Dis­tance, dis­cord dupe us into deny­ing doom

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

Why are we hu­mans so bad at think­ing about facts, facts such as those on cli­mate change, even when more and more re­search proves them? The an­swer is pro­vided by Pep Espen Stok­nes, the au­thor of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warm­ing. Stok­nes stud­ied hundreds of peer-re­viewed so­cial science stud­ies and iden­ti­fied five main bar­ri­ers that pre­vent cli­mate mes­sages from draw­ing peo­ple’s at­ten­tion as much as they should.

He calls them “the Five Ds”: Dis­tance, Doom, Dis­so­nance, De­nial, and iDen­tity. “I had to cheat a lit­tle bit with the last D — I lost one there — but it was the clos­est I could get,” he ad­mits.

Since cli­mate change is al­most al­ways pre­sented as a dis­tant re­al­ity, both in time and space — for ex­am­ple, when we talk about what would hap­pen in 2050 or 2100 — peo­ple tend to be­lieve the phenomenon is eons away.

The van­ish­ing of the Congo, South­east Asian and Ama­zon rain­forests, and the melt­ing of the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic are ac­com­pa­nied by the van­ish­ing of the doom fac­tor as they seem to have lit­tle or no bear­ing on hu­man life today.

Dis­so­nance, says Stok­nes, may be an even big­ger prob­lem. When we know what we should do con­flicts with our ev­ery­day life, we tend to ig­nore it with­out think­ing about the ul­ti­mate con­se­quences. And not to feel like “hyp­ocrites”, we con­tinue with our ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties like eat­ing meat, driv­ing a car, and trav­el­ing by plane.

The un­easy feel­ing that comes with dis­so­nance makes many turn to de­nial. And some tend (or pre­tend) to ig­nore cli­mate change al­to­gether be­cause they feel in­di­vid­ual ac­tion (or in­ac­tion) can­not make any dif­fer­ence.

This is where in­di­vid­ual iden­tity comes in. True, in­di­vid­ual ac­tions alone can­not solve the cli­mate change prob­lem. But it can make a dif­fer­ence to the fu­ture we leave be­hind for our chil­dren, at least in terms of hu­man at­ti­tudes to­ward the planet we call home.

But to truly change the be­hav­iors and at­ti­tudes of the peo­ple, “we need two things — aware­ness and mo­ti­va­tion”, says Ma­gali Del­mas, a pro­fes­sor at the In­sti­tute of En­vi­ron­ment and Sus­tain­abil­ity at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Angeles.

Del­mas and her col­leagues, in a re­cent study, put dif­fer­ent mes­sag­ing ap­proaches with con­sumers to test. The sub­ject was the use (or overuse) of elec­tric­ity. They sent per­son­al­ized emails to fam­i­lies with their monthly power bills, ad­vis­ing some how to save money and others how their en­ergy con­sump­tion harmed the en­vi­ron­ment and their chil­dren’s health.

The ad­vice to save money proved a poor mo­ti­va­tor. But by link­ing elec­tric­ity use to pol­lu­tion and thus to the rates of child­hood asthma and can­cer, the sec­ond ap­proach led to an 8 per­cent de­crease in the use of en­ergy in house­holds in gen­eral, and more than dou­ble in fam­i­lies with chil­dren.

Ad­vice to save money may be a poor mo­ti­va­tor. But sug­ges­tions on how to earn more money have ex­actly the op­po­site ef­fect on peo­ple.

Peo­ple’s at­ti­tude to­ward cli­mate change and money re­minds one of The Lit­tle Prince by An­toine de Saint Ex­u­pery.

When the Lit­tle Prince reaches the fourth planet, he finds a busi­ness­man busy cal­cu­lat­ing num­bers. “Phew! Then that makes five hun­dred and one mil­lion, six hun­dred and twenty-two thou­sand, seven hun­dred and thirty-one,” sighs the busi­ness­man. The Lit­tle Prince asks: “Five hun­dred mil­lion of what?”

Seem­ingly busy, the busi­ness­man ig­nores the Lit­tle Prince’s re­peated ques­tions un­til he is forced to say 501,632,731 “stars”. And when the Lit­tle Prince asks what he does with the stars, he replies: “… I own them.”

On fur­ther ques­tion­ing, the busi­ness­man says he uses the stars to buy more stars, which makes him richer, even though they are of no prac­ti­cal use to him.

Re­al­iz­ing the toxic power of greed, the Lit­tle Prince tells him­self: “Grown-ups are cer­tainly ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

In­deed, we grown-ups are cer­tainly ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary when it comes to ig­nor­ing cli­mate change.

The au­thor is a se­nior ed­i­tor with China Daily oprana@chi­nadaily.com.cn


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