Collective Denial and Catastrophic Reasoning
The parched spring season was visibly obvious as we pulled into the neighborhood we’ve called home for the past eleven summers. The grass in our quaint little oceanside community north of Qualicum Beach, BC, typically well satiated by seven months of rain, was a brittle yellow rather than the dewy deep green which had welcomed us in years past. The fire hazard sign along the Island Highway, adjacent to the Dashwood County firehall read, “Extremely High – Total Fire Ban”. A week’s worth of record high temperatures, peaking at 40 degrees inland would only make things crispier. My family and I relieved the heat in the glacier-fed Englishman River falls, and the still frigid Strait of Georgia, but even the Pacific Ocean was disturbingly warmer this year.
As I write this, in the middle of July, 2021, there are over 300 wildfires scorching a path across British Columbia, Canada, while 70 active fires swallow up hundreds of thousands of acres in the Pacific Northwest, United States (Government of British Columbia, 2021) (Elamroussi, 2021). Meanwhile, at the exact same time, some 8,000 kilometres away, Germany is the epicenter of record flooding which has killed over a hundred people, brought about by record rainfall. (Ataman, 2021) What North America wouldn’t do with a little of that wet, and what Europe wouldn’t do for a little of our dry.
This isn’t a rant about climate change, but rather it is about problem solving, one of the eight pillar competencies in my book, “The Daily Undoing, Being Better at Being Human”. But the problem I’m probing here isn’t climate change itself, it is our inability to own it.
I call problem solving the “figureoutable” competency. There is a risk in using that label that this pillar competency could be seen more as trivial than foundational, but that was not the intent. Figuring things out is exactly what problem solvers do. It’s what you do on a fairly regular basis. We all possess the competency, but like all eight pillars, we don’t use problem solving enough, or we assume others will engage their competency and solve problems for us.
I don’t know about you, but I read climate-related stories on an a regular basis, but admittedly find myself scrolling to the next news item, or quickly searching for a distraction, something less troublesome, to veer my mind out of harm’s way, toward something lighter. By doing so, I become part of the problem, rather than a solver of the problem. Margaret Klein Salamon, a PhD psychologist turned climate-change advocate said it best: ”By looking the other way on climate change we facilitate a collective denial, and we do it for each other.” (Salaman, 2020) At what point do people like me, stop contributing to the collective denial, stop scrolling to more pleasant topics, stop leaving the problem up to others to solve, and actually become engaged problem solvers?
Problem solving, the formal practice, is literally broken down into four simple steps:
Identify the problem
Generate a list of viable solutions
Evaluate solutions and select a solution
Implement the solution
Remember, the problem I’m grappling with here is not climate change itself. To use Salaman’s term, it’s our “collective denial” toward climate change. Why are so many of us still unwilling to really get involved? I feel there are three main reasons for our ongoing reluctance.
The first is most confounding of all, but yet still, I believe the root of the problem. Evidence. A research paper written 15 years ago – 15 years – revealed something that I fear holds true today. That we know there’s a problem, but we’re not quite ready to believe its severity. Sterman and Sweeney wrote,
Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. (Sterman John D. & Sweeney, 2006)
OK, so let’s assume 15 years later, maybe today we do believe the severity of climate change, but if so why are so many of us still paralyzed by the thought of doing something about it? Let me introduce to you the second reason we continue to watch the catastrophe play out, rather than doing something about it. Human behaviour. One of the most compelling arguments for our inaction is psychological. Writing in Psychology Today, Patricia Prijatel cites New York Times columnist, David Wallace-Wells, who explains this well:
We build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that surely shapes our ability to comprehend genuinely existential threats to the species. We have a tendency to wait for others to act, rather than acting ourselves; a preference for the present situation; a disinclination to change things; and an excess of confidence that we can change things easily, should we need to, no matter the scale. We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception. (Prijatel, 2019)
Wallace-Wells’ book, “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming”, like my blog this week, is not about climate change as much as it is our inability to envision its catastrophic impact really happening.
In my advertising class, I introduce the concept of the “big idea”, a marketing term used to describe the central theme of an ad campaign that will lure the target market’s attention. There are basically 5 ways to do this, we call them “strategic appeals”: logic, humour, fear, emotional, and pleasure (aka sex appeal). They’re the 5 ways brands from Ford to Tesla have sought, and successfully captured our attention (although Tesla founder Elon Musk quite staunchly claims to have done so without spending cent spent on advertising). My argument, and one that I think Ms. Prijatel is getting at as well in her article, is that the logic appeal to reaching the population (myself included) is not having the desired effect in getting people to take climate change seriously enough.
The science is there, but the expected reaction to it is not. We just can’t “see” the catastrophe. Even though, at this very moment, like clockwork every summer, entire forests are going up in flames in one part of the world while record rainfall literally washes villages away. We don’t need fictional movies of a dystopian future to help us understand the destination to which we are headed. We need look no further than CNN…or YouTube. Catastrophe is here. And yet, we scroll past it, unwilling to face it.
The third reason we do nothing is because we do not feel, as individuals, that we can move the needle. We perceive the problem as overwhelming, or out of control, or both, and hope that technology will figure it out – treating “technology” as if it were some sort of animate entity. Able to, on its own, conjure up some sort of a space-aged laser greenhouse gas removal system. But technology doesn’t create itself. Not to this extent anyway, where it cures climate change. In a similar way, I think we tend to place the solution to the problem of climate change, on to the next generation, totally and willingly shirking our responsibility all together.
As a father of two Gen Z girls, this reason for our inaction is the most crushing. They were born into a world well aware of the problem, and have grown up with it hanging over them. My eldest daughter literally came into the world, the same year the Sterman and Sweeney paper, cited earlier, was published. This generation has a more realistic perception of the problem of climate change, because they do not possess the Rockwellian sentimentality in the rear view mirror, reminiscing about the days of yore. They simply don’t have it in their memory. And so this is why they believe not only that their actions do matter, but also that our collective inaction will leave them, and their children squarely ensnared in that catastrophic world us older generations shockingly continue to ignore.
Neither Gen Z nor technology, nor a combination of both can solve climate change. Change in our collective behaviour, based upon the ample evidence, is the only thing that will solve climate change. And I think we have a fairly recent case study to prove that we can do this. How were we able to defend ourselves against the most significant health threat to human kind perhaps in human history over these past 20 months? For the most part, most of us believed it was real, rallied to combat it often at great financial and mental health compromise, and eventually (fingers crossed) emerged triumphant. Climate change is a very different problem than Covid 19, but I make the comparison only to demonstrate what collective action can do, as opposed to collective denial. We saw the and understood the catastrophic effect of denial, we took action the other way, and we won.
Maybe there is a sixth strategic appeal I’ll be teaching my kids this fall in Advertising class – “catastrophic”. Taking the fear appeal, which basically helps alleviate what Abraham Maslow would call the “security” need in his famed “Hierarchy of Needs” model, and ratcheting it up several notches to a level of “mortality”. And clearly we need more messengers like Greta Thunberg, representing all generations – especially the ones like mine, mostly responsible for getting us here in the first place.
In the meantime, here are three actions, suggested in my book, and more than a little inspired not only by my Gen Z daughters, but many of my Gen Z students. A heroic, and significantly more clear-headed demographic that we give them credit for. If there was ever a time for undoing the way things have been done, it is now.
Respond: Even if you cannot solve a problem quickly, it is vital you respond to it, so that those impacted know that you are on the case.
Retrofit: Consider a shortage of resources you may currently have and identify alternative uses for other things you possess which could do the job.
Refute: determine the factual construct of a problem and refute misleading information.
Ataman, J. (2021, July 16). Germany's worst rainfall in a century leaves over 100 dead and many more missing. Retrieved from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/16/europe/germany-deaths-europe-severe-flooding-intl/index.html
Elamroussi, A. (2021, July 16). The largest wildfire in the US is only 7% contained as more evacuations take place. Retrieved from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/16/weather/western-us-wildfires/index.html
Government of British Columbia. (2021, July 16). BC Wildfire Dashboard. Retrieved from Government of BC: https://governmentofbc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/f0ac328d88c74d07aa2ee385abe2a41b
Prijatel, P. (2019, February 16). Complacency on Climate Change Is Killing Us. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/all-is-well/201902/complacency-climate-change-is-killing-us
Salaman, M. K. (2020). Facing the Climate Change Emergency: How to Transform Yourself With Climate Truth. New Society Publishers.
Sterman John D. & Sweeney, L. B. (2006). Understanding public complacency about climate change: adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter. Retrieved from Springer Science + Business Media : https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.170.9913&rep=rep1&type=pdf