Tag Archives: awareness

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.

Why We Ignore Climate Change, Part 2

distrust04

These 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. In reading the book, I was surprised by some of the research that he encountered. Hence, I believe it important to disseminate his findings.

Chapter 6. The jury of our peers. How we follow the people around us. We watch the behavior of others to identify an appropriate response to situations (the bystander effect or pluralistic ignorance). If no one is responding to a crisis, then it must not be a crisis! However, caution must be noted with the slippery we.

Again — trust! But in attempting to generate inclusion and response (the ‘slippery we’), it is easy to alienate those who do trust the “message.”

Chapter 7. The power of the mob. How bullies hide in the crowd. According to self-categorization theory, we seek to establish similarity with the groups that we identify with, and differences against the people who are not like us. This leads both sides to under-estimate the diversity of views within their own ranks and those of their opponents. One of the consequences is that the in-group often develops a sense of superiority. The advent of the Internet has produced entirely new areas of communication, and has allowed frequent outright bullying of the out-group because of the anonymity provided.

The noise of our culture distracts from awareness. Here, for me, Marshall identifies one of the major complexities of modern living — we have too many people, many of whom are  formulating logical and ethical difficulties (of which a major one is global warming) as emotional issues. And in so doing, they add huge noise which confuses the system.

Chapter 8. Through a glass darkly. The strange world of climate deniers. For conservatives, climate change has become an issue at just the right time to replace the Red Menace bogeyman that had so long been the mobilizing enemy.

Disinformation! Marshall suggests that a major transition in the climate denial store occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is a fascinating hypothesis, and one that is consistent with the emotional issues.

Chapter 9. Inside the elephant. Why we keep searching for enemies. In the end, many struggles come down to there being identifiable vested interests; however, we usually forget that we are participants in those interests. The real difficulty is your own immaturity, especially our inability to deal with our own shadows.

In a super-wicked difficulty, we are the participants. This is the central thesis of this blog — that the major issue is our acedia, our unwillingness to engage in the painful struggle to maturity. For me, Marshall correctly identifies that we “need to find narratives based on cooperation, mutual interests, and our common humanity.”

Summary #1. Those who passionately accept or passionately deny climate change have one thing in common: they are regard each other as a major threat. However, in between these two conflicting groups, the vast majority of people find it difficult to give any importance to the issue at all; they happily identify that there is a problem, but otherwise, they give it a little  consideration.

An accurate assessment of the complexity.

Chapter 10. The two brains. Why we are so poorly evolved to deal with climate change. Our psychological evolution has prepared us to respond strongly to four key triggers (PAIN): personal, abrupt, immoral, now. Climate change triggers none of these. We can understand the difficulty of climate change with our rational brains, but this does not trigger the emotional brain into action. Climate activists maximize the data without impacting the emotional brain; climate deniers activate emotions, and minimize the data; whereas the group in the middle are aware of the data, and are waiting to see the emotional responses generated as social cues.

Again, an accurate assessment of the complexity.

Chapter 11. Familiar yet unimaginable. Why climate change does not feel dangerous. There are two main drivers of risk perception: 1) dread risk, intergenerational and irreversible, a sense of powerlessness in the face of involuntary and catastrophic impacts, and 2) unknown risk, invisible and unprecedented, an anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of new and unforeseen danger. Because climate change does not have the stigma of attack, and extreme weather events have a degree of familiarity, the uncertainty of climate change does not instill dread or danger. Rather, there is leeway to “believe what you want.” Climate change does not feel threatening, unless you choose to feel that it is.

See the next comment.

Chapter 12. Uncertain long-term costs. Why our cognitive biases line up against climate change. Climate change lacks salience: it is abstract, distant, invisible, and disputed. It requires the acceptance of short-term costs to mitigate higher but uncertain losses in the far future. In addition, disinformation has created uncertainty. To mobilize people, an issue needs to be emotional; it needs to have immediacy and salience — our decisions are directed by largely intuitive mental shortcuts (cognitive biases). It is possible that no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standards of living.

Sad! As I look around at this very moment on a cold but sunny day in Canadian winter, I do not feel threatened, and I can easily fall into the numbness of “what’s the big deal.” Yet, intellectually, the complexity of the issues overwhelms me, and I truly believe we are shortly destined for extinction. We do not seem capable of managing such complexity.

To be continued.

More On Problems

problems1Previously, I written a number of blog posts on the nature of change, and the distinction between difficulties and problems (they start here as of 20160630). I need to add to that, especially with a highly useful concept ( concerning logos, ethos, and pathos) that I encountered somewhere in my career, one attributed to Plato (I’m currently searching for a specific reference).

Anyway, the distinction is that between logical issues (logos), ethical issues (ethos), and emotional issues (pathos). An example will help.

Suppose my toaster is not working, and I want toast.

The Difficulties: In theory (the Logical), I (or someone else) could take the toaster, determine what is the difficulty, and with the right parts, simply fix the toaster, returning it to its functional state. This is the logical approach to a technological difficulty. (Logical resolutions work best with technological issues.)

However, in our culture, it is much more likely I would put the toaster in the garbage (increasing the environmental load), and go to the local store to purchase a new toaster. I bypass the logical.

The difficulty here is that we somehow believe it to be less expensive to do this than to find someone, as above, who has the necessary skills and necessary parts for the repair process. In our complex culture, there is a certain truth to this (it is much less so in a third-world country where many people make their living with such simple repairs — but we are not a ‘third-world’ country!).

To find someone in my city who would be willing to do such repairs and who had the necessary parts (likely needing to be back-ordered rather than immediately available) would take much searching and massive effort as well as considerable time — in the past when I have gone to electrical stores, they have simply said it is cheaper to buy a new toaster.

So with difficulties of this nature, such as the toaster, I therefore do not bring a logical resolution to the logical problem. It is ‘too expensive.’ Instead, I move to the Ethical: I go to a store for a toaster.

In buying the toaster at the store, probably as a very cheap price (because the many environmental costs are ignored), they will give me a warranty for the new toaster — an ethical statement that the toaster is new, and will function without difficulty for a certain period of time. Let’s assume the warranty is good for 90 days.

So I take the toaster home, and enjoy my toast for the next few weeks. But then, the toaster fails, at day 89. I go to the original store where I bought the toaster, together with my original purchase receipt. Then give me a replacement toaster, a new one — mine has crashed within the warranty period, and the warranty guarantees a replacement (meanwhile the failed toaster goes into the garbage — more garbage). This is an ethical resolution to a logical problem (repeating again, as above, that a logical resolution is ‘too expensive.’)

But suppose I have had a busy week, and I do not get back to the store until day 91. What then?

I tell the store that the toaster failed two days ago, on day 89 (and of course, explaining that this was within the warranty period), but I have had a really busy week. So what is the store manager to do?

On the one hand, I’ve brought the toaster back on day 91 — it is out of warranty! It is beyond the ethical resolution!

But on the other hand, thinks the store manager, “if I refuse to give this guy a new toaster, he will leave the store disgruntled, and likely complain to his many friends as to how unfair my store policy is, and I might lose 10 future customers as a result. I’ll give him a new toaster — it’s a cheaper solution.”

So I get a new toaster again. But this is not an ethical resolution — it is an Emotional resolution.

Over the years of my career as a therapist, this distinction between logical, ethical, and emotional has been one of the most useful concepts I have encountered! When I have a difficulty, I ask myself:

  • Is there a logical issue here? What will be require for resolution? Is there a known process that can be brought to bear on this issue?
  • Is there some kind of written (or even verbal) agreement (the ethical) that applies to this difficulty? If so, to what have we actually agreed?
    • Fundamentally, this is the concept of fairness — do we have an agreement as to how we will act when difficulties arise. It is fair that we keep this agreement, and unfair if one of us does not.
    • And if we do not have an agreement, fairness has nothing to do with the issue at hand!
  • And finally, what are the emotional issues within this difficulty? No known process to be applied; there is no agreement as to how we should act. So now I have two further options as to how to act . . .
    • I can do a transaction for payment — how much is it going to cost for resolution, to me, to the other? And if I don’t get paid, I resent — for which there are likely to be future consequences!
    • Or I do give a gift of my time and my effort. No payment necessary, not even a thank-you. But gifts are paradoxical — when I gift to others, somehow they recognize this, and they want to gift back (or they gift forward!).
  • But beware: the major problems of living arise when I am not clear about the distinction between gift and transaction! I resent ‘gifts’ when they are actually sneaky transactions.
    • The store manager above needs to be clear; otherwise he or she will become very dissatisfied.

Keeping all of these distinctions in awareness is perhaps difficult initially, but with time, very rewarding:

Logical? Ethical? Emotional?

Transaction? Gift?

Why We Ignore Climate Change, Part 1

distrust02I’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)[1]. 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?[2]

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.

[1] Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

[2] Marshall, G. http://climatedenial.org, accessed 20170121.