The Threshold of Anxiety in Global Warming

As anxiety diminishes, people engage more.
As anxiety diminishes, people engage more.

So what are the factors that block engagement in global warming?

In a recent podcast The Big Man Can’t Shoot, journalist Malcolm Gladwell identifies the need for social approval as a major factor in effective choice. Gladwell tells the story of a legendary basketball player with only one flaw: his success rate at free throws from the foul line was only about 40%. He was coached by a colleague whose success rate was 93%, and was able to improve himself to 87% — a huge advance and one that could make him almost unstoppable. The catch: he had to make “granny shots” — underhand throws rather than overhead shots, that are the standard of the league. And he wouldn’t do so — because he would look “silly.” Nor would other players, again because they would be breaking the unspoken norms of play — even though they would be better players!

What Gladwell identified was what I call the threshold of anxiety that must be overcome when one’s behavior does not match the common deportment of the peer group, the so-called peer pressure that exists within any group, even when unspoken. The threshold level varies from person to person, but always is a factor in the decision to act. This means that for any individual, a certain number of their trusted peers have to act in a certain way before they themselves will undertake the action.

Translating this to the need for massive mobilization in response to global warming, there is potentially a large body of the public waiting for others to act before they themselves will engage significantly. Many of these people will be those I identified in my last post as those people who are chronically overwhelmed by too much stuff. Salamon in Living In Climate Truth goes into more depth as to how individuals use intellectual denial, emotional denial, and tokenism to avoid action to maintain the Climate Lie that all is well, and someone else will resolve the issues. Or the individual believes that nothing can be done, and settles into low-grade cynicism, contaminating others in major ways.

Potentially when enough others have shifted into effective action, there could then be a snowball effect in response. But when? Will it occur soon enough to forestall disastrous effect?

I suspect not. To use myself as example, I started hearing about environmental issues in the 1960s and 1970s, and had enough background in science (degrees in physics and biophysics by that point) to know that we humans were doing significant damage to the environment. But I was “too busy with other issues” in my life. Fast forward to the 1990s when I had a small acreage in Ontario, land that I actually regarded as sacred — I knew “activists” who were challenging government regulations, but “I wasn’t an activist.” Then in 2009 when I finally got it, I was in deep despair for months, and only in the past year did my resolve crystallize. So if it has taken me this long, what chance do we have as a species?

Yet, if I accept this line of reasoning, it is likely that nothing effective will happen. I must act into the assumption that many are waiting in the wings simply for the snowball effect.

There is no question in my own mind that I am angry at the complexity and frequent ineffectiveness of my culture. I am not angry at individuals; I am angry at the systemic morass we have created — but if I allow my anger to take over, I will burnout. It’s a no-win situation. I’m very good at anger management, including my own. So, often I fall back on simple affirmations such as “Let Go; Let God,” or “High Intention, Low Attachment.”

What I don’t know how to do is how to get people to engage. Currently, I am reading Joe Romm’s Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga for some hints. Many days I’m convinced I am a slow learner.

Coming next: The nature of acedia.

4 thoughts on “The Threshold of Anxiety in Global Warming”

  1. I agree that social pressure is huge. There are many issues which are historically or scientifically undeniable which we (I) haven’t acted on because of the weight of common denial. A sense of “if no one else is doing anything than maybe it isn’t really that serious”. That has been true with our attitudes toward indigenous people and our (lack of) response to residential schools. It isn’t until now- after hundreds of brave survivors, and years and years of testimony, courts challenges, media coverage, and individual conversations has there emerged the beginnings of a response.

    Keep writing Dave, you are helping lift the weight of common denial off of climate change, and once it’s gone the snowball can roll.

    Like

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