Keepers of the Flame: Climate Chaos and Creeping Authoritarianism

Photo by the National Park Service.

Our son was born just after midnight on New Year’s Day, in the middle of a blizzard and at the apex of a plague. We jokingly call him Kyber Chaosborn, partly in homage to Daenerys Stormborn and partly to deflect from a harrowing labor we’re not yet ready to fully process.

Kyber was born in Ohio, where my wife and I grew up. While my wife was pregnant, we took an anxiety-ridden journey from California back to Ohio because we hoped to improve our odds of avoiding COVID-19 by staying with family. Given all that effort and concern, you can see why I was so insulted and dismayed when an Ohio senate candidate retweeted the following sentiments in support of his mission to ensure a “healthy ruling class”:

“The Democrat party is a party of childless people and I think that affects their view of the future…You don’t think about your investment in your community the same way if you know your children aren’t going to inherit it.”

This comment is monstrous, likely intentionally so, on many levels. One of its more glaring fallacies is that it reverses the causal arrow: many people, not all of them Democrats or liberals, hold a pessimistic vision of the future, and that view is what influences their decision not to have children. What the tweeter’s political ideology must discount are the myriad reasons people who might want to have children choose not to—student debt, medical debt, health insurance costs, childcare costs, housing costs, stagnating wages, and, of course, climate change.

It was another Ohioan, Michael Shannon’s tortured, Cassandra-like protagonist in Take Shelter, who failed to convince his small town of an imminent climate calamity. While Shannon experienced nightmarish previsions of an apocalyptic storm, we watch climate catastrophes playout live almost daily on our newsfeeds. No matter how dire it gets—skies choked with wildfire smoke, concrete buckling from scorching heat, villages washing away completely in floodwaters, lakes and rivers dried up completely due to drought—many remain unmoved.

This is due in part because to pledge allegiance to conservative politics today is to occupy an unconscionable paracosm—an alternate reality where every major threat to the community, such as climate change and COVID-19, must be denounced as a hoax, while a myriad of manufactured problems, such as migrant caravans and mass election fraud, consume all of the media bandwidth.

Underpinning these political priorities is an impoverished conception of freedom that almost always maximizes personal risk in ways that favor corporate profits. Personhood is equated with profitability. This dogmatized theory of freedom excludes that which would improve quality of life, such as access to healthcare, breathable air, and a living wage, but includes the right to expose oneself and others to a deadly virus, nearly perpetual gun violence, and a battery of toxins pumped into our air and water.

It should come as no surprise that this notion of freedom boosts corporate bottom lines as much as it belittles any sense of community care. The overarching goal of the hyper-individualistic dogma, to quote Elizabeth Andersen, is “to mask problematic features of our world” and “misrepresent the space of possibilities so as to obscure better options.” They’re not just selling products; they’re selling resignation, too.

It is the stunting impact on imagination that animates UCLA Law professor William Boyd’s recent paper, The Poverty of Theory. Boyd posits that the devastating legacy of applying market-based solutions to remedy climate chaos extends beyond their failure to curb emissions. Boyd argues that our long-held commitment to market-based solutions has also constrained our ability to even conceive of alternate solutions to the climate crisis.

Boyd acknowledges the critique of market-based approaches as a doubling down on the logic of markets and neoliberalism, the very driving force behind global climate change, and he highlights Ronald Reagan’s role in jaundicing our view of government’s capacity to respond to complex public problems. But his recommendation for a centralized governmental approach to climate chaos fails to recognize the extent of the damage the Reagan administration inflicted upon our governmental institutions and never fully reckons with the rash of anti-democratic actions that perpetually hamstring our representative system.

Kurt Andersen dives deeper into the ramifications of Reagan administration policies, devoting an entire chapter of his book, The Unmaking of America, to enumerating almost 60 key changes enacted during the Reagan era that shunted money and advantages to big business, the financial industry, the wealthy, and conservative media at the expense of Americans in general.

The intractable fact is that we let the proverbial fox in the henhouse a long time ago, and now dark money is free to dirty environments, drive climate denialism and other disinformation campaigns (including the Big Lie), and fund a whole slew of anti-democratic activities, including voter suppression and voter nullification efforts.

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Boyd that it’s easy to imagine ways in which government can tackle public problems, but it’s far harder to imagine overcoming the political influence of excessive wealth. 80% of Americans disapprove of the seminal campaign finance case Citizens United, but that hasn’t stopped a handful of super-wealthy Americans from wielding their economic power to manipulate public sentiment when they can and directly defy that sentiment when all else fails. Another UCLA professor, Martin Gilens, found that on issues where the views of wealthy voters differed significantly from those of poorer voters, the policies that were eventually implemented “strongly reflected” the wishes of the wealthy and bore “virtually no relationship to the preferences” of poorer Americans.

What’s most frightening is that these political players no longer feel satisfied with this level of oligarchical control. We seem poised to provide yet another historical example of an oligarchic republic slipping into despotic empire.

This article takes its title from another movie, 1942’s Keeper of the Flame, which the intrepid can stream on HBO Max. In the film, a legendary political figure named Robert Forrest has died mysteriously. Spencer Tracy plays a raffish journo probing for answers from Forrest’s willowy, evasive widow played by Katherine Hepburn. To be honest, most of the movie is fairly slow and uneventful, but the final scene speaks to our political moment so clearly, I’m surprised more people haven’t referenced the exchange. 80-year-old spoiler alert! The key to the mystery is that Hepburn’s dead husband had been plotting a fascistic takeover of America before his untimely demise.

“I saw the face of fascism in my own home,” says Hepburn in that classic, trans-Atlantic accent, as she shares documented proof with Tracy in her husband’s cottage arsenal. “Hatred, arrogance, cruelty. I saw the enemy. Of course, they didn’t call it fascism. They painted it red, white, and blue, and called it Americanism. And here they had the funds to see it through. Fantastic amounts ascribed by a few individuals…who wanted political power and knew they could never get it by democratic means. This was the essence of their plan…to stir up all the little hatreds of the whole nation against each other. Each of these groups were to be played against each other until their usefulness was exhausted. And in the end, all these poor little people who never knew to what purpose they were lending themselves were to be in the same chains.”

If that doesn’t sound familiar enough, Hepburn says of her late husband: “He envied the dictators. He grew to despise the people that worshipped him. He felt that we were all beneath him. He didn’t trust them to speak for themselves.”

The parallels to our own authoritarian threat are so stark, they require no further explanation. The total abandonment of democratic means, however, requires further exploration.

When Republican politicians, like Utah Senator Mike Lee, respond to calls to preserve American democracy by declaring that we have a republic, not a democracy, they’re both wrong and right. On the one hand, they’re using a glib semantic distinction to distract from insidious schemes to disenfranchise large swaths of young, diverse voters. Whether you call our current system a republic or a representative democracy makes little difference to those denied a voice. On the other hand, our system falls far short of the Hellenic ideal of direct democracy, where the people can truly speak for themselves.

As long as we’re heeding Professor Boyd’s call to inject creativity into our plans to confront climate change and other complex problems, we should explore solutions that bypass a gridlocked representative body. Social ecologists, for one, propose decentralized approaches to socioecological problems and a return to direct participatory democracies. They remain wary of statist institutions that externalize, institutionalize and professionalize power structures, slowly leeching power from the people in the interests of a privileged class. Even if we could imagine new ways for the regulatory state to confront the climate crisis, social ecologists argue, if that state reproduces systems of subordination around a body of elites, the project of dominating nature will continue.

Seating power in localities might seem counterproductive to those who have watched the inconsistent pandemic response from a spate of prominent governors, but decentralization provides a variety of advantages. First, climate change adaptation policies that provide significant local benefits are better motivators. They can also double as mitigation strategies and establish mitigation programs, improve public awareness, and fulfill basic needs neglected by government. Local approaches can be more tailored to specific ecologies, and they can generate novel strategies to be shared with other eco-communities arranged in a mutualistic confederation. Bottom-up approaches are also more likely to remedy environmental injustices, such as pollution hot spots, that can easily be engendered or exacerbated by top-down approaches.

Moreover, many of the changes that could make communities more ecologically conscious already fall under the purview of municipalities. Key areas of local power include urban design, building codes, and energy policy. Cities already have tools to promote recycling, reduce water waste and stormwater runoff, and use methane capture at landfills to generate power.

Dispensing with political parties in favor of direct democracy can also help solve one of the chief paradoxes of conservationism: you fundraise far more when the opposition is in power and thus capable of blunting the impact of ecological activism. Environmentalists are also far more likely to assume an individual Democratic candidate is environmentally friendly, and often fail to examine that representative’s actual record and push them to adopt more ecological attitudes when necessary. A shift from representative to direct democracy could thus mean moving from defense to offense for conservationists, applying positive transformational pressure to harmonize communities with their local ecologies.

There is also a growing phenomenon of states electing conservative politicians and simultaneously voting for progressive policies, such as minimum wage increases or recreational marijuana initiatives, that those same politicians oppose. This seems to suggest that if we remove the partisan veil, and restore a concept of politics as public activity, citizens (not constituents) may be more likely to make rational, ecological, and prosocial decisions.

With Trump’s political progeny still occupying prominent positions, it seems impossible to decrassify American politics, let alone democratize it. Electoral politics have become almost purely spectatorial now—one vast grievance machine designed to justify its own existence.

At times it feels as if people are incapable of even the smallest acts of altruism.

And that’s the most pernicious part of the political circus. We get so discouraged by the inability of our market society to provide even the semblance of a collective life or to mount adequate, ethical responses to collective action problems, we become even more atomized, more parochial. More susceptible to the narcissism of small differences. We may even seek solace in smaller sects because that solidarity represents a more manageable project than confronting the full force of our interlocking social, political, and ecological crises. The despair is as understandable as it is destructive. We have to fight that fatalism as much as the forces that engender it.

We named our son Kyber because in Star Wars lore kyber crystals are especially attuned to the Force, one of the few cultural touchstones we have that celebrates the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things. The name seemed especially meaningful to my wife and me, because the choice we have now isn’t just between autocracy and democracy, but between a death-oriented and a life-oriented society.

It’s undeniable that the influence of power and wealth in our politics will be hard to overcome, but in the words of Spencer Tracy, “You’re brave alright, and you’re tough too. I can believe in you so much that you just can’t help yourself. You must be what I believe you are.”

The keepers of the flame.

Nick Bascom is a third year law student at UCLA serving as a summer intern with WildEarth Guardians. Before law school, he taught for many years and wrote for Science News and Research Penn State. His first novel, Mordor, California, will be published in the fall. He lives with his wife Camrynn, his son Kyber, and his dogs K.C. and London.