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Why We Prefer Not To Think About Climate Change

Social scientists are mystified. Despite grim headlines most of us are doing little or nothing.

We barely talk about it and then forget about it.

So what's the problem?

There is nothing to discuss. There is no program, plan, or initiative to be for or against. There are no leaders defining the problems we should be attacking. There should be a "Center for Climate Programs and Planning" staffed by the best scientists and managers. They in turn are given a mission: to define the problem and to propose action to present to the president, prime minister or whomever controls the purse strings.

1. IDENTIFY THE MOST SIGNIFICANT contributors to emission and pass laws forcing them to meet specified targets. The director must have enforcement authority, essentially dictorial powers because this is an emergency situation.

2. SURVEY METHODS OF NEGATIVE EMISSIONS to identify the most promising. Select the best or 2 or 3 and evaluate scalability, efficiency, etc.

3. INCREASE INVESTMENT IN NUCLEAR POWER in addition to an education program about its safety. Design fail-safe reactors and standardize on a single design for lower cost and easier training of operating personnel.

4. CREATE AN EDUCATION PROGRAM that powerfully and clearly communicates just what we are facing. If it is a feature film, the viewers should exit the theater demanding action. Teach reality. Teach what evidence is. Teach what science is.



George Marshall writing in The Ecologist: "The Psychology of Denial: our failure to act against climate change:

'Newspapers regularly carry dire climatic warnings.... (yet) individuals, including my friends and family, can express grave concern, and then just as quickly block it out, buy a new car, turn up the air conditioning, or fly across the world for a holiday.'

...why this strange incongruity? Instead of immediate action to halt our consumption...(we) are living our lives as if there is nothing wrong, as if it’s business as usual.

The Lowy Institute in Sydney found in June 2011 that only 46% of Australians think climate change is important, down from 75 % in 2007.

In New Zealand, a 2010 survey of 500 people, conducted by UMR Research on behalf of the Greenhouse Policy Coalition, shows climate change ranked bottom in order of importance to people out of a list of 10 common issues. The proportion of people agreeing that climate change is a serious issue fell from 42.6% last year to 36.3%.

The Power of Denial

“Never underestimate the power of denial.” (Wes Bently)

Denial, in psychological terms, can be defined as the rejection of an issue that is too uncomfortable to face, despite overwhelming evidence to support the fact. Sounds like climate change, right?

John Cook and Haydn Washington, authors of Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (New South Books), describe the discrepancy between what we know, and why we’re doing nothing about it:

“There are various types of climate denial. There’s literal denial, where skeptics deny the evidence for man-made global warming. This is most obvious in the denial industry, often funded by fossil fuel companies, that seek to confuse the public. But there’s also denial within governments, who pretend they are taking action. And there’s denial within most of us. We let denial prosper and we resist the science and delude ourselves.”

Psychologists are investigating our lack of action to curb environmental decline and climate change. One of the most influential psychological institutions worldwide, the American Psychological Association (APA) has commissioned a full report into our collective response to climate change.

Called the “Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges”, the APA’s report shows the vast complexity of the problem.

One of the reasons that we fail to act, they say, is because the problem seems so overwhelming, so beyond our control, that we cannot believe it is within our control to stop the problem.

Someone Else Will Fix It

The report highlights what is known as the bystander effect: not taking responsibility for our actions because we believe someone else (governments, corporations and scientists) will fix the problems.

“Many [people]… think the problem is elsewhere, are fixed in their ways, believe that others should act, or believe that their actions will make no difference or are unimportant compared to those of others. They may be engaged in token actions or actions they believe are helpful but objectively are not...

George Marshall explains it another way: “We diffuse our responsibility…. Individuals wait for someone else to act and subsume their personal responsibility in the collective responsibility of the group. One notable feature of the bystander effect is that the larger the number of actors the lower the likelihood that any individual person feels capable of taking unilateral action. In times of war and repression, entire communities can become incapacitated. In the case of climate change we are both bystanders and perpetrators, an internal conflict that can only intensify our denial.”

Recognising that each one of us is responsible for earth’s well being is a bold request – but a vital one if we are to see any change at all.

Instead of waiting for corporations to reduce their environmental degradation and emissions, or for governments to even decide on how to start demanding emission reductions, we can make the changes required right now.

How, you may ask?

The Fixation with Stuff

Australian academic, Clive Hamilton, author of Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (Allen & Unwin) claims that our primary obstacle to taking resolute action is our national attitude.

Where economic growth used to be about improving living standards, now, thanks to three decades of meticulous advertising, growth (and that means your rampant buying of products) is now equated with “vitality”, “cultural superiority” and even a religious fervour.

“Growth”, says Hamilton, provides the raw material from which we increasingly construct our sense of who we are… Just as a nation’s sense of itself has become bound up with how it grows.

Asking us to change, to stop buying, is asking us to repudiate and reject ourselves, something most human beings would howl at in protest.

Clever marketing and massive advertising departments in all the major corporations have ensured that we believe that the things we buy bestow qualities almost akin to a transformational experience: success, status, happiness and well being. We believe that Nike wearers have the edge on those who buy no-name brands, even though both pairs of sneakers cost the same to produce in China. We believe the marketers who sell us a BMW when they tell us that now we have “made it”, even though we may be so heavily in debt that we’re bankrupt.

In reality, our possessions have no such magical powers, but this is the dream we find ourselves believing and living.

So the contrary, to give up our stuff would mean, symbolically, that we are down-and-out, a loser and unhappy. And who wants to be associated with that?

An Addiction that Runs Deep

Advertisers have honed in on our most vulnerable points: our need to feel loved, to feel like a valued part of a community, to look young, attractive and well-groomed, and to be successful. As humans, it is normal to be in a state of flux around these needs: some days we feel on top of the world, and other days we feel unattractive and lonely.

Marketers have made us believe that a little retail therapy can fix this, capitalising on our deep-seated psychological needs and promising to make us feel better.

“The problem is,” writes Hamilton, “that these substitute gratifications [of buying things] can never provide what we really need; one cannot find an authentic identity in a supermarket or department store.

The flipside is that buying these possessions brings no lasting joy. On the contrary, one study found that four in ten people “feel anxious, guilty or depressed” about the clutter in their homes, and “trapped” by their possessions.

“In a consumption society, economic growth can be sustained only as long as people remain discontented.

Psychologists have identified that shopping addiction follows all the same patterns as a drug fix: the yearning and cravings, the increased adrenalin before a purchase, the sense of euphoria for a few minutes and then the ghastly anti-climax after minutes to hours once the hit is over. And like all addictions, the addict is on the lookout for the next fix.

So, if our stuff brings us no sustained joy, we need to constantly search for the ultimate product that will, for once and for all, make us happy.

And just like all addictions, the shopping addiction, for so many, runs so deep that to break out of it would require genuine inner transformation that demands great courage.

The Great Wake-up Call Right Now

We know that uncurbed carbon emissions, unlimited population growth and unfettered consumerism will ensure that our children and grandchildren live in an unliveable world. [emphasis supplied] These are three things we DO have control over.

The energy we use, the things we buy and the number of children we have, are personal choices. We don’t need anyone to spell out any clearer to us that we hold the key to reducing our emissions.

Just like collective denial kept Nazism in place for over a decade, and Apartheid in place for several decades, so now, after four decades of unchecked obsession with production and consumerism, we need a global moment of truth-facing and soul-searching.

It is a call to face the truth about what each of us is doing to the planet.

Each of us needs to make the necessary changes in our consumer choices, to brave facing our loneliness, our vulnerability and also, our connectedness and our power.

We need to recognise, again, that old-fashioned values of thriftiness, community connectedness and integrity are what bring about genuine success and meaning.

As the APAs report claims: “There is reason to believe that positive consequences [of climate change] are also possible, as people take collective responsibility for a shared problem.”

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