If you’re anything like me, you’re a walking contradiction.
I understand climate change and what causes it; I read articles about sea level rise, catastrophic drought and the probability of climate refugees, hunger and planetary strife. I deeply understand what we (I) are doing to our only home. I don’t think I’m immune to the suffering that will result.
Then I sink back into my energy-intensive, privileged life. What is this pull toward complacency? What happens to my fear and outrage when I am going about my daily life? Why does my knowledge not fuel radical actions? Why don’t I get it?
For a long time I’ve found my ability to bypass this huge issue perplexing. I recently read a book by George Marshall called “Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” which has helped me puzzle this out. Although the book is aimed at exploring the psychology of people who truly do not believe in human-caused climate change, I could apply much of it to my own little “internal climate denier.”
First, climate change doesn’t feel dangerous to the part of our brains that gauges risk. We’re wired to respond to immediate threats that are short-term and certain, here and now. We don’t respond much to things that are uncertain, over there, sometime. We compare to past experience. There has always been weather, even extreme weather. There is nothing that immediately screams at us, “Different! Dangerous!”
The manifestations of climate change are uncertain, long-term and far away. Everything that we don’t immediately see as a threat we fit back into normal life. This was very useful when we were avoiding saber-toothed tigers, but climate change is an entirely new kind of danger. We make it normal because we want it to be normal. We so much don’t want to have to deal with what climate change means that our minds run from it if given half a chance.
Marshall talks about how people who have been through severe catastrophes such as hurricanes or fires have rebuilt their lives. Rather than feeling more vulnerable, they tend to feel less so. They have taken a gamble and won, and gambling makes us feel more optimistic.
The desire to go back to normal life creates a narrative that says the catastrophe was an aberration, and emphasizes the reconstruction and shared purpose. This is much more comfortable than to think about what it might mean, both in terms of what could happen in the future and of what changes they might have to make to prevent it.
Our rational minds understand that what we’re seeing isn’t in the realm of normal any more, so why don’t they override our emotional assessment? Why aren’t we all up in arms?
Marshall says we tend toward what are called “confirmation bias” and “availability bias.” We tend to interpret events as evidence for what we want to believe, and we tend to give weight to evidence that is readily at hand. Last summer wasn’t bad. This winter was just like winters used to be. Therefore, everything must somehow still be OK. This is subtle, gut-level interpretation of the world by parts of our brain that we are not consciously directing. Our rational mind succumbs to the argument because we want it to be true, and the action doesn’t rise to urgency.
There are other reasons, too. We are social animals. What our neighbors are doing and what they think of us are important to us, and figure into what we decide to do. We look around us to see what other people are doing. They are recycling, buying a Prius, putting up solar panels or doing nothing. They fly to Florida, buy bananas from South America and wear clothes made in China. It becomes OK for me to do similar things because that’s what we do. After all, my house is well insulated, I recycle, I don’t fly any more; what else can I do?
Our social selves resist also because what is called for requires so big a change. This one is personally very compelling for me.
Our culture is designed around cars and a consumer life. If I were to change my lifestyle to reflect all that I think I should be doing, I would be living so differently from everyone around me that I would isolate myself. My life would become a statement that I don’t intend to make. There would be very little I would have in common with my friends, and some might react with resentment, guilt or envy. I would be different. A hard thing for a social animal!
I came away from reading the book with more understanding of myself. It all makes sense to me, and I need to find ways to work around it. I also have much more empathy for real climate deniers. I see what we have in common, and that gives me some ideas about how to talk with them.
Rebecca Reid is a co-editor of the Earth Matters column and the former Hitchcock Center photographer. The book discussed here is “Don’t Even Think About it: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” by George Marshall, published in 2014 by Bloomsbury. It is available from local libraries and bookstores, as well as online booksellers. This is the second of a three-part series on climate change. The first essay, discussing the impacts of climate change in the Northeast, appeared on March 14; the third, about climate action, will be published on May 23.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.