Opinion

Mythical American Exceptionalism Won’t Save Us From the Climate Crisis

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John Mulholland, the editor of the U.S. edition of The Guardian, recently sent an interesting online letter to the newspaper’s subscribers.

He began by listing some of the major climate disasters that had hit the United States since he’s been living here, highlighting the impact on the country of “a president who denies climate science even though Americans can see the climate is changing.”

He went on to explain that, “One of the most surprising observations of my first year in America is the gulf in [climate] coverage between the US and Europe. And not just climate, but a host of other environmental threats,” from the flood of plastics in our waters to the toxic chemicals in our food.

Some of the blame, Mulholland says, is that America’s news outlets have failed us. He pointed out, for example, that only 22 of the biggest 50 newspapers in the country covered the U.N. warning that we have only 12 years to put our atmospheric house in order.

He also cited what Bill McKibben and others have called “the most consequential cover-up in history,” as the fossil-fuel industry’s PR flacks have won the battle for America’s eyes and ears, and what passes for our minds.

Sure. He’s probably right. The media probably failed us.

But, given the fact that for all the mistakes the media may have made, the news has been getting out, and given the fact that we’ve all been watching the direct impacts of climate change all around us, year after year, I have question to ask: What the hell’s wrong with us?

Surely, you’ve seen the TV interviews with Iowa farmers who just won’t admit that their cows had to swim to the barn at milking time because of the climate crisis. Or the Floridians watching their streets flood when there wasn’t a cloud in sight, but letting their governor get away with making his bureaucrats cut any reference to the climate crisis from state websites and public utterances? Or the fact that efforts to install power-generating wind turbines are sometimes stymied by the fact they would have an impact on the “viewscape.”

Like I said, What the hell’s wrong with us?

I’d suggest that the media isn’t entirely at fault.

I’d suggest that what is partially to blame is American Exceptionalism, the mythology we’ve wrapped ourselves in.

You know, the belief system that says America and Americans aren’t really subject to the rules that apply to the rest of the world. You know, that’s why we’re rich and safe and all the rest. It’s how we’re special, like the way we were fated by Manifest Destiny to populate all that land from sea to shining sea.

So maybe some of us are, regarding the climate crisis, still thinking, “Oh, well, it’s America, so there’ll be a way out. Hey, we can just wall off Manhattan and Miami from sea rise and raise the riverside levies inland. We’ll figure it out — we always have, haven’t we?”

Even worse, I’d guess that some of the people at the top, the infamous One Percent, probably think that they can buy their way out of harm’s way even if everything else goes to hell in a handbasket.

You know, gated communities built high above sea level, with their own police and fire departments, where the kids will go to rich-kid schools, while contracts with large-scale agricultural firms and water sources will meet those lucky people’s basic needs.

After all, that’s been part of the American ethos, hasn’t it: that if you’ve got money, you’re clearly among the elect, sure to be saved.

Well, if our unwillingness to face our fate is just another iteration of American Exceptionalism, we’re in big trouble.

Maybe the media will start getting it right. I’m certainly comforted by fact that more than 250 news outlets, including ecoRI News and The Guardian, signed onto Covering Climate Now, which commits media participants to enhance their coverage of climate crisis issues.

But as long as we keep believing that because we are America it just can’t happen here — whether that refers to the rise of dictatorship or of sea levels — we won’t be very good at facing what needs to be faced.

Nicholas Boke is an international educational consultant and freelance writer. He lives in Providence.

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  1. Well done, Nick, keeping it real. The only time I hate reading your essays is when I see myself in them and am humbled. I am not a part of the "mythology" of American Exceptionalism, and I am surely not one of the 1% at the top who throw money around to fix any aggravation that befalls me, but shamefully, I have said to myself: "We’ve always figured out how to fix what’s broken, we’ll figure this out too". Naïve, head in the sand mentality, and to see myself so clearly as a non doer, propels me forward to do more, to become involved. The worst I heard from a like aged friend: "I’ll be dead by the time it all goes to dust, I refuse to worry about it", and I am certain she’s not the only one thinking selfishly. The UN 12 year warning I read of in the NY Times–and your essay–are warnings that we can not sit idly by and wait for others to solve the climate crisis. We must aggressively become engaged for the proliferation of human, fish, fowl, mammal and plant life, or mankind as we know it will cease, simple as that. If we’re 8 or 80, there are steps we can take beyond choosing to believe others will take care of it. Thanks for pointing out the obvious, Nick!

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