Thank You, Exxon…We’ll Take It From Here.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” – Gloria Steinem

The poignance of the Guardian’s recent article on Exxon Mobil’s lie can not be understated. It makes Big Tobacco’s lies look like tiny, little white lies. The fact that Exxon knew means they all most likely knew. Which means anyone who wants to label an ecologically-minded conservationist as a “paranoid activist liberal” is now blushing from embarrassment.

As such, I would like to respond to the Guardian’s article as an artist, a conservationist, and an average person.

First and foremost, I feel this information is a game changer in a manner of ethics. It puts Exxon squarely in the middle of the world stage, where leaders like Pope Francis are writing papers on the ethical need to be stewards of our world. It is definitely an ethical issue now, (not that it ever wasn’t). Moreover, it is an ethical issue that involves everyone, despite color, race, religion, or class.

Initially, the article made my blood boil. The melancholia that I feel is made worse because of this reason: our ENTIRE world economy is based heavily on petroleum, and Exxon knew that it was producing a petroleum product that was harmful to humans. Furthermore, from the date Exxon made the conscious decision (see the article below) to turn a blind eye to its moral responsibility to all life on Earth, the products made with petroleum have ended up in the sea as black slicks of bird-killing oil, in the air as CO2 emissions, or in the rivers and oceans as a giant Campbell’s Soup bowl of plastic. Shame on them. I would hate to have the guilt of knowing I had contributed to so much suffering in the world, the likes of which are just beginning, and will hit the poorest communities first. (One must remember, though, that we are all a part of this. Yes, to shame Exxon feels justified, and this new information puts Exxon in front of the world audience to be shamed. However, when we point a finger at someone, we have three more pointing back at ourselves. We must honestly accept our own implication in funding, though purchases, a capitalistic society based on petroleum products.)

However, and this is where some might disagree with me, I see this article (and this kind of dirty-laundry-airing) as a positive thing. True, I’ve been let down before (2009 climate talks come to mind)…yet amazingly, like a hungry stray cat, climate change is still there, demanding to be addressed. It really is the big equalizer. It affects everyone and everything, literally, on the planet. No other issue contains the need for alliance in the face of differences as climate change. As things grow worse, so too does the capacity to make TRUE shifts in policy and paradigm.

Now, I am not so naive to believe that once the truth is out there, that suddenly everyone changes their ways. Quite the contrary, my research has centered around the question of why we behave the way we do. Why do we feel bad/frightened/angry about climate change and ecological collapse, and then shrug our shoulders and change the subject? Where does that pain go?

My graduate research led me to stumble upon the psychology behind this sadness: it is what Renee Lertzman calls “Environmental Melancholia.” The moment we shrug our shoulders and change the subject, we exhibit a behavior that I call “Collective Social Mania.” Collective Social Mania (CSM) is a behavior response the un-mournable ecological deaths that have caused our collective Environmental Melancholia (EM). The CSM response is to buy more, look away, deny, deny, deny. The two pathologies of EM and CSM sit opposite each other as two poles of a consumeristic cycle–not yet named–of ambivalence (fear/guilt, indulge/deny, fear/guilt, indulge/deny). This cycle will continue until we eat up everything in sight, like maggots in a jar of oats.

What stops the cycle? Again we turn to psychology. Melancholia, left to its own devices, will eventually turn into mania. The behavior can be halted with two things: 1) acknowledge our individual and collective ambivalence, and 2) create symbols or symbolic acts with which we can mourn what is lost. In other words, we get honest about how freaked out we all are, how angry, and how much we hate ourselves for wanting to buy things and drive places. We start admitting (out loud, and often) how disappointed we all are in companies like Exxon and Monsanto, because their irresponsibility and greed crushes our piddly little recycling/bicycling efforts like tiny little ants under an insurmountable boot.

Then, we create symbols (which can be provided by responsible designers/builders/artists) and symbolic acts (which can be facilitated by brave speakers, conscious politicians, compassionate religious leaders) that allow us to grieve and mourn these losses.

Why symbols and symbolic acts? We need them, because the deaths we experience are abstract. The deaths are melting glaciers. They are birds filled with plastic. They are dried up river beds. They are rising seas. (In contrast, if we are “lucky” enough to experience a local ecological collapse–like a drop in bee population in our meadow, or a record-breaking heat wave in our city, or a forest full of beetle-killed pines in our back yard–then we stand a better chance of being personally in touch with these deaths…these “mini-deaths.” In fact, we stand a chance to somewhat mourn them).

But when we hear constant, horrifying and disparaging news stories that braid themselves into an unconscious mental knot of a global ecological collapse, we are being slowly damaged inside. No wonder we shrug and crack a beer. We have no bodies to bury, or funeral processions to march in, or memorial services to attend that honor the lives, homes, lifestyles, senses of security, and -most importantly- species that are dying every day.

Aside from shifts in policy and a shift in overall paradigm, our global culture needs SYMBOLS that fill the space left by these deaths, and let us touch our grief. We need SYMBOLIC ACTS to express our pain, and let us move through the ambivalence. How else are we to mourn a dying world than to respectfully honor both our sadness, and the actual deaths?

One of those symbolic acts can simply be to decide to stop ignoring how much this whole thing hurts.

In other words, Exxon Mobile’s outed email is a good thing. Thank you, Exxon, for finally coming forward, even if it might be too late. Your ineptitude will get us talking. It will present another piece of truthful fact that will further level the opposing lofts and troughs of a stupid argument that does not need to be hashed out any longer. Climate Change is real, fossil fuels contribute to it, humans make fossil fuels, end of discussion. Its happening. And Exxon knew it would. How marvelous, really. Thank you.

I will close with the words of a smart man. In Harvard Design Magazine’s Issue #38, “Wet,” is an article by Ulrich Beck (who also wrote the chipper book, Risk Society). His article is called Metamorphosis. Among many other logical arguments in Metamorphosis, I found this small paragraph to contain the words that, I hope, will be in the back of your mind when you read about Exxon Mobil’s dirty little massive lie. Beck writes:

“The risk of climate change generates a […] transvaluation of values, turning the system of value orientation upside-down–from postmodern cultural relativism to a historical new fixed star by which to mobilize solidarities and actions. This is the case because global climate risk contains a sort of navigation system in the otherwise storm-tossed seas of cultural relativism” (Beck, 96).

I believe that climate change is the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity ever faced by our human race. And even if we fail, even if all the lights go out, all the food disappears, all the bees go missing, all the forests die, and the songs of the birds cease to be heard…even then, if you are alive to see it, there will be more stars in the beautiful vast night sky than you can imagine…and you will realize that they were there all along.

Regan Rosburg is currently pursuing her MFA degree at Lesley University College of Art and Design. Her thesis investigates and contributes to current research on Environmental Melancholia. This article is a response to a Guardian article posted on July 8, 2015. The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author. 

Beck, Ulrich. “Metamorphosis.” Harvard Design Magazine. 39. F/W (2014): 88-97. Print.


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