I’m going to spend the next few posts examining a précis I did of George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change (2014). Marshall has been a major figure in the international environmental movement, and his book seeks to answer the question of “why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?”
I encountered his book last year when I was attempting to come to my own answers about this question, and I was surprised by some of the research that he himself encountered. Unfortunately, amongst other sources, the book has only added to my sense of how deeply we are stuck as a society.
However, if we do not find a way through the morass of global warming, the outcome is less than desirable. Hence, I believe it important to disseminate his findings.
I do it also because The Climate Mobilization group to which I belong is developing a process called Crisis Reading groups, providing reading to explore the morass. Although this book is likely too long for this process, a précis of the book might be useful to them.
There are 42 short chapters in Marshall’s book; here in this blog I intend to cover 8-10 chapters per posting, and hence there are likely to be six or so posts on this topic. As format, I shall first list the notes I kept on a given chapter, and then follow each note with reflection as to what I believe to be its importance.
So . . .
Chapter 1. Questions. How is it possible, when presented with overwhelming evidence, that we deliberately choose to ignore something while being entirely aware that this is what we are doing?
As a culture, we both demonstrate awareness of the problem, and ignore the necessary action. In spite of all the rhetoric and disinformation, I continue to believe that the evidence is overwhelming, and that the major problem is the complex nature of our acedia. But understanding is the booby prize. We are currently on a tightrope between disaster and response; I wonder when we will overcome the massive difficulties of response, as well as what environmental disaster will be needed to initiate this mobilization.
Chapter 2. We’ll deal with that lofty stuff some other day. Why disaster victims do not want to talk about climate change. Following the survival of threat, people choose to emphasize the positive, and minimize the negative.
Obviously a survival mechanism, and an useful one for acute issues. The fact that “we survived,” then means that we can feel good about our resilience and the likelihood that we can deal with the next issue. However, it makes it difficult to recognize that there is an underlying chronic problem — a narrative of recovery is more hopeful than impending doom.
Chapter 3. Speaking as a layman. Why we think that extreme weather shows we were right all along. We interpret events in the light of our prior assumptions and prejudices (confirmation bias). We fail to recognize that weather (short-term experience) is different from climate (long-term pattern). Because we are familiar with weather, we tend to interpret climate in a manner that confirms the current weather. For example, cold weather means cold climate; however, periods of cold weather are simply part of the instability of global warming.
Familiarity confuses us! The convincer for people is their own interpretation, confirmed by discussion with the group they trust. It is so difficult to create change because the need is to change the pattern of trust, not the kind or amount of information.
Chapter 4. You never get to see the whole picture. How the Tea Party fails to notice the greatest threat to its values. For many Republicans, the nature of climate change fits perfectly into a set of pre-existing ideological grievances about the distribution of power. They are outsiders driven by their values, defending their rights, and deeply distrustful of government and corporations.
They too want change! Marshall maintains that Republicans, even those as entrenched [my intentional wording] as members of the Tea Party, are seeking the same thing as staunch environmentalists [who, of course, are not entrenched] — they want good information in an age of information overload. Personally, despite having six university degrees, all of them in some kind of science, I do not trust modern science — for me, it is so entrenched in scientific materialism.
Chapter 5. Polluting the message. How science becomes infected with social meaning. Attitudes on climate change have become a social clue as to which group the individual belongs. [NB: the TIC model.]
Science, as imperfect as it is, is not a social issue — it is one of our best attempts at truth. I’ve previously written about Whom Do You Trust, and the TIC Process whereby people are entrenched in their own trust issues. One of the ways, then, of dealing with information overload is to use social cues to group (and assess) information, thus creating a bias of data based on the group presenting the data. Again, trust is the basic issue.
To be continued.
 Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.