Over 25 years ago James Hansen presented evidence about global warming to US congress in 1988. Discussions have gone on since then and most outcomes are about postponing decisions. The general public has not been activated except in small pockets around the world. Today in Southern Africa, climate change is already having a major impact on weather, food supply and water and yet it is difficult to mobilize public support for initiatives such as the Avaaz climate march that aimed to bring demands to government for positive change. Although 97% of the IPCC scientific community agree that the speed of global warming is caused by human activities, social media is still full of deniers.
Such apathy is prevalent worldwide. In the US in 2014 only 26% of people prioritised climate change as important for congress to debate. Americans are in denial: Two-thirds of those surveyed in 2015 by Pew Research Centre were convinced that the planet is warming, but most of them weren’t motivated to do much about it.
Is the territory of climate change too frightening or too inconceivable for us to contemplate? Or do we deny and negate it because of underlying psychological blocks? I suspect both. I think there are basic reasons we minimize or ignore it as unimportant to engage with, as well as more complex psychological and neurological reasons.
Global warming news stirs a variety of emotions. Reading about the information regularly causes feelings of anxiety, guilt, confusion and even the pain of loss. Species loss and the degradation of natural areas cause us distress; the chaotic weather, even in far off places, can cause feelings of powerlessness. The news is often catastrophic and apocalyptic, as if we have walked into the worst nightmare. We can feel like a victim to circumstance and this leads to viewing everything, even our own lives, as more negative.
This causes stress and tension in our nervous system as it begins to light up the “fight or flight” system. This is not good for general wellbeing. Hearing pleas from the younger generation can be overwhelming as it causes feelings of responsibility and guilt. We are told that the way we live is toxic and dangerous. And yet it is the only way we know how to live. It’s convenient and efficient to our lives to use our cars, planes and electricity. Can the lifestyle we love be the cause of planetary stress? Impossible, we say.
Should enjoyment be traded for something that is invisible, uncertain and unfamiliar? This paradox builds up tension and cognitive dissonance. We feel trapped by the call of our comfort or greed. Our only option to bring balance back is to block out the news. And so we deny, negate or minimize – all standard defence mechanisms for when we can’t cope.
Data, evidence and scientific facts have increased and today there is a wealth of proof. Yes the apathy, inertia and even willful ignorance persist. These are some of the reasons:
The language is unfamiliar
Climate-change experts speak about 400 ppm, unseen carbon emissions and methane percentages, Hockey graphs, bell curves and scary temperatures that don’t belong to our everyday experience. It’s abstract and out of the norm and we have zero personal connection to these facts and figures. Most of us respond to action when our emotions are triggered or our personal lives are impacted. Our minds are lazy when it comes to deciphering new and abstract information.
The impact is mostly invisible
When we travel through the countryside amidst wide open spaces, lush mountains and flowing rivers, the reality of climate change is hard to believe. We’re told that wilderness ecosystems have been affected beyond what we can see on the surface; biodiversity loss is much higher than it might look at first glance yet such impacts are invisible in our day-to-day existence. We don’t see these soaring temperatures or droughts in our large cities where we turn on a tap, air-conditioner or light and stay indoors most of the day. For the first time in history most people live in cities so weather impacts seem less important.
It is uncertain because it’s far off
Climate change has been spoken about for years in uncertain terms without an actual geographical location or a specific date. We prefer certainty and we like to know “our enemy” as something we can see, touch, hear and predict. Instead we are told that runaway climate change is already upon us and impossible to halt, then we hear that we can definitely save the Earth if we stop burning fossil fuels immediately, but the next person who opens his mouth says the positive effects are not guaranteed. So in the meantime, we stay in our comfort zones, prefering bite-size chunks of information we can digest.
It’s against our lifestyle
For the first time in history, many of us are living incredibly convenient lifestyles. The rich have the biggest ecological footprint and also have the most to lose. It’s impossible to give up the luxuries. If the rich won’t budge why should the rest of us give up our small comforts? “Why should I change when those causing the most damage won’t?” And the poor don’t even have access to the basic comforts. This unfairness outrages us and results in an indignant apathy.
It’s so huge
There is no quick fix for us and often there is nothing to mobilise round. Changing our light bulbs seems an insignificant effort. It feels like we are blowing at a storm hurtling towards us. It feels stupid.
And yet it is not stupid. Our attitude towards the natural places around us and our small actions are essential. It is only by building awareness and a consciousness of care that things will change. Research shows over and over again that big shifts in history occur when consensus builds. We need to have at least 15 % of the world population change they way they think and live to begin a real shift.
What is stopping people from changing?
I think it’s just too daunting and too scary and definitively far, far too inconvenient to consider a different way. I also think we’ve been brainwashed by a system that believes that in order to grow you need to have more and achieve more.
It also has to do with the quality of our thinking (taking the time to reflect and contemplate our own actions and belief systems and how these are impacting on the world around us) and the quality of our feelings (can we open our heart wide enough to feel the pain of our actions on the climate and the killing of the biodiversity that we are causing indirectly and sometimes directly through the products we use).
Can we feel that pain and reflect on it long enough that we move through it begin to discover our empathy for others and empathy for the planet?
Such introspection requires us to look at our actions, values and ethics – are our values in fact self-centred narcissism around achieving just for ourselves?
It is only once we have taken another person into consideration and can feel real empathy that we can then open our values from that place of other-care towards care for the wider environment. Once we begin that process it’s possible to experience ourselves as part of and not separate from the beautiful landscapes and mountains and seas around us, and we begin to realise we made of the very same fabric.
That dawning, that widening of our mental capacities and values is ecological thinking. We need to be prepared to open up and act with a willingness towards making a difference because we genuinely care.
Most climate activists who feel passionate say that they have no option, no choice but to speak up for that which cannot speak. They are compelled to talk about the impact that human beings are having on other animals because it is it feels like it is it is hurting ourselves.
Climate change denial and apathy is goes much deeper then we would expect. It is about wholeness and feeling a part of this home we call the earth, feeling that we are at one with it.
No psychological theories and none of the developmental theorists have addressed the aspect of our deep connectedness and interrelatedness to all other living beings.
Our education systems and our media and economic systems actually suppress the awakening of our wholeness as human beings that are at peace with one another and with the rest of the planet.
And so the first step in this direction is reaching an understanding of the ecological self that feels connected to our environment longs for a sense of place in the outdoors, that feels intensely whole being in nature.
The ecological self is a wider identity that includes the ecological systems the ecosystems and animals and other living things.
We are in relationship with nature and we need to understand this ecological self often speaks in images of animals, of imaginings and dreams in nature. It is the part of us that feels a presence, an intelligence within natural settings. We need to open to a reciprocal relationship with nature that is deeply felt through our senses are body, imagination and intuition.
Joanna Macy talks about the “greening of the self”, which is about opening our hearts and opening our experience within the body to the natural world. Bill Plotkin talks about “wild man” – using all five senses as well as the sense we have of being an animal in the natural world, and being open to the language of imagination.
It is only by understanding and realising how homeless we would be if we ruined the earth, that we can begin to steal the divisions and the disconnects that we have with the natural world. It is these disconnects that allow us to deny our role in our place in climate-change activism.
From a place of wholeness it is natural that we would act on behalf of our brothers and sisters of the natural world; from a place of wholeness we would feel a deep empathy because we do not see ourselves as separate to them.