Climate Denial and American Voluntarism

November 4, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

At the GOP convention in August, Mitt Romney’s cavalier dismissal of global warming got the intended laughs. Today, it seems less funny.


Here’s the transcript:
President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the
oceans and to heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family.
In two short sentences, Romney gives us the broader context for the denial of global warming:  the denial of society itself.  He echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum
There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.
This doesn’t mean that there are no groups beyond the family.  But those larger groups are valid only because individuals, consciously and voluntarily, chose to create them.  This way of thinking about the relation between individuals and groups has long been an underlying principle of American thought.  Claude Fischer, in Made in America calls it “voluntarism” – the idea that the only legitimate groups are the ones that people voluntarily form or join.*  The individual has a strong obligation to those groups and their members, but he has little or no obligation towards groups and people he did not choose. 

That is a moral position.  It tells us what is morally O.K., and what is not.  If I did not choose to join a group, I make no claims on the people in that group, and it is wrong for them – whether as individuals or as an organized group, even a government – to make any claim upon me.

That moral position also shapes the conservative view of reality, particularly about our connectedness to other people and to the environment.  Ideas about what is right determine ideas about what is true.  The conservative rejects non-voluntary connections as illegitimate, but he also denies that these connections exist.  If what I do affects someone else, that person has some claim upon me; but unless I voluntarily enter into that relationship, that claim is morally wrong.  So in order to remain free of that claim, I must believe that what I do does not affect others, at least not in any harmful way.

It’s easy to maintain that belief when the thing being affected is not an individual or family but a large and vague entity like “society” or “the environment.” My single action could not possibly make a difference to something so large.  To make a difference, I must willingly join with many other people.  Then I will acknowledge how our small individual acts - one vote, one small donation, one act of charity, etc. – add up to a large effect. That effect is what we intended.  But if we separately, individually, drive a lot in our SUVs, use mega-amounts of electricity, and so on, we deny that these acts can add up to any unintended effect on the planet. 

As Fischer says, voluntarism is characteristically American.  So is the denial of global warming.  The incident at a recent Romney rally illustrates both (a video is here). 


When a protester yells out the question, “What about climate?” Romney stands there, grinning but silent, and the crowd starts chanting, “USA, USA.”  The message is clear: we don’t talk about climate change; we’re Americans.
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*Two earlier Socioblog posts on voluntarism are here and here.



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