Upton Sinclair on why people don't deal with climate change

Upton Sinclair
CC BY 2.0 Upton Sinclair/ Via Wikipedia

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Upton Sinclair wrote this after a failed run at becoming Governor of California in 1934. I was reminded of it after seeing photos of Albertans in yellow vests demanding that Canada's prime minister Justin Trudeau be tried for treason or worse, strung up. In Ontario, Canada, cabinet ministers are taking credit for low gas prices, claiming that it is because they got rid of a carbon tax (they didn't, there wasn't one). In the UK, the government is proud of freezing gas taxes for another year; in France, the President rolled back taxes in the face of actions by the gilet jaune.


And then there is the United States of America. As David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times,

Trump’s climate agenda consists of making the problem worse. His administration is filled with former corporate lobbyists, and they have been changing federal policy to make it easier for companies to pollute.

It is all about burning more coal, more gas in bigger cars, and blaming forest fires on insufficient logging and raking. Leonhardt is optimistic because of public opinion.

No, it isn’t changing nearly as rapidly as I wish. Yet it is changing, and the weather seems to be a factor. The growing number of extreme events — wildfires, storms, floods and so on — are hard to ignore.

I would disagree. For all of the news about the popularity of Teslas, pickup trucks and SUVs continue to dominate auto sales. All anyone seems to care about is cheap gas and free parking and single family zoning. People might give up drinking straws but won't give up flying. They are doing a remarkably good job of avoiding any connection between wildfires, storms or floods and their lifestyle.

Sinclair under attackSinclair under attack in newspapers/Public Domain

Upton Sinclair lost his election. He was running as a Democrat to end poverty, develop a national pension plan and put people back to work and seemed popular, but according to Gilbert King in the Smithsonian,

“Business interests across the country suddenly began pouring million dollars into a concerted effort to defeat him,” King writes. “The newspapers pounced, too, with an unending barrage of negative coverage.” The first-ever attack ads also appeared in movie theater newsreels. By the time of the election, “millions of viewers simply did not know what to believe anymore.”


Not much appears to have changed since 1934. It is difficult to convince people living in suburbs (as 70 percent of Americans do) to even buy a small fuel efficient car, let alone an electric one or, god forbid, give it up. A sure way to get elected is to promise cheap gas and no carbon taxes.

A sure way to get people to read TreeHugger is to write about camper vans, the only two posts I wrote that made the top ten for the year, instead of climate change or energy efficiency. People don't want to talk about it, don't want to read about it, aren't going to vote to do anything about it. Paraphrasing Sinclair, their lifestyle depends on them not understanding climate change.

But people do care about their health. That's why in 2019 I am going to keep writing about the relationship of climate and health; of the dangers of air pollution, of mercury from burning coal, of interior air quality, of alternative transportation and urban design. About how our climate-killing lifestyle is also a people-killing lifestyle.

It may well be that this is the only way to get people's attention.

Upton Sinclair on why people don't deal with climate change
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

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