Intriguing Backlash Against Trump’s Paris Decision
“Even in the absence of American leadership; even as this Administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”
Ex-President Obama, June 1st, 2017 (Andrews, 2017)
Obama, among others, has noted an extraordinary move on behalf of states, cities, the private sector, religious groups, and the judicial system, to respond to some of the decisions President Trump has carried out since he took office in January.
Last week, Trump stated his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement regarding climate change. The Paris agreement commits 194 countries to keeping rising global temperatures “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C. Trump announced that the USA will withdraw based on the sense that it will negatively affect US jobs.
Various sectors within the country, as well as many from other nations, responded immediately, and negatively, to his decision.
“One of the strongest voices in favour of the US staying in the Paris deal has been corporate America. Leaders of companies such as Google, Apple and hundreds of other including major fossil fuel producers such as Exxon Mobil have urged the President to stick with Paris.”McGrath, 2017
Local and state governments have also pressed back. Shortly after Donald Trump announced his decision regarding the Paris agreement, American cities and states vowed they would abide by the international compact anyway, and the governors of California, New York and Washington announced they would form the “United States Climate Alliance” to do the same as a multi-state coalition. (Lumb, 2017) In fact, the same day this piece was published, a news release was published entitled “We Are Still In” with a list of all the local governments, states, businesses and investors, and universities that have signed on to remain committed to the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Something similar happened when Trump instituted the anti-Muslim ban on January 27th, 2017, religious institutions (like the Catholic Church) denounced to their congregations the flagrant misstep of this ban from a Christian perspective (O’Loughlin, 2017), Starbucks announced it would hire 10,000 refugees (La Roche, 2017), and lawyers worked pro bono until late at night on the airport floors to exert influence in the courts against the ban (Lithwick, 2017).
Protests against such a narrow, shortsighted political move, usually come from the civil society sector—nongovernmental organizations and other environmental groups. It is extraordinary that they are now being joined by these other sectors. Yet, the analysis presented here below suggests that these intriguing responses are something we will see much more of in the coming months and years of the Trump administration.
It is worth examining why this is the case, as the world both reels from this decision while also seeking hope and positive pathways forward.
Integral Theory on the Dynamics of Social Groups
To explore this, I turn to Integral Theory, which is a comprehensive transdisciplinary theory developed by contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber and applied by others across several professional fields.
Integral theory posits some intriguing ideas about social group dynamics. These social groups are referred to as “social holons”, in that they are both ‘whole’ in and of themselves while also ‘part’ of other larger wholes. (Koestler, 1982; Wilber, 2004).
Social holons maintain cohesiveness by their ‘internality codes’ or ‘wholeness patterns.’ Anyone who has worked within a professional field, for example, for long enough will recognize that there is a certain logic or cohesiveness that is evident within that field; outsiders may stumble upon unseen social factors whereas someone internal to that group will not. This is the same for social groups that define themselves on a certain shared set of values—such as social movements, religious congregations, and the private sector—each have codes, norms and informal protocols for ‘the way things are done’. Wilber describes this saying:
“The various interactions of group members are internal to a nexus-agency whose patterns, textures, codes, rules, or flow-patterns can often be specified or described. Those codes represent…the collective requirements of the societal holon in order to recognize its own members and thus reproduce itself in spacetime.”(p. 108, Excerpt D)
In other words, any given social group is only that due to the internality codes that enable it to remain cohesive, and for it’s members to identify themselves within it.
According to Wilber, this occurs through the rules of discourse (the “discursive structures,” or the things that you can, and cannot, officially or legitimately discuss). These become clues as to why and how a social group orients and holds together as it does.
In this, he draws on the extensive work by Foucault on discourses, which is described by Weedon (1987) as:
“ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern.” (p. 108)
Wilber explains how such a social group reproduces itself through defending the boundary of its dominant discourse:
“To the extent that a group of individual ‘I’s’ recognize themselves as a ‘we,’ then to just that extent they defend the boundary of that ‘we’ against both inside and outside disruptions. Here I might point to the work of sociologist Peter Berger on what he calls societal cohesion, nihilation, and therapia.”
Berger described how, to maintain social cohesion, a social group would track and identify risks to its boundaries indicating a threat of annihilation, and thus institute forms of therapia.
“Of course, some of these ‘therapies’ look rather barbaric to outsiders, and some look more healthy, but no collective holon is without them. On the morbid side, some premodern therapies include cannibalism and human sacrifice; some traditional therapies include the Inquisition and burning at the stake; some modern therapies include frontal lobotomies; some postmodern therapies include politically correct thought police. On the happier side, therapia that appear to heal have included shamanic voyaging, religious rituals, democratic justice, and multicultural sensitivity… The ‘barbarism’ does not lie in the therapia itself, but in the level of the expansiveness of the boundary being protected—egocentric to ethnocentric worldcentric to Kosmocentric.” Wilber, 2004, itallics added.
That last sentence is quite important to make sense of this current moment. Here, Wilber is referring to worldviews that develop through a lifespan, which become increasingly more expansive in terms of one’s capacity to take perspectives. The later the worldview, the more perspectives can be included in one’s sphere of awareness. Therefore, an egocentric worldview includes one’s own perspective or those things that fall into the category of “me and mine”; a sociocentric perspective includes the groups a person self-identifies with and the values or norms of that social circle, be it family, tribe, community, company, congregation, nation, etc.; and a worldcentric worldview includes multiple perspectives of others, including others beyond one’s social group, even to include other people one has never met and even other species; and so forth.
(Note that these — ego-, socio-, and world-centric — are very general terms that Wilber uses, which have been studied in detail by many other developmental psychologists. Other terms to describe them are traditional, universalistic, and pluralistic worldviews [Wilber, 2000; Gebser, 1991; Kegan, 1994] and blue, orange and green value memes [Beck and Cowen, 2005].)
In summary, any social holon will have a legitimacy crisis if its cohesion is threatened, and it will need to create some type of therapy to restore wholeness; and that therapy will depend on it’s predominant worldview. (Wilber, 2004, p. 113)1. Understanding the dynamics of social groups involves sensing the social discourses and nexus-agencies that hold them as cohesive social holons, and then it can be seen why certain boundaries, when threatened, must be defended.
Making Sense of this Moment
Returning to recent political events in the United States of America, we can draw upon these ideas regarding the dynamics of social groups to make sense of Trump’s exit from the Paris agreement.
First, by way of example, when Trump instituted the anti-Muslim ban in January 2017, the various social holons responded from their own unique internality codes, in service of holding the line on the possibility of social regression through such a political move. Each sector sought to maintain its cohesiveness through their own discursive structures, which in turn are important in maintaining the legitimacy of these groups. When that legitimacy is threatened, as it was with Trump’s anti-Muslim ban, these social holons exerted their influence or pressed back on that threat with their own forms of therapia from at least three different worldviews.
I would build on how I introduced this above in the following way: Religious institutions like the Catholic Church denounced his ban to their congregations as a way to retain the values of this faith and to hold the line on actions that would otherwise undermine them, which could be said to reflect a sociocentric traditional worldview (amber altitude/blue value meme)2. Starbucks announced it would hire 10,000 refugees as a way to hold the line on its values of universal rights for all, meritocracy and entrepreneurialism, which reflect an early worldcentric universalistic worldview (orange altitude/value meme). And, lawyers who worked pro bono until late at night on the airport floors to exert influence in the courts did so for laws of fairness, universal rights and freedoms that they deem worthy to uphold in a democratic society, which reflect a later worldcentric pluralistic worldview (green altitude/value meme).
Trump’s decision presented a threat to each of these social holons, catalyzing a response from each in which they asserted the boundaries of their own inner logics. Each one of these examples is precisely the effective, healthy use of therapia from each of these sectors (or social holons) to maintain legitimacy—a legitimacy that underscores the ethical, moral, legal and regulatory fabric of the nation. The value of a Trump presidency is that the nation will witness how these social groups step up, press back, and together retain the cohesiveness of that very fabric, through their own unique internality codes and discourse.
The same holds for Trump’s decision to break with the Paris agreement. Trump’s decision can also be understood as “therapia” issued from a sense of threat to his and his followers’ social holon, coming from a more egocentric opportunistic worldview (red altitude/value meme). In his political messages, he misunderstands the global nature of the climate change agreement that coincidently happened to have occurred in Paris, and misconstrued it to be about “Pittsburgh versus Paris”. This was never about Paris per se at all, and to keep it at this self-interested debate between localities was just not the point of such an agreement; the agreement required a higher-order contemplation on what is good for all economies, for all places, for all people, and for all time, where as Trump and his base saw that to be a threat to ‘me and mine’ (my economy, my place, my people, my moment). His decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord to protect jobs for US citizens and to open coalmines is his effort to institute therapia against a perceived threat to the cohesiveness of the Trump social holon. Which, truth be told, is what every social holon will simply do.
However, this piece is not intended to analyze him or his decision as such, but rather it is about what occurred in response to his decision.
His decision reflected such a lack of meaningful leadership to the various social groups present in the USA and across the world, that in order to seek that meaning—that is, the specific meaning that such social holons invariably need to defend or retain in order to hold themselves cohesive and legitimate—those groups are stating their disagreement, pressing out their boundaries firmly, and simply moving clear around him.
Instead, cities and states have created their own US Climate Alliance; the private sector continues to invest in renewable energies preparing for the future that is fast approaching; and “we the people” of the civil society movements will proceed, as they often have, despite the lack political leadership at the helm. The movement We Are Still In (which actually arose after this blog was published) reflects the continued unfolding of this that is being described.
Of particular note is that each of these social holons are simultaneously attending to their own discourse boundaries, which keep their own cohesiveness in place, while also orienting to the spirit of the Paris Accord—namely a worldcentric commitment for steering the world away from catastrophic climate change. That orientation to this larger vision, issued from within the internality codes for each worldview, is what makes these therapias ‘healthy’ and quite exciting for the world today.
Could there be a way for the Trump base to assert its boundary in a healthier manner than Trump’s move to withdraw from Paris? Definitely. Healthy expressions of the Trump base are needed: expressions that articulate and hold their own discourse for their social holon, while also finding discourse-congruent ways to orient to the worldcentric whole. That is a topic for another paper, but is an area ripe for further inquiry.
This also brings us to the risk that Trump truly runs in failing to find the basic minimum position at the leading edge, and also to the excitement of what this might catalyze globally.
While on the one hand, this news of his Paris exit has been devastating; on the other hand, this is a fascinating moment: where sectors and social groups are having to dig deeper to find their own initiative, hone in on their own inherent commitment to mitigate climate change translated to the vision of the Paris Accord, and indeed to proceed not just without the political will at the forefront to encourage them, but despite it. It is a moment in which we see these social groups flexing their boundaries and defending them against the possibility of social regression. When such a demonstrative lack of foresight and such a harrowingly narrow worldview will simply be rendered irrelevant in the midst of a widespread social transformation that simply cannot be stopped.
We are set to behold what happens when the leader of the world’s most powerful nation fails to meet the basic minimum social expectation on the world stage, and, like an awkward rock in midstream, we will watch the rest of social life simply flow clear around him. We are still in.
1 Note that the same kind of dynamic can be seen in systems, with the objective sciences of cybernetics and complexity, although that is the topic of another paper.
2 Although that is not to say that the Catholic Church’s statement is entirely reflective of that worldview, rather there are plenty of other instances of progressive worldcentric leadership by Pope Francis. This is just an example, but it is not comprehensive.
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About Gail Hochachka
Gail has 20 years of experience bridging research and practice in sustainable development in Africa, Latin America and North America. Her enduring interest is on how to better understand and integrate the human dimensions of global environmental change, in approaches that are commensurate with the complexity of the issues today.