As hundreds of thousands march this weekend to draw attention to the climate crisis, President Trump will certainly get well-earned condemnation. But opprobrium aside, how are we to understand his positions on climate and energy? I have been involved in the climate debate as an attorney and writer for more than three decades. But understanding Trump’s views, and those of others who take a similar stance, is not really about science or law. No, I think my psychologist training is better suited for this analysis.
When assessing the current president’s behavior, it’s wise to begin with some Psychology 101 definitions. Let’s start with “denial.” Denial occurs when an individual, or social group, is confronted with a disturbing or very uncomfortable reality and deals with this discomfort by simply denying that reality. Denial is often referred to as a defense mechanism as it protects the individual from the stress and trauma of dealing with real life. It is also viewed as the most infantile of such mechanisms in that it is often seen in young children. A “delusion” is related to denial. It is generally defined as a belief that is maintained despite being obviously contradicted by facts or reality. If habitually used by an individual it is generally seen as a symptom of a mental disorder. Denial and delusion are so often seen together that they occasionally have been dubbed the “DD syndrome.”
This syndrome is in full force when Trump continues to claim his inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s, or that his electoral margin was a “landslide.” Clearly he is in denial about his lesser crowds and more meager electoral margin than his predecessor. But perhaps he also actually believes what he is saying despite indisputable evidence to the contrary - that’s delusional. It is more disturbing when Trump continues to claim without evidence that his predecessor is a “bad guy” who illegally ordered surveillance on him and his associates. Again this is delusional (and with more than a touch of paranoia). Alarmingly, Trump also seems to be under the delusion that with his election the U.S. has become a modern monarchy with him as emperor. Surrounded by his minions he signs executive order after executive order with a flourish for the TV cameras, seeming to assume that his signature alone allows him to govern by fiat. Then he is outraged and goes into attack mode when the judiciary or Congress rebukes him and pops his delusion of omnipotence. If we add that he gave himself an “A” grade for his first 100 days we see that denial and delusion are habitual with the commander-in-chief.
But as is well understood by all those coming out this weekend, it is far more dangerous for America and all living creatures on this planet that Trump’s psychological syndrome has become the basis for his administration’s energy and climate policies. Trump famously called climate change a “plot by the Chinese” to destroy our economy. Yes, denial and delusion again (and that paranoia tendency). To be fair, while Trump is the “denier-in-chief,” a significant majority of Republicans in Congress are climate deniers as well, though mostly without the Chinese conspiracy angle. And this weekend’s Climate March should and will take them all to task.
The End of the Age of Extraction
But there is a larger and more startling denial embodied in Trump’s views about energy, one he shares with far too many Americans. This is an inability to honestly confront the very uncomfortable fact that we and the rest of humanity are at the end of the “Age of Extraction.” For the last century and a half our entire economy, and that of much of the so-called developed world, has been based on energy extraction, primarily of fossil fuels. It took millions of years for those fossil fuels to be created. It now appears that we and our industrial civilization will have run through them in less than two centuries. In retrospect, this was a misguided, and an inevitably catastrophic, natural resource “spending spree” of almost unimaginable proportions.
Those of us in the streets this weekend, and hopefully for many other weekends in the future, will emphasize that the extractive economy is at an end.
But as Richard Heinberg, energy guru at the Post Carbon Institute, likes to say, “The Party’s over.” The fact is that by the time Trump’s son Barron reaches his father’s age our supplies of oil, natural gas, and coal will be so exhausted that they will no longer be affordable to extract, and eventually it will take more energy to extract than will be recovered through that process. Though not well-publicized we are reaching these end points for fossil fuels right now. The low hanging fruit and “quality oil” days are in the past. That is why we are seeing more and more destructive, intrusive, expensive, and energy intensive extraction methods. Deep water drilling, fracking, mountain top removal, and tar sands oil extraction have become widespread as energy sources become scarcer and more difficult to obtain. And the devastation to human health caused by these drastic methods will only increase as the fuels become scarcer.
A sober, hard look analysis of our situation would spur an “all hands on deck” approach to both promote solar and wind renewable energy and encourage a serious reduction in consumption. And that means substantial government support for renewables, and especially a halting of subsidies for fossil fuels. For almost 70 years the U.S. government has subsidized the fossil fuel industry; a very conservative estimate is more than $700 billion over that time period. Not surprisingly, given this massive “corporate welfare,” our entire infrastructure is currently based on use of these fuels and remains addicted to them for its continuing efficacy. Oil is not only the basis for our transportation system and much of our industrial agriculture, but is also ubiquitous in thousands of everyday products. It will take decades to reinvent our infrastructure for a “post-carbon” age. Meanwhile as the end of the age of extraction proceeds our current fossil fuel infrastructure will become more and more useless, and our fuel guzzling way of life simply hastening the chaotic decline or collapse of society.
Instead of energetically leading this urgently needed transformation, the president is attempting to resurrect coal, “drill, baby, drill” our federal lands including protected natural monuments, push for more pipe lines, and lift environmental regulations on fracking. This pathological denial of the reality of the end of the age of extraction could condemn Barron Trump’s generation to a very hard landing. Massive social unrest will be inevitable with increasing national and international conflict over dwindling and ever more expensive fossil fuels, with no substitute renewable energy grid or regenerative economy in place to save the day. We already see this conflict and social chaos as a result of “oil wars” in the Middle East, and climate change-related droughts and food shortages and price increases around the globe.
Those of us in the streets this weekend, and hopefully for many other weekends in the future, will emphasize that the extractive economy is at an end. This exploitative way of life that has been with us for these last many generations is a dead paradigm walking. But though dead, it is still a zombie paradigm. Those massive corporations still profiting from mindless extraction and living off the government dole will continue to push for policies that destroy our water, air, and health and that increasing alter the very biochemistry of the planet all this for short term profits. And they could not be happier to have an “amateur” president steeped in denial and delusion to do their bidding for them. But we must organize all the realists to break through the denial and delusion and speak truth to power. Man-made climate destabilization is real; we must address it and address it urgently.
Andrew Kimbrell is an attorney and author and Executive Director of the International Center for Technology Assessment and co-founder of Foundation Earth.