Mythical American Exceptionalism Won’t Save Us From the Climate Crisis
October 18, 2019
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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