by Jock Gilchrist
As a former neuroscience student, it irks me that the media loves to justify our human tendencies by our brain wiring. Why are humans social creatures? It’s our brain wiring. Why do we respond positively to confident people? Brain wiring. Why is it easy to be distracted and hard to focus? Brain wiring. Why are we moral? Why do we love TED talks? Take a guess.
I’m sure that somehow, I’m cynical about the “brain wiring” explanation because of my brain wiring. If I had a dollar for every time I read one of these pop-psychology articles, I would have enough money for an advance on a melodramatic book to complain about brain wiring.
So I was skeptical that George Marshall’s book about the psychology of climate change denial is titled “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change.”
Great, another non-scientist sounding fancy by invoking the brain wiring explanation.
However, I put my cynicism aside for the duration of the book, and I was glad that I did.
Marshall’s book illuminates some of the most vexing questions about humanity’s response to climate change:
- Why do certain political and social groups accept scientists’ authority on most issues, but disregard it on climate change?
- If climate change is an existential threat for civilization, why was it ignored during the 2016 presidential debates?
- Are climate scientists who live high-carbon lifestyles hypocritical?
- How does the climate movement get in its own way and prevent others from joining in?
- Most importantly, how do we overcome these issues and make climate action the global norm?
We actually are hard-wired to ignore climate change
Climate change is what many call a “wicked problem.” It does not have a straightforward solution; there are many variables that create the problem; the risks are mostly in the distant future; it’s no one’s fault in particular; we don’t notice it on a day-to-day basis; it progresses slowly.
We are well-designed to respond to threats that pose immediate danger. We are well-designed to solve problems that have clear sequences of cause and effect.
But as Marshall explains, climate change is a plodding, complicated, distant issue that is everyone’s—so no one’s—responsibility. It fails to activate the sense of alarm we need to really get worked up about something.
If we were rational creatures, we’d be able to consider the evidence, and then act based on what we learned. But we are not solely rational. In fact, Marshall explains that our “rational brain” has a much smaller role in decision-making than our “emotional brain.” This is why statistics, graphs, and information are basically impotent when it comes to converting climate deniers to climate accepters.
It’s also why even those of us who accept climate science sometimes go about our daily lives like nothing were happening.
As if this weren’t enough, climate change faces social hurdles as well.
You could fashion the most nuanced, eloquent, witty argument the world has ever seen to a climate skeptic. But if accepting climate science means the disapproval of or ejection from that person’s social group, your clever words will fall on deaf ears.
Just as we are wired to respond to immediate threat, we are wired to prize and preserve our sense of belonging above almost all else. We associate social membership with survival, safety, and peace. If the status quo in your group is climate denial, denying that denial means a symbolic death.
In many ways, climate change activates the exact swirl of traits that make us least likely to mobilize and thwart planetary disaster.
But we’re also wired to respond to climate change
Don’t Even Think About It is depressing (as any respectable climate book must be), but it’s also hopeful. Although many elements of our human construction enable climate inertia or denial, the better angels of our nature have a role to play too.
In fact, that very reframe is one of the solutions Marshall suggests. Climate change is an environmental issue, but it is also an economic, security, public health, social justice, and psychological issue. Why emphasize only one variable of a multivariable issue?
Marshall says that framing climate change as a psychological drama between our internal demons and angels might be a promising new narrative. The inner struggle is a universal human experience. There is common ground and broad relatability in that approach, whereas the “humans are a cancer on the planet” narrative only appeals to those who already believe that.
Similarly, Marshall recommends ditching the “us vs them” narrative. Although it might galvanize environmentalists who do believe that oil companies are Satan, it continues to make the issue seem like a red vs blue issue. It reinforces the polarization already rampant in the political world.
The climate movement should also draw inspiration from the most successful social movement in history: religion. Religions share a lot with climate change – they ask adherents to undergo short-term restriction in favor of long-term benefit, challenge our normal assumptions about the world, rely on trusted communicators, and involve events distant in space and time. Yet religions thrive, and climate change received 50 combined minutes of coverage on major TV networks in 2016.
According to Marshall, religions capitalize on human connection in a way the climate movement doesn’t. In religions, people gather to share pain, be inspired, and bear witness to each other’s transformative moments. In climate change, we’re told coral reefs are dying and sea levels are rising, it’s because of our consumption, and that we should turn off our lights.
Redemption is absent from the climate change lexicon. We need the prospect of forgiveness in order to feel comfortable looking in the mirror or taking responsibility. The climate movement needs to create space for that to occur.
Think about it
Marshall’s book is full of climate insight. There is a lot working against us. But there is also a lot working for us.
This problem is hard, but not impossible. And humanity always thrived on a challenge anyway.
If this topic interests you, we’ve prepared comprehensive book notes for your consumption. The notes take the form of condensed chapter summaries that include key quotations and insights. At 8% of the length of the book, you can absorb the important parts and skip the hours it would take to read the entire thing (though that’s encouraged as well). Download them below, and share widely!
Download the cliff notes here (pdf).
Jock Gilchrist is a community health worker, climate activist, writer, trail runner, guitarist, brother, and friend residing in Sonoma County. His writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha, and Mind Body Green. He is passionate about environmental policy and cultural change, and believes California can be a global leader on the path to a sustainable future. His writing is cliche-free, but he drives a Prius with a “coexist” bumper sticker.