Why We Ignore Climate Change, Part 3

distrust03These posts explore 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), starting 20170122. Much of this information disheartens me. Given we are reaching the capacity of our planet to hold our numbers, our limitations as a species are clearly showing.

Chapter 13. Them, there, and then. How we push climate change far away. The timeline of climate change is a creeping problem. The lack of a definite beginning, end, or deadline requires that we create our own timeline — we do so in ways that remove the compulsion to act.

Not an easy problem. Again, as indicated in Chapter 10, we are poorly evolved to deal with creeping problems. Partly it is our inability to cooperate in large groups; partly it is our ability to accommodate to slow change. The metaphor of how a living frog responds to being slowly heated in a pot of water (becoming cooked), although not accurate in the real world, is however so accurate as to how we respond to this issue.

Chapter 14. Costing the earth. Why we want to gain the whole world yet lose our lives. People give an overwhelming priority to the short term over the long-term. However, they will willingly shoulder a burden provided they share a common purpose, and are rewarded with a greater sense of social belonging. If climate change is regarded as an unavoidable condition, we will become resigned to it; if however, it is regarded as an active and informed choice, there are no innocent bystanders.

We need an effective narrative, one that allows us to come together as a common species, and we do not have that yet; we still live our lives with national identities (I’m a Canadian, et cetera), not easily identifying with the commonality of being human. Witness, for example, the issues of cultural identity: Muslim, Christian, Syrian, Mexican, latino — many of which now generate major angst in immigration issues.

Chapter 15. Certain about the uncertainty. How we use uncertainty as a justification for inaction. Uncertainty occurs through many mechanisms: the very meaning of uncertainty varies, and in the view of the public uncertainty means unsure or lacking confidence, whereas for the scientific community, uncertainty means not yet determined with sufficient accuracy]. Depending on the issue, crises are exploited as a means to centralize power and subvert democracy.

The disinformation processes of the past 50 years have been so destructive to our ability to come together; yet even a major sceptic Richard Mueller converted to agreeing that “climate change … [is] based on extremely strong argument” and “is “caused by humans.” And global warming is now a major part of military planning; it is so incongruent — we are such a strange species.

Chapter 16. Paddling in the pool of worry. How we choose what to ignore. Risk can be evaluated by the rational brain, but worry is an emotional perception. What we choose to ignore is just as important as what we choose to attend to, and it is this skill that enables us to cope with the information-saturated modern urban environment.

Indeed — information overload; and the attempt to respond to global warming is often seen as just another piece of information, something else to become numb about.

Chapter 17. Don’t even talk about it! The invisible force field of climate silence. The elephant in the living room is a meta-silence in that we don’t talk about the fact that we don’t talk about it. Ignorance is not knowing, denial is the refusal to know, and disavowal is the active choice not to notice; non-knowledge refers to information that is deliberately not acquired because it is considered too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo to produce. The discussion of information must be balanced by the need for discussion; a series of complex feedbacks mitigates against the discussion of the C-word. The shifting of public attitudes often requires a prolonged struggle by dedicated social movements, often with the central tactic of confronting a socially constructed silence.

Climate Silence! Challenging this is one of the major precepts of The Climate Mobilization — make a commitment to talk about it. This chapter is fascinating, and perhaps the most important chapter fo the book. How do you prepare for a threat that cannot be named? The multivalent nature of climate change makes it very susceptible to avoidance in the numerous ways that human beings have for managing anxiety. The author notes “The lessons of history show that this [global warming] is winnable, but it could be a long struggle.” Unfortunately, we don’t have time for a long struggle.

Chapter 18. The non-perfect non-storm. Why we think that climate change is impossibly difficult. Climate change is exceptionally multivalent; it enables a limitless range of self-serving interpretations; and it is uncanny, creating a discomfort in the discordance between the familiar that has become dangerous. As such, climate change has become a [super-]wicked problem.

“Climate change is very difficult, but don’t perfectly difficult.” Again the multivalent nature of the problem. Unfortunately we use every excuse in the book, not as excuse, but usually as the unconscious patterns of avoiding anxiety. This is especially so in that as human beings we have caused the problem, and therefore we might be [are] hurting the ones we love. Climate change is also an uncanny condition, a problem that is familiar enough, seemingly recognizable and yet dangerous in every aspect.

Summary #2. We scan information for cues as to whether we should pay attention to it or not. Without salience or social cues, climate change lies outside the analytic frame; we respond to our socially constructed stories, and as such, we have no effective overcome.

The complexity of our patterns is amazing, especially our cognitive biases. In reading this book, I am deeply impressed by the incredible sophistication by which we humans manage information (or actively ignore it). Amazing, but in this particular issue of global warming, not necessarily to our advantage, and quite frankly to our disadvantage.

Chapter 19. Cockroach tours. How museums struggle to tell the climate story. Museums struggle to find ways of talking about climate change that are interesting, engaging, and truthful to the science, yet able to navigate the politics. In the age of information overload, they attempt to create a sound-bite. Unfortunately, most of their funding comes from the fossil fuel industry.

Sad! Museums (at least some) could be so much more. What I have noticed in my years is that museums have shifted from places of information for adults to places of entertainment for children. Generally I won’t go to museums anymore — the emotional atmosphere is too frenetic.

Chapter 20. Tell me a story. Why lies can be so appealing. Stories are the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain. As compared to the complex multivalent reality of climate change, people will accept a fictional story if it has narrative fidelity (that is, based on whether the quality of the information it contains hangs together or not).

Narrative fidelity! I can’t help but be amazed again — we are so sophisticated, and yet so gullible. No wonder the advertising (and disinformation) systems are so powerful. Perhaps I am naïve, but I like to believe that advertising was originally meant to provide information so as to allow reasoned choice — it certain no longer does that in the modern world.

Chapter 21. Powerful words. How the words we use affect the way we feel. Words are heard within defined frames of meaning. False friends are words that sound the same but mean something different, and thus engage different frames. They can create considerable confusion in any kind of communication. For example, global warming was shifted to climate change because it sounded less emotive, and had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels. The second major building block of narrative is metaphor; through metaphor, we engage our most available previous experience to make sense of new information. Metaphors then engage the frames that allow us to think about the next issue.

Indeed words are powerful, and so sad that we have subverted human intelligence to consumerism.

To be continued.

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