Editorial: Willful Ignorance

The United Nations report on climate change came out a few days ago, drawing on scientific evidence from more than thirty countries to say (once again) that the problem is real, and if it is not addressed, we are in for global trouble. This time, the report attempted to “turn up the volume” on the crisis by stating we have only about a decade to take steps to reverse the trends.

No sooner had the report come out than the climate-change deniers resumed their “junk science” mantras, despite the fact that for decades data has been gathered to prove the reality of the problem.  Sophisticated findings have come from experts, and yet there are those who can sweep such evidence aside with anecdotal assertions, caricatures and stereotypes.

It is the most amazing act of personal and public denial we can point to in our time.  And sadly,  POTUS is the face of the denial, which seems to justify the rest of the deniers.  “If Trump said it, it must be so” is a frightening conclusion in the face of facts he has likely not even read.

Climate-change denial is in itself bad enough, and it boggles the mind to think that anyone (much less the government) would minimize, or in some cases dismiss, evidence that could point to a crisis of survival agriculturally, environmentally, demographically, etc.  Why would anyone put future generations (i.e. children and grandchildren) at risk?  How can casually setting aside a dire warning be considered a better approach than paying attention to it?

The answer is larger than climate change, or any other specific issue.  The answer is willful ignorance, most often rooted in short-term economic gains for corporations, at the expense of the common good.  The already-rich and privileged prosper even more, earth be damned.  The problem is, by the time we realize we’re wrong, it will be too late to do anything about it.  But in the meantime those who choose to “make a buck” will have garnered their billions.  And somehow, certain folks see that as the way to go.

A book that just came out on October 2nd stares this madness square in the face.  It is entitled ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis.  On multiple fronts he addresses the danger of willful ignorance.  A reviewer summarizes it in these words,

“Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters.  If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost.  If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand the hard problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge.  Knowledge makes life messier.”

But even more deep than willful ignorance is the sign that many have adopted a motive of self-enhancement above what reality is telling us–going for a “win” in the face of a pending larger “loss.” This is where willful ignorance becomes an observable and dangerous spiritual problem–the expression of egocentric and ethnocentric thinking and acting.

It harks back to Cain’s attempt to deny his murder of Abel by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The first sin after the Fall was to deny accountability and responsibility for others.  And Cain’s question arises anytime and about anything when we lose our sense of oneness with the rest of the human family and with the rest of creation and live by a “what’s in it for me” view of life.  

Denying climate change is just one example to show that we can murder our brothers (children and grandchildren) in more than one way.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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