The quiet desperation of woke climate fanatics

Behind climate fanaticism and narcissism lies an apocalyptic religion born from nihilism
Young fanatics smear Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting with tomato soup as a form of climate protest. Fortunately, the painting has a glass cover and wasn’t damaged.

By Michael Shellenberger, Oct. 19, 2022

“The fiercest fanatics are often selfish people who were forced, by innate shortcomings or external circumstances, to lose faith in their own selves. They separate the excellent instrument of their selfishness from their ineffectual selves and attach it to the service of some holy cause.”

—Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

Over the last few weeks, climate activists in Britain have blocked highways (because cars emit carbon dioxide), poured milk onto the floors of supermarkets (because livestock emits methane), and thrown tomato soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (because climate change is more important than art. Or something). The activists are a kind of reboot of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate protests in the UK in the fall of 2019.

People in the UK are at risk of dying from natural gas shortages. Still, the climate activists with “Just Stop Oil” think it’s outrageous that their government is desperately trying to produce more natural gas for its people. But without more natural gas, there could be three-hour-long blackouts, which threaten the operation of medical equipment, and thus the lives of vulnerable people.

The various media stunts appeared authentically grassroots but were, in fact, financed by a $1-million grant from a philanthropic group called Climate Emergency Fund, which is funded by their heirs to the Getty and Rockefeller oil fortunes, and founded in 2019. The Board of Directors consists of a who’s-who of climate alarmism including “Don’t Look Up!” film director, Adam McKay, who donated $4 million, New Yorker writer Bill McKibben, and New York Times columnist David Wallace-Wells. The Fund and their grantees have been cheered on by the Secretary General of the United Nations and much of the mainstream media.

In a series of recent articles I have argued that what lies behind climate fanaticism and narcissism is an apocalyptic religion born from nihilism. The power of science to explain humankind’s place in the universe (e.g., the big bang, evolution by natural selection) resulted in a dominant narrative coming out of society’s elite institutions for over 100 years that human life has no inherent meaning or purpose (nihilism). We’re just animals like any other.

This depressing story has led the ostensibly secular elite, who are educated and indoctrinated in universities that teach nihilism as unquestioning scientific gospel, to create a new apocalyptic religion (climate catastrophe), complete with a new victim-god (nature), a new reason for guilt (sins against nature), and a path for redemption (renewables and low-energy living). It, and the broader Woke religion, have found intellectual ballast since World War II from Rousseau, Malthus, and Foucault.

But that account only partly addresses the motivations of the fanatics. It doesn’t answer why some people become fanatics and others don’t. It doesn’t explain the specific role of fanatics, particularly in relation to other actors, such as the intellectual architects of the movement, and the institution-builders. Nor does it address how fanaticism ends and what, if anything, can be done to hasten its expiration date.

As such, we need to ask, who exactly are the climate fanatics? And how can their power over Western cultural and political life be reduced?

Fanaticism born from personal frustration and wounded pride

All mass movements have certain things in common, argues Eric Hoffer in his now-classic 1951 work of political psychology, The True Believer. Hoffer was mostly describing Nazis and Communists but his observations are incredibly fresh and relevant. I devoured most of the book in a single sitting and underlined many sentences and shouted to myself “Yes! That’s it!” as I reflected on how well it described climate fanaticism and Woke fanaticism more broadly.

While at times Hoffer can sound reactionary, he was himself working-class, laboring as a longshoreman (stevedore), and he is writing in defense of liberal democracy, not pining for a return to the aristocracy.

Hoffer argues that fanaticism is born from personal frustration. Fanatics are people with more ambition than talent. Notes Hoffer, “Most of the Nazi bigwigs had artistic and literary ambitions that they could not realize. Hitler tried painting and architecture; Goebbels, drama, the novel and poetry; Rosenberg, architecture and philosophy; von Schirach, poetry; Funk, music; Streicher, painting. ‘Almost all were failures, not only by the usual vulgar criterion of success but by their own artistic criteria.’”

You can see the connection to wounded pride. Many narcissists are seeking to feel relevant but lack the talent or stamina to become any good at their craft. They must thus resort to cruder actions that require courage but little creativity, or hard work, like throwing a can of tomato soup onto a Van Gogh painting, stopping traffic, or emptying milk onto the floor. It is notable the extent to which the first and last of those behaviors are typical of the temper tantrums of children. Konstantin Kisin aptly dubbed the climate fanatics as belonging to “tantrum groups.”

For Hoffer, the fanatic pursues politics for the same reason an addict pursues drugs: to escape inner demons. He writes:

“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless.… In exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”

All mass movements are religious movements

All mass movements are religious movements, says Hoffer. Both the swastika and the hammer and sickle are versions of the cross. “The ceremonial of the parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession.” Such movements aren’t only religious; they can be nationalistic or communistic, too. But they are movements offering the feeling of immortality to their true believers. Today we can see such religious rituals in the kneeling promoted by Black Lives Matter activists including (or especially) in places like uber-woke Martha’s Vineyard.

Fanatics tend to be losers. They are those with the least to gain from the status quo and the most to gain from radical change

Harsh as it sounds, fanatics tend to be losers. They are those with the least to gain from the status quo and the most to gain from radical change.

“The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence toward the present,” Hoffer writes. “They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both; hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy.” Hoffer doesn’t mince words. He goes so far as to refer to fanatics as the slime that serves as the mortar for building a castle.

It is worth noting that Hoffer is not suggesting that there is never a role for outcasts. America was founded, after all, by them. “The stone the builders reject becomes the cornerstone of a new world. A nation without dregs and malcontents is orderly, decent, peaceful, and pleasant, but perhaps without the seed of things to come. It was not the irony of history that the undesired in the countries of Europe should have crossed an ocean to build a new world on this continent. Only they could do it.”

Fanatics avoid facing inner demons

The first fanatics tend more often to be bored elites than exploited or oppressed victims, writes Hoffer. But this is a “boredom” of nihilists. “The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom,” he writes. Such people lack the experience of “flow” that comes from being engaged in absorbing, meaningful work.

Who, then, are the climate fanatics? They are frustrated, needy, and lonely. They are in the grip of nihilism and wounded, narcissistically. They are spiritual seekers and creative failures. They have both a strong need to feel special, and powerful, but also to lose themselves in the group. They are people who desperately want to get away from having to deal with themselves and the confrontation with inner demons required for personal growth.

This article, which has been condensed here, appears in Michael Shellberger’s Substack blog at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *