Scarcely a day goes by without some disastrous news on our global environment. The list is endless: floods, huge garbage gyres in the oceans expanding their girth, suffocated turtles who have had run-ins with plastic.
A lot of us do care about climate change and all the myriad environmental disasters that are a part of it. Some of us diligently carry reusable bags to the grocery store. Others take to only eating beef that comes from cows named Daisy who have had better living conditions than the average person in Hong Kong. Some of us try to eschew meat altogether or start composting. Still others continue along their merry way, blinders on, asking for plastic bags for the bananas they’ve just purchased (really folks?) and drinking bottled water when tap is available.
What I find curious are the excuses we make for ourselves, no matter where on that spectrum we fall, to continue in this desultory fashion, sometimes willfully ignoring glaring truths. The data is there, ubiquitous. If it hasn’t hit you square in the face yet, it’s just a Google search away or will make itself amply known the next time you go to a beach in Hong Kong.
Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes writes about the psychological paradox that is manifested in the mounting evidence of climate change and bizarrely, the simultaneous decline in concern. In his book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, he discusses five psychological barriers that cause this, which may explain the often smug and almost always lackadaisical manner with which life changing environmental situations are handled.
Distance: “Melting glaciers? I’ve heard of those and seen pictures but haven’t seen them myself.”
Disaster: “So you say everything is crumbling? Well that’s too huge a deal, I can’t fix it individually so I’m going to buy another bottle of Fiji water.”
Dissonance: “I know my desire to reduce my carbon footprint conflicts directly with a vacation on the other side of the planet but I’m going to make up excuses and do it anyway. At least I’ve stopped eating tuna.”
Identity: Sifting through information and selecting what you already believe, therefore strengthening your current viewpoint instead of actually expanding your horizons i.e. how most of us consume news these days.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Stoknes says that we need new stories. He says we need to make climate change “near, personal and urgent,” and must emphasize opportunities instead of dwelling on disastrous scenarios, as we often do.
Still others, like Christine Cordero of the Center for Story-based Strategy, point out that caring about issues is about personal experience which ties in with Stoknes’ comment on making it ‘near’ and ‘personal.’
Projects like Harvard’s EcoMUVE are harnessing some of these principles to bring these situations closer to their own lives for children by creating virtual reality apps.
So for those of us who do care even a little, and are in positions to act or influence others’ actions in any way, let’s try to avoid falling prey to these anti-Darwinian tendencies in our minds and see through these barriers to do better, communicate better, and take action.