should bare in mind.

First, these four factors are not the slightest bit unrelated from one another. Rather they are called convergent because they are mutually reinforcing. For example, resource depletion and economic precariousness encourages military aggression. Military aggression both pushes against and reinforces de-dollarization and economic precariousness. If we include linking factors like social unrest, mass migration and psychological pressure, we can see how increased presence of extreme weather events and resource depletion reinforces economic precariousness In other words, if one takes a systems approach, one might well include that factors such as these cannot be considered in isolation. They are an interrelated network of causes and conditions. If we take a historical approach, we could view them as a manifestations of the downward ark experienced by all empires. If, as we have witnessed over and again in the historical record, global empires have a natural cycle of rising and falling, what part of that cycle is the US Empire currently in?

Secondly, they are painful and scary to think about. They are even harder to have a thoughtful conversation about. The narrative that these issues create runs counter to mainstream assumptions about the future. In most settings, they are socially ungraceful or even impolite to mention.

Though many people may recognize that we are living in a time of emergency, once we have entered into a group that is connected to mainstream culture (such as a town council), we are in a system with a strong commitment to the idea that we can count on things continuing just as they are. This collective commitment to business as usual maintains itself by marginalizing and eventually expelling those who disturb this commitment by presenting a counter narrative.

Those who refuse to yield to this pressure of marginalization and hold their ground are making a real sacrifice. Conversely, those who sublimate their counter narrative and outwardly align themselves with a narrative they suspect is false, are afflicted with a dangerous double consciousness. This sort of self divide could also be called cognitive dissonance.

When the institutional momentum of a narrative that has ceased to be true is strong enough to hold sway even when every member of the institution has ceased to believe in it, there is a great opportunity for a change. This is the situation of status quo-oriented town councils all over the US that are populated by people who are aware of current global conditions that pose a real threat to human survival.

Returning to the matter of increased frequency of severe weather events, I sit on a Town Council made up of people that are aware that the time is not far off when we will be spending half of our budget repairing storm-damaged infrastructure, and yet the collective momentum of the Council operates almost completely within a business as usual mindset. From time to time, I weigh how much political capital I am willing to spend in order to advance a counter narrative that would inevitably leave me in a marginalized position. If I decide in favor of remaining silent a bit longer, judging it to be my only strategic option at the moment, I experience cognitive dissonance.

Through noticing the prevalence of this dynamic in my life, I have come to feel that the opposing forces of the collective momentum of the mainstream narrative and the individuals impulse for self expression and wholeness is one of the most important frontiers of the sustainability revolution. It is also an in important relationship between inner and social transformation.

Thanks for reading and for all you do.

~Simon Dennis

simon dennis