Climate Change: Speaking the Unspeakable
- August 21, 2013
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Rosemary Randall, a writer I’ve just encountered for the first time, has a very worthwhile piece up at Aeon Magazine, The id and the eco:
In dealing with climate change, we are in the terrain that psychoanalysis calls resistance or defence — the ability to defend ourselves from too much mental and emotional pain. Although each statement carries an element of truth, its primary purpose is protective: a rationalisation for inaction. These are subtler forms of denial than those found among outright climate sceptics or deniers. The reality of climate change is acknowledged but its significance is discounted, and the person involved avoids taking any responsibility for the issue. If, however, you delve behind these kinds of statements, you frequently find anxiety, unease and apprehension. Sometimes you find guilt, sometimes grief, and sometimes a sense of impossible conflict.
One explanation for such defensive reactions is that climate change is the kind of intractable, vast problem that systems thinkers term ‘wicked’. The urban designers Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined this phrase in the 1970s when they were struggling with the fact that public policy rarely seemed to please everyone, often had unintended consequences, and never seemed to solve problems neatly and efficiently. ‘Wicked’ problems are embedded in social complexity: drug trafficking is a good example. They defy easy definition and there is little chance of applying an off-the-peg answer. Every attempt at a solution intervenes in the system and changes the situation. There are many stakeholders, and the problem’s shape, definition and potential solutions look different from each perspective. With ‘wicked’ problems, there are no true-false solutions, only better-worse ones.
Please go read it all, after you’ve plowed through the rest of this post, of course.
Randall points to something I’ve run into numerous times: Someone who really wants to know something about climate change finds out that the bearded guy with the too-loud voice (i.e. me) at the gathering “knows about environmental stuff”, and asks a sincere but very open-ended question like, “Is it real?”, or the dreaded, “How bad is it?”, or, from those with a little knowledge of the topic, the even more dreaded, “How f***ed are we???” This is where I have to make some very delicate decisions. Depending on the physical circumstances of the conversation, I’ll sometimes encourage the person to e-mail me (“this isn’t the time or place for a long answer”). Other times I’ll say something like, “it’s really serious”, and then tell them one or two standalone facts, like how long we’re stuck with our CO2 emissions after we spew them into the air, and recommend a book or two.
Recently, I’ve increasingly been tempted to say, “If I told you how bad it is, you wouldn’t believe me.” While I’ve never said it that way, when I think about the basic science of greenhouse gases, the amount already in the air, the ever-present sub-bed monsters like infrastructure lock-in and fossil fuel funded legislative paralysis, etc., I almost wonder why I haven’t given in to that urge. I know that if I take someone who genuinely wants an answer to a question, someone who isn’t just looking for a debate while we all stand around at a cookout waiting for the burgers and hot dogs, and hit him or her with The Whole Climate Change Smash, the conversation will fall apart very quickly. The other person will retreat into a maze of defense mechanisms, assume I’m a whack job, and I will have accomplished nothing positive. In fact, I likely will have pushed that person away.
But here’s the nasty detail: If people don’t understand the severity of the situation and therefore how much additional pain and expense we can avoid by taking swift action now, then they won’t do it. People won’t make anywhere near the level of changes required in their consumption and voting patterns just to “be green”; mass numbers of them will only take those drastic (in their perception) steps to avoid pain, and for most people pain to their own children a few decades from now doesn’t qualify. It has to be much closer in time and distance, much more personal. They have to be either angry (e.g. the Pearl Harbor response) or scared to death (they’ve been personally impacted severely by repeated floods or droughts or fires). I can tell them how much better we can live with a near-zero carbon world, including not importing massive amounts of oil into countries like the US, not dealing with the by products of coal use like mercury pollution, acid rain, and coal ash; not pursuing damaging policies and technologies like fracking for natural gas; creating many good jobs building, erecting, and maintaining solar and wind farms, etc. But none of that registers with the overwhelming majority of people. It’s too abstract, too outside their comfort zone, too easily dismissed by their fear of change.
So… what to do? How to find a way to metaphorically grab people by the shoulders, turn them, make them look at the horrid thing they and their kids and parents and grandparents helped create, tell them how bad it really is, and then convince them that there’s no such thing as it “being too late”, that the urgency they now see and feel is not an argument for disengagement, but an argument for taking action to stop it from getting far worse?
Photo Credit: Cimate Change and Argument/shutterstock