Arthur Dahl's Blog at International Environment Forum
Don't Even Think About It (book review)
Arthur Lyon Dahl
Don't Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore
by George Marshall (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 261 p.
As the science of climate change has become clearer, and the threats to human well-being more obvious, it has become increasingly apparent that scientific information alone does not motivate action. In fact, the magnitude of the threat seems to have produced the opposite, an increasing denial of the facts and a refusal to act. George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, as drawn on 25 years' experience, and interviews with actors across the spectrum from scientists to deniers, to explain why this is the case. Through a set of short and readable stories about people he has met, he explains all the reasons why we are failing to grasp the issue and react accordingly. One strength of the book is the way it explains the different perspectives from which people approach the issue of climate change.
On the social side, we follow the thinking of the in-group we belong to, listen to people we trust, fail to see the whole picture, and risk rejection or more if we try to think differently. Labelling climate change as an environmental issue, somehow distant and a conspiracy threatening to our way of life, does not help. Our brains respond poorly to distant, diffuse, uncertain threats and fall back on short-term certainty. Our confirmation bias means that we select the information that conforms to our existing views. Even climate change victims deny the real source of their problems.
Marshall describes the difficulties scientists face in trying to communicate the climate change issue, ranging from scientific uncertainty to vicious personal attacks to destroy their credibility. What chance does scientific truth have against more appealing lies and disinformation manipulated by media professionals whose only motivation is to win the argument. He dissects as a professional many of the failures in climate change communication.
Towards the end of the book, he explores the moral imperatives, and the challenge to scientists who are expected to remain neutral and objective when the survival of humanity is at stake. We are failing to engage the emotional side of human nature. He discusses the false divide between science and religion, and the importance of learning from religion how to motivate people to sacrifice in the short term for long term benefits.
In his concluding sections, Marshall makes recommendations for how to do things differently. Climate change is happening and is an immediate threat for which we must prepare now while looking to the future. Since negative messages do not work, we need a narrative of positive change with many meanings from peoples' different perspectives, something that Baha'is do quite naturally from their positive vision of the future. We need a narrative of cooperation in a common cause building on a spectrum of approaches, activating cooperative values rather than competitive values, and stressing what we all have in common. We should relate solutions to climate change to the sources of happiness and the connections that we feel with others, creating communities of shared conviction. We can present climate change as a journey of conviction and informed choice between desirable and catastrophic outcomes, invoking the nonnegotiable sacred values. Climate communicators should emphasize the qualities that create trust, and be emotionally honest in talking about their hopes, fear and anxieties with moral consistency, recognizing the role of their own emissions, and affirming wider values across the partisan gap. We should recognize people's feelings of grief and anxiety, mourn what is lost (including the fossil fuel age) and value what remains. He concludes: "Acceptance, compassion, cooperation and empathy will produce very different outcomes than aggression, competition, blame and denial. We hold both futures within ourselves and, as we choose whether and how to think about climate change, we are choosing how we will think about ourselves and the new world we are creating."
This is a book that will be useful far beyond those dealing just with climate change, since it addresses issues of reaching people's hearts as well as their minds, challenging their assumptions, and empowering them to be open to change and to work together for the betterment of their communities and society.
Last updated 12 April 2016