What we think about when we try not to think about global warming

book cover

In the comments of a recent post, one of our readers recommended this long-titled book: What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action by Per Epsen Stoknes (Chelsea Green).  Of it, she said, “For the first time in a LONG time, I feel hope and possibility when it comes to climate change.”

So I read it, and now I feel the same way. Thanks, Brigitte!

And the introduction of the book says pretty much the same thing, except the praise is coming from Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors of The Limits to Growth. This is a man who has been waiting, pretty much fruitlessly, for us to wake up and change our ways for the last 40 years. So in 2011 he gave up on us and wrote 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years. It was not, as he said, a description of an attractive future.

He’s a doomer’s doomer, yet in the introduction he says, “This book gave me back the hope I’d lost over forty years of futile struggle.”

So, if Stoknes can help me, Brigitte and Jorgen, maybe he can help you, too.

Stoknes is organizational psychologist who holds a PhD in economic theory, so the book begins crisply, outlining what is called “the climate paradox,” the paradox that while the facts around climate change are more and more solidly documented every year (and more frightening), our behavior and beliefs do not change in relationship to that evidence.

The majority of people in wealthy countries either don’t believe that climate change is a man-made problem, or they don’t believe it is an immediate problem. (People in less developed countries, the ones which are being hit first by the impacts of climate change are too busy holding their possessions above the floodwaters to argue about facts.) It consistently ranks at the bottom of our pile of day to day concerns, and our policies and lifestyles reflect that unconcern. In fact, over the last two decades, concern about climate change among laypeople and politicians has actually declined, especially in the U.S, England and Australia.

The question is, why do we respond the peculiar way we do to this information? Stoknes walks us through the psychology of denial, and of the assimilation of climate change information under several different psychological models, including evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology and social psychology to show that (in precise technical terms) we just can’t deal with this information. Due to the nature our twisty psychology it is easier for us, advantageous, even, to ignore climate change than to face it head on. We have every (psychological) incentive to ignore the mounding pile of facts and focus on our more immediate concerns. Climate change is a perfect mousetrap for humans.

By the time you’re done reading Part 1, you might be pretty depressed, because in light of the mousetrap, change seems hopeless. The one redeeming aspect of this knowledge is that at least that you can finally understand why we’re behaving so irrationally and irresponsibly–and believe me, we are all irrational in the face of this problem. There is no room for blame here. I’m a believer, anxious and guilt-ridden as they come, and I’m wildly inconsistent in my behavior. If I am as concerned as I say I am, why am I still driving? Why do I still fly? How can I sneer at deniers when I continually enact denial in my own lifestyle? Now, at least I understand my own behavior better.

Stoknes goes on to explain why, in the light of this, the strategy of throwing more and more alarming facts at us just doesn’t work to change our behavior. No matter how many pictures of drowning polar bears we see, or how many grim predictions are made for our children’s futures, we don’t change. In fact, guilt and fear only make our behavior more entrenched.

Unfortunately, the frequent issuing of dire warnings seems to be the only way we’ve been addressing this problem, and we’ve been using it for decades, despite the fact it obviously doesn’t work. To change our behavior, we need to change our tactics.

So Part 2 is about the new tactics. This is where you can really imagine him with the PowerPoint in front of a group of executives. Here he has a series of solid suggestions for tactical change, including reframing climate messages in positive terms while avoiding negative ones, using social networks to make conservation fun and competitive, using policy change to make it simple for people to make good choices,  and developing signals for social progress besides the almighty GDP.

In light of what he lays out in Part 1, this all makes perfect sense. It’s not super exciting, but some of the tips could really be useful when you’re fighting the good fight. Say you’re organizing a green fair for your kid’s school, or trying to get your customers to save energy, or talking to your climate-denying  family at Christmas–this will help you frame the messages positively. You’ll know how to get results.

This far in, I felt like it was a solid, practical book, but wondered why Brigitte and Jorgen found it so inspirational. Then I got to Part 3, and I was really surprised.

See, personally, I believe only way out of this mess is through spirit–by a revolution in the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. Token gestures toward conservation aren’t enough at this point. To save the world, to save each other, we will have to change from the inside out. This is a tall order, and I’ve been pretty sure this would never happen–because, well, look at us, look at our leaders–look at CostCo alone! How could we not be doomed?

And then I read this book–and now I’m not so sure anymore. Because Stoknes addresses the realm of spirit in Part 3. Given the PowerPoint-ready stolidity of the first two parts of the book, it really surprised me that he went there. And at the same time, it was exciting to find an ally in an unexpected place, to find these more radical notions rising out of such a practical footing.

What does he say? Well, that’s complicated. In brief, Stoknes asks us to combine the very practical tactics of Part 2 with a much more subtle yet profound personal transformation of our inner selves and our imagination. He asks us to embrace our grief and our fear, to walk through it to the other side. Most profoundly, he asks us to consider the very air we breathe in an entirely new light. Finally, he asks us to find joy in what we have, and peace even in the face of an uncertain future.

I think he builds the argument well, so I don’t want to ruin it by saying more. I’m going to leave it alone for you to discover on your own.

Highly recommended, whether you’re a depressed doomer or a climate skeptic or anyone in-between.

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  1. An ‘uncertain future’ is the only future we’ve ever had. But nice to see that waiting for the end of the world for 40 years finally had an impact on Stoknes; perhaps, if he’s around in another 40, he might even make it all the way to being an optimist.

    Like I’ve said before: despair is a sin of pride. None of us knows enough about the future to be certain of it. Live wisely, be conscientious, and accept with some humility that the world will go on, one way or another, no matter what you may think of it.

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