A Reaction to “Don’t Even Think About It”
This essay is a reaction to Don’t Even Think About It, by George Marshall. This is not an academic work. It is conversational and accessible, and I found it interesting enough to want to inflict my response on an unsuspecting world.
”The bottom line is that we do not accept climate change because we wish to avoid the anxiety it generates and the deep changes it requires. In this regard, it is not unlike any other major threat. However, because it carries none of the clear markers that would normally lead our brains to overrule our short-term interests, we actively conspire with each other, and mobilize our own biases to keep it perpetually in the background.” (p228)
What’s It About?
The book explores psychological mechanisms that prevent us from taking more decisive action on climate change. Marshall points out, convincingly, that “climate change contains none of the clear signals that we require to mobilize our inbuilt sense of threat and that it is remarkably and dangerously open to misinterpretation.” (P3)
Therein lies his fundamental thesis, which I strongly agree with: the main barrier to action is not scientific -- it is psychological and cultural.
He explains this from a social scientific standpoint, drawing on concepts such as biased assimilation and the bystander effect (all concepts that have been heavily researched yet are not familiar to precisely the people who should be aware of these).
Mo’ Data Mo’ Useless
As one reviewer writes: “people will continue to take positions that are consistent with their pre-existing values. For that reason, efforts to present ever-increasing amounts of data, without attending to those values, will only yield greater resistance and make a social consensus on climate change more elusive.”
Or as Marshall says, quoting Clive Hamilton, “denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information.” (p124)
In other words: screaming at the tops of our voices about the data or the science is no longer useful, and may be counterproductive. Yes, it shouldn’t be so — but it is.
My Version Uber Alles
“Because climate change is multivalent and wicked, it can have multiple interpretations but exists only in the form that people choose it to have. This means in turn that it does not exist in the form that they choose to ignore.” (P173)
We see this in much discourse about climate change — that it is about the Amazon rain forest or about sea levels or about inequality of impact or or or or… One of the great challenges in dealing with climate change is that it is all of these things at once, and it is global in both origin and impact.
And The Answer Is:
Marshall writes: “The answer to the partisan deadlock and public disinterest starts, I am convinced, with finding new messengers rather than finding new messages, and then creating the means for them to be heard.” (P120)
This is somewhat unsatisfying upon first reading — but there isn’t a satisfying answer to be had, is there? There is no silver bullet, and as I ruminated on these words, the more they made sense. But who are the new messengers?
If you want the two minute version of the book, this is a great chapter-by-chapter summary from the Centre for Climate Protection.
I am grateful to Daniel Aldana Cohen of Penn Sociology for drawing my attention to the book. Daniel directs (SC)2, the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, and has been kind enough to share readings that I would not have found my way to otherwise -- this is one example. And thanks yet again to Alina Goh for helping bring order to chaos.