I am posting this because I believe that climate activists need to pay as much attention to the social sciences -- psychology in particular -- as they pay to the natural sciences.
A longer discussion of these questions can be found in our new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin: 2007).
"Irrationality Wants to Be Your Friend"
by Kenton De Kirby, Pamela Morgan, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger
Reprinted from Ignition (Island Press 2007)
In his 2005 best seller, Collapse, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond describes the "irrational motives" behind past ecological collapses. He points to group think, crowd psychology, and denial.
In a particularly evocative example, Diamond describes the psychology of people who live beneath dams as a kind of metaphor for contemporary attitudes toward today’s most pressing ecological crises, such as global warming:
People living immediately under the dam, the ones most certain to be drowned in a dam burst, profess unconcern. That’s because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at the dam is to deny the possibility that it could burst.
For Diamond, the remedy is to present people with more facts about the threat as well as stories of past tragedies.
Imagine for a moment, though, that it was your mother who lived immediately under the dam and refused to move. You’ve provided her with scientific facts that the dam is likely to explode. You’ve told her stories of how similar dams have burst in the past, killing everyone in its wake. Still she won’t budge.
What do you do? In this chapter, we offer some ideas, both for mothers who won’t budge and for those fellow citizens who see global warming as a low priority. In the spirit of building a movement, we aim to challenge several of your assumptions.
The Nature of Global Warming Denial
Are Americans in denial about global warming? From one perspective, the answer is no: the vast majority of voters accept the facts about climate change. A June 2006 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 70 percent of voters believe that there is "solid evidence" that the earth is warming, and most of that 70 percent believe that the earth is warming due to human activities. Forty-one percent say global warming is "very serious." Only 20 percent of Americans say that the earth is not warming, and another 21 percent say that it is warming but not because of humans. The bottom line? Most Americans are not in denial.
From another perspective, though, the answer is yes, most Americans are in denial about the seriousness of the threat. Although 70 percent believe the facts about global warming, only a minority believes that it is "very serious," and strikingly few Americans name global warming as a top national priority. Here’s Pew:
While 41% say global warming is a very serious problem, 33% see it as somewhat serious and roughly a quarter (24%) think it is either not too serious or not a problem at all. Consequently, the issue ranks as a relatively low public priority, well behind education, the economy, and the war in Iraq... Indeed, out of a list of 19 issues, Republicans rank global warming 19th and Democrats and Independents rank it 13th. By January 2007, global warming’s ranking dropped even lower, Pew found, to 21 for Republicans, 17th for Democrats, and 19th for Independents.
That ranking may be misleadingly high because the Pew survey actually offered respondents global warming as an issue to choose from. Other surveys that ask the question in an open-ended way--for example, What is the most important issue facing the country?--find that vanishingly few respondents name global warming. That is why global warming is rarely discussed at election time. Politicians know that there are far more higher-priority issues that influence how people vote.
The June 2006 Pew survey was conducted at the height of the publicity around Al Gore’s documentary about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth." It was then that Time magazine published a cover story headlined, "Be Worried, Be Very Worried," and virtually every media outlet, including Fox News, communicated the stark facts about global warming. Yet through it all, Americans mostly yawned.
All that strikes many of us as profoundly illogical. How could so many people continue to believe that gay marriage (fifteenth in the survey for Republicans) or the minimum wage (eighth in the survey for Democrats) is more important than life on this planet as we know it? Don’t they realize that if global warming continues unchecked, there won’t be either gay marriage or a minimum wage because our civilization will have collapsed?
From What We Think to How We Think
Diamond is the author of two books and dozens of articles on how natural selection produced human beings. He knows that the human capacity for reason emerged in very specific evolutionary contexts. He knows that humans have made extraordinary progress over the last 150 years toward understanding human psychology. In Collapse, however, he ignores all that out of the faith that more facts about past collapses will overcome allegedly irrational denial.
Collapse, like most environmental advocacy, is premised on a set of Enlightenment-era assumptions about human nature that date back some four hundred years:
- People are essentially rational.
- There is but one single rationality. All else is irrational.
- Rationality is conscious (that is, we choose to be rational or irrational).
- Rationality is sometimes clouded or eclipsed by fear and other emotions.
- Rational decisions are better than irrational decisions.
- Denial is a kind of irrationality.
- Irrationality, and hence denial, can be overcome by more information: facts, cautionary tales, and so on.
Over the last hundred years, however, a very different scientific consensus has emerged in the social sciences.
- Human capacity for reasoning is adaptive, which means that it was selected for during thousands of years of hominid evolution.
- There is no single faculty for reasoning. Rather, human reasoning borrows from many different parts of the brain.
- How humans reason is specific to particular contexts, cultures, and moments in time. There is no single, transcendent Reason, but rather there exist many rationalities.
- What is perfectly rational in one context may be utterly irrational in another.
- Most rationalities are "stored" in the unconscious.
- There is no such thing as emotion-free reasoning. Every rationality is animated by emotion.
- Every emotion--from fear to anger to hope to determination--is itself a kind of rationality.
- Rationalities are best understood not as essential "things," but rather as constantly changing processes, narratives, and logics.
As it turns out, the human animal is far more complex than was supposed four hundred years ago.
Why Are People So Dam(n) Irrational?
We tend to curse "irrationality"--our tendency to, say, spend more time thinking about American Idol than about the coming eco-apocalypse--but much that we today consider irrational at one point made very good evolutionary sense. Start by recalling that our ancestors, human and nonhuman, were prey. Other animals, human and nonhuman, chased and sometimes ate them. Of course, every human on the earth today comes from a long line of ancestors who all survived long enough to reproduce. In short, we exist because our ancestors were "rational" enough to survive a whole range of threats, and not just from predators. Most of our rationalities operate at an unconscious level, which should be understood less as a cauldron of Freudian anxieties and more as a vast storage bank of instincts, intuitions, calculations, and motivations that we are only beginning to understand.
Shortly after the release of Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth," Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote an op-ed piece called "If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming," making a very similar point:
We are the progeny of people who hunted and gathered, whose lives were brief and whose greatest threat was a man with a stick. When terrorists attack, we respond with crushing force and firm resolve, just as our ancestors would have. Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain's alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.
Once we understand this point, certain threat-and-response patterns make good sense. For example, we respond most strongly to things that we can form a mental image of, such as the ax murderer we fear will burst through our bedroom window. We respond best to immediate threats, such as when he actually does. We react decisively to threats that involve abrupt changes in our sense perceptions of the world, which is why we find ourselves running away from the man we see swinging an ax long before we ever bother to ask ourselves, Who the heck is that guy? In short, that’s why we spend so much more time and effort fortifying our homes from virtually nonexistent rampaging ax murderers than we do protesting the invisible climate menace.
Of course, survival for our ancestors demanded more than acute perception and physical agility. It also meant successfully interacting with our fellow humans. These relationships are governed by social rules. Given the importance of these rules governing our interdependence, we tend to respond with great emotional intensity when there is a social component to the threat, such as when someone breaks the rules of our society through greed, malice, or other iniquitous motivation (for example, some traitor in our midst was paid to help a whole tribe of ax murderers invade our village). We also respond most intensely when the problem involves something we find morally repugnant (for example, they went after our women and children first).
All these criteria (and many others too numerous to list) determine the ways we prioritize threats. The more criteria a threat fulfills and the greater degree to which it is fulfilled, the more likely we are to turn our attention to that threat (for example, ax murderers, terrorists, or, as Gilbert parodies, gay sex), to the neglect of others (global warming). These criteria are not destiny, but our overwhelming and largely unconscious tendency is to continue to use what worked for us in our evolutionary past.
Taken together, these criteria tell us we’re not very likely to put global warming at the top of our list of threats. We cannot form a powerful mental image of global warming. It involves no sudden change in our sense perceptions. It may be happening quickly from a geological perspective, but, alas, global warming is happening quite slowly from an ordinary human perspective.
Lately, some environmentalists have taken to insisting zealously that global warming is a "moral issue." Yet we fear that these jeremiads will mostly fall on deaf ears. Despite the temptation to personify global warming as an evil cartoon character -- as Simpson’s creator Matt Groening did for Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth" -- global warming feels about as menacing to most Americans as, well, a cartoon character. As much as we may despise oil executives, very few of us believe that they are the sole or even main cause of global warming. That’s why the dominant discourse about global warming is that we have met the enemy and the enemy is us. But the everyday causes of global warming--driving to work, making toast for our child’s breakfast, and turning up the air conditioner on an unusually hot summer’s day--are neither evil nor dangerous nor dramatic. Rather, they are banal, ordinary, and perfectly moral.
None of that is to say there is some "essential human nature" that dooms us to destroy the world and ourselves in it. On the contrary, we humans have many natures and ways of reasoning. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes. The challenge for the climate change movement is neither to change our natures nor to demand human obedience to some transcendent and singular Reason, but rather to put particular natures and irrationalities in service of overcoming ecological crises.
Seeing the Rational in the Irrational
Beyond understanding how human irrationalities are rooted in our evolutionary history, we must, through a kind of psychological judo, turn the irrational to our advantage. Consider that people tend to underestimate the likelihood of an unpleasant event if they believe that they have no control over its occurrence. The more powerless people feel about their ability to deal with a particular problem, the more likely they are to believe that it’s not such a big threat. Such is the logic of the person living underneath a dam at risk of exploding: I can’t afford to move; therefore, that dam is not going to explode. This attitude strikes us as utterly irrational, but there’s no advantage to despairing over things outside of our control. In fact, unnecessarily despairing has all sorts of disadvantages (like believing there is no way we can possibly outrun that ax murderer).
@txt:The implication is fairly dramatic. The more powerless people feel about global warming, the less likely they are to believe that it is a major problem.
Now imagine how powerless the dominant eco-tragedy and apocalypse narratives make people feel. Many environmentalists--and liberal movie critics--walked out of An Inconvenient Truth feeling excited and happy because they believed that now Americans are finally going to get it. Well, Americans "got it" all right: they got that global warming is so overwhelming that there is little they can do about it. After ninety minutes of overwhelming evidence that global warming has arrived and that it could trigger violent cataclysms, why would anyone believe that buying fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars could ever be enough?
Katherine Ellison aptly captured the feelings of many in an op-ed she wrote for the New York Times after seeing "An Inconvenient Truth":
Well, I for one am very, very worried. As the mother of two young boys, I want to do everything I can to protect their future. But I feel like a shnook buying fluorescent light bulbs--as Environmental Defense recommends--when at last count, China, India and the United States were building a total of 850 new coal-fired power plants.
The bottom line is that most people walk away from discussions of global warming feeling disempowered, not empowered, which is may be why the June 2006 Pew survey found that global warming remains far down the list of the public’s priorities.
How can we turn this irrational predisposition--the tendency to underestimate global warming’s importance--to our favor? For starters, we can help people feel powerful enough to deal with the cataclysmic effects of global warming. That in itself will require a lot more than better lightbulbs and more efficient appliances.
The Perils of the Blame Game
Nobody likes to be blamed for anything. We are less likely to acknowledge a threat that makes us feel guilty than a threat that does not. Our dislike at acknowledging our responsibility often motivates denial that the threat is real, immediate, or urgent. Even when we do something we know is bad, we still don’t want to be blamed for it.
@txt:In focus groups the four of us conducted in July 2006, we found that resistance to feeling personally responsible is an important factor driving denial about the human causes of global warming.
The focus groups were held with moderately conservative voters in St. Louis, about half of who indicated on a form they filled out beforehand that they were skeptical that global warming was either a problem or human caused. (This mixed-gender focus group, middle-aged and up, included a manager, a teacher, a sales representative, a trucker, and a homemaker. The psychographically determined group on the basis of which they were recruited is characterized as predominantly low-income, poorly educated southerners who are economic populists, aspirational, culturally conservative, and survival oriented and who blend a belief in active government with individual responsibility, and national pride with global consciousness.)
When the moderator introduced global warming in a general way, the participants refused to accept any blame:
Man 4: And the global warming thing is a bone with me also. Yes, it is warming, but how do we know that it is a manmade thing and not a natural cycle of nature? We haven’t had records go back far enough in my estimation to know.
Man 1: I’d like to agree with him on that because I think, from what I understand about science, the volcanoes cause the hole in the atmosphere, and all the hoo-ha about global warming is kind of blown out of proportion from what is really true.
Woman 1: I agree, I don’t think my deodorant is doing it. [Laughter]
This problem is compounded even more. When the acknowledgment of a given threat is tied conceptually to actions perceived as unpalatable--such as radically downgrading one’s quality of life--we are less likely to admit either that there is a threat or that it is very serious. Yet that’s exactly what Gore does in "An Inconvenient Truth." He emphasizes how unpalatable the change demanded by global warming will be. "The truth about the climate crisis," Gore stresses, "is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives."
These warnings have apparently taken their toll. According to Pew’s pollsters, "whereas just 23 percent of voters believe that technology can solve global warming, 39 percent reported that ‘major sacrifices’ would be required."
Don’t Be So Certain
The assumption among environmentalists has long been that if the public realized the high degree of certainty scientists have about global warming, they would demand action to curb greenhouse gases. That was the assumption behind the part of "An Inconvenient Truth" where Gore pointed to a review of journal articles that found that not a single scientist disagreed that anthropogenic global warming is under way.
The Gore movie was released on May 24, 2006, and it generated more media coverage of global warming than the issue had ever received in the United States. It was on the covers of Time, Wired, and Vanity Fair, and it received extensive newspaper, television, and radio coverage. Environmentalists excitedly e-mailed each other to crow that The tipping point is here! and The debate is over! Nobody, environmentalists assured themselves, could any longer continue to deny the facts of global warming.
Of course, denying the facts of global warming was precisely what global warming deniers did. Exxon-funded activists at the Competitive Enterprise Institute produced two ads attacking the science of global warming as uncertain and the consequences of action as severe (one ad showed a man attempting to ride his bicycle in a blizzard). The ads were picked up and parodied in media outlets such as Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show". These parodies helped communicate that there is, in fact, still a debate over the science of global warming.
The ordinary person’s understanding of "scientific certainty" is quite different from a highly educated environmentalist’s understanding. Scientists will move forward when there is overwhelming consensus among people with appropriate credentials, even if not everyone in the debate agrees. "Certainty" in the scientific setting is qualified: it equates to "not really subject to serious dispute." The layperson’s or folk understanding, by contrast, is far more literal. The global warming denier’s argument that there’s no certainty because there’s still debate about the causes of global warming shares the widespread folk concept of certainty--100 percent, absolute, doubt-free agreement--and is therefore able to undermine environmentalists by means of even one dissenter. Given this argument, it’s quite understandable that all groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute have to do to sow doubts is to point to one or two scientists, such as MIT climatologist Richard S. Lindzen. What’s less understandable is why environmentalists continue to engage in this endless debate.
In our focus groups, we tried a different tack, one that emphasized not certainty but rather uncertainty as the basis for action. The moderator introduced weather forecasting as a metaphor, which changed everything.
Moderator: It sounds like what you’re saying is that, you’re not quite sure about exactly how far we should go, but at the very least, people should know what the probability is. They can make their own decision. [If] 3 out of 4 weathermen say it’s going to rain, you can decide whether or not to take an umbrella when you go out.
Man: Exactly. Like Bridget said earlier, weathermen don’t always get it right but I still find myself listening to see what they have to say.
The focus group participants became willing to discuss aspects of preparedness such as evacuation routes and property disclosure requirements because they assume a degree of uncertainty is inherent to predicting weather. Uncertainty in the context of weather and natural disasters is therefore a stimulus rather than a barrier to action.
Global Warming Preparedness
What kind of a proposal would avoid triggering the psychological barriers described above? Looking over the territory we have just covered, we can infer that it makes sense to define the problem in a particular way:
• It does not make people feel guilty.
• It does not threaten their self-image.
• It involves abrupt changes perceivable by the senses (that is, they are readily distinguishable, discrete events).
• It is immediate.
• It is easy to represent by a mental image.
• It is not perceived as requiring tremendous sacrifices and other unpleasant consequences.
• It does not require absolute certainty.
• It gives people a greater sense of control.
Is such a proposal possible? We believe it is. Our proposal for global warming preparedness recasts global warming in terms of preparation for natural disasters and extreme weather. It fulfills each of the criteria listed above and is the best chance we have for increasing the salience of climate change in the mind of the public.
Natural disasters are something with which we are all familiar and thus can easily imagine. They are dramatic and easily visualized. Most of us no longer believe that anybody is to blame for them. They allow us to respond to well-defined problems and focus on clear and obtainable solutions. Preparing for them well and responding to them effectively enhances one’s self-image rather than threatening it.
Most important is that natural disasters are inherently unpredictable. We prepare for them because they are uncertain, not because they are certain. We don’t know when, where, how, or even whether they will strike. Their uncertainty effectively short-circuits the endless back-and-forth debates about whether global warming is being caused by humans and whether it will create overwhelming disasters. No longer would a handful of scientists who have doubts about global warming be available as trump cards for front groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
To be sure, some opponents of action on global warming will continue to sanguinely argue that no action is necessary because when the time comes we will simply adapt to the changing climate. Global warming preparedness, however, turns those arguments on their head by positing that the time to adapt is now and that rather than passively "adapting," we should actively "prepare."
By divorcing the question of human contribution from the reality and immediacy of the threat, one is able to advocate reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere regardless of whether one believes that climate change is 100 percent human caused. In this context, it is far more likely people will believe that if we are contributing to global warming, no matter whether it is in whole or in part, we should do what we can to prevent the problem from worsening.
Irrationality Wants to Be Your Friend
Even if humans had stopped emitting greenhouse gases starting in 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen first announced to Congress that global warming had arrived, all the changes today resulting from global warming--the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, the collapse of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream, warmer ocean surfaces and more intense hurricanes--would still be under way. That’s because there is a roughly two- to three-decade delay between when greenhouse gases reach the atmosphere and when the earth’s temperatures rise. So much carbon and other greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere that even if humans stopped emitting new greenhouse gases tomorrow, the planet would continue to heat up for at least several more decades and maybe longer.
For years, environmentalists such as Diamond have believed that denial is a consequence of the public not being scared enough. We believe, however, that what voters need and want are not more frightening facts and cautionary tales, but rather a way to overcome their perfectly rational fears through concrete actions. The public correctly realizes that lightbulbs and hybrid cars are not the solution to hurricanes, droughts, and fires. What the public needs are preparatory solutions to deal with those potential global warming disasters. Once people have accepted that global warming is an immediate threat worth preparing for--an acceptance that global warming preparedness shows great promise in cultivating--the question of wider action can resume, but this time without the baggage of human culpability weighing it down.
This point goes counter to what environmentalists have long held to be true. They have believed that arguments for preparedness are either separate from--or even obstacles to--winning action on global warming. They have imagined human reasoning to be linear, literal, and logical. It is not. When people embrace global warming preparedness, they have made a commitment to one kind of action on global warming. This commitment is the foundation for future action.
Consider what happened at the end of one of the focus groups in St. Louis. After everyone else had left the room, two of the most defensive, outright deniers of global warming lingered behind and collected their things slowly, as though seeking each other out to talk some more. From behind our one-way mirror we watched, dumbfounded, as these two global warming deniers chatted in an animated and nondefensive way about the questionable ethics of owning gas-guzzling SUVs and the relative virtues of more fuel efficient cars. During the two-hour focus group, we had provided them with no "facts" about global warming--about the role played by cars, SUVs, or power plants--and had told no cautionary parables about past civilizational collapses. All we had done was facilitate a conversation about the uncertainty of weather events and natural disasters, the effects of global warming, and the need to prepare for them. All they had done was embrace the need for global warming preparedness.
In embracing global warming preparedness, we make a commitment to supporting action on global warming. It is a commitment that doesn’t require people to admit their guilt or responsibility, thus triggering their rejection of the whole thing. Yet it is a commitment nonetheless, one that can, over time, be grown into a much more expansive agenda.
The Meaning of Global Warming
Environmentalists have long imagined that global warming has a single, objective meaning (our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the earth) and an obvious solution (we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions). The problem is that there is simply no single meaning of global warming. Rather, global warming contains multitudes. Does global warming mean (a) we’ll be growing bigger and sweeter tomatoes in northern California, (b) we’re all going to die, (c) we humans will survive but will find ourselves living like prehistoric cave dwellers, (d) we are being punished for our sins against nature, (e) we need better lightbulbs and hybrid cars, (f) we must unite the human race around a vision for a clean energy future, (g) finally we can build those nuclear power plants we always wanted, (h) we need a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, (i) we must prepare for the worst and hope for the best, (j) none of the above, or (k) all of the above?
Plainly, global warming has other meanings and other solutions. The question is not, What does global warming mean? Instead, it is, Which of global warming’s meanings and solutions should we elevate into a politics to help create the future we want?
Turning the debate away from certainty and prevention to uncertainty and preparedness changes the way people think about global warming itself. Global warming preparedness changes the meaning of global warming. It is necessary, in and of itself, and it is a bridge to wider action. Once people accept that global warming is happening they are on their way to asking, If there is something I can do to cope with the effects of global warming, is there also something I can do to lessen those effects to begin with?