May 16, 2023 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Paul Schwennesen

One of the prime advantages of a graduate education is the opportunity it presents to witness firsthand the exquisitely facile handwringing that undergirds modern discourse. To attend a campus seminar today is to peer into the sensibilities of our age, a glimpse which reveals much of the impetus behind today’s culture wars. It is also, I’m afraid, a foretaste of what’s to come: conversations on campus are increasingly radical and will inevitably bleed into the mainstream dialogue. Be ready.

A case-in-point is a webinar I was recently asked to attend on “Emotions and Climate Change: Climate Grief and Vulnerability.” Common decency demands I redact the university and department, but it hardly matters — as anyone in academia will attest, the lunacy is deep, having metastasized even into my red-state midwestern corner of the modern university system.

The session was ostensibly convened on the topic of psychology and group trauma, but was in fact a predictable litany of tropes and vacuous posturing — a “call to action” against the modern economic order, which, despite increasing peace and prosperity, is relentlessly characterized instead as an era of “violence and theft.”

Generation Dread

“How we feel is the issue” we were told by a senior presenter. Climate change and “extreme weather events,” are not merely “existential crises,” but psychological ones as well. “Differences in lived experience” have led to a generation-wide case of post-traumatic stress disorder which requires the wholesale mobilization of mental health experts to “enact systemic change in institutions.” Whatever the hell that means.

We were told that the world is experiencing collective “moral distress” because “people aren’t doing what they should, or are doing what they shouldn’t” when it comes to “climate-correct” choices. Governments are “failing to address” the “indirect effects” of climate change which include a generalized “insecure feeling” about the future. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the self-described “Generation Dread,” the most histrionic and self-infatuated class of hypersensitive twaddle-peddlers since — well, maybe ever…

Up next on the panel was a young woman, who, “driven by her own torment” had discovered “new registers of panic and grief” relating to climate catastrophe. The panic had interfered with her daily life to such an extent that she “lost her ability to access joy.”  Having arrived, however, at a “deeply rooted place of empathy,” she now feels empowered to “appropriately stoke anxieties.” Her newfound “badge of compassion” allows her to “embrace darker emotions,” and her elite Stanford-based position has shown her that “activism is the antidote to anxiety.” Reckoning with “chronic insecurity” in an age of “poly-crisis” has focused her energies toward offering under-served communities templates for “collective action.”  She did not make clear how collective action and “darker emotions” were intertwined, but it doesn’t bode well I’m afraid. In fact, it sounds remarkably like the anxiety-stoking by Napoleon in Animal Farm.

The final panelist was a young man who was very busy “leveraging his anger” at “those with power” (corporations and elected officials) on behalf of marginalized communities.  He admitted, with a chuckle, that “he is not perfect” since he had “eaten at McDonald’s” that day, but “righteous anger” should not be tempered by our all-too-human foibles. The “eco-anger” he channels is to be mobilized toward a society that is “optimizing for planet health instead of economic health.”

Okay. Planet health instead of economic health. Cute. Never mind that the two are inextricably entwined, or that there is no widely agreed notion of what “planet health” would even look like. No, it is the impetus for action, the emotion-fueled rhetoric, that is the important bit.

I popped the first question into the virtual queue, asking whether any lateral studies had been conducted to ascertain whether fear itself might account for some of the observed negative feelings — whether it was perhaps exaggerated reporting of impending doom that led to the kind of “collective trauma” so desperately needing repair. It was roundly ignored, in favor of more overtly friendly questions, like how one might introduce catastrophic messaging to young children without permanently damaging them. I didn’t have the heart to say that the damage has already been done.

Such theatrical navel-gazing might have been safely relegated to the eye-roll column a few years ago. The problem is, this is no longer considered outré in today’s mainstream. This sort of institutionalized insult to intelligence is instead the standard refrain in any public learning space, from kindergarten to college. The will to power is unmistakable, the frantic undertones of souped-up existential emergency hard to miss. There is social current that is literally driving us mad.

I’m hard pressed to know what to make of it all. To be charitable, these mythologized melodramas clearly indicate an embodied hunger for community and collective action. The good news, then, for people who care about liberty is that there is perhaps an opportunity afoot: maybe, with careful attention to facts and reason, we can harness this collective ennui toward a saner future. The message we were left with on the webinar was this: “Stay in touch with your feelings and let them inform your actions.” 

“No” must be our answer. Let’s not let feelings run amok — let’s instead slow down, calm down, and use our heads as well as our hearts to continue to reap the benefits of the greatest blessings of liberty and prosperity our species has ever seen.

Paul Schwennesen

Paul Schwennesen is an environmental historian. He holds a Doctorate from the University of Kansas, a Master’s degree in Government from Harvard University, and degrees in History and Science from the United States Air Force Academy.

He is a regular contributor to AIER and his writing has appeared at the New York Times, American Spectator, Claremont Review, and in textbooks on environmental ethics (Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill). He is the father, most importantly, of three delightful children.

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