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Hope, Not Fear, Inspires Change
Emily Gertz, 27 Aug 07

Last year my pal and sometimes-colleague Dave Roberts, editor of Gristmill, wrote a compelling series on fear and environmentalism, firmly and refreshingly grounded in the current realities of American politics: how fear of the terrorist (or more lately, the illegal immigrant) has been used for the past several years to induce Americans to accept an increasingly authoritarian government and the dilution of our civil liberties.

In particular, Dave took on the notion that liberals and progressives need to ape the baser tactics of some conservative sectors by trying to scare Americans into being more environmentally conscientious, because whatever it takes to win is what needs doing...instead of forging an independent path based on values that equate with creating sustainable and just societies: reason, compassion, forebearance, and selflessness.

Dave concluded that "[W]e live in an ascendant cycle of fear, anger, violence, and reprisal. But progressives should not pretend that the cycle is of any use to them, or that its force can be marshaled to more noble ends. We might gain some short-term victories by scaring the crap out of people, but a population in fear will always tend toward authoritarianism and violence."

Today Dave links over to a recent article on political psychology in The New Republic, where author John Judis noted that when people are reminded of their mortality, it can trigger emotions such as "disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores."

Dave goes on (and I'll let him have the final word here),

The researchers call this "worldview defense" -- "the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger."

Environmentalists terrify the populace with stories of oncoming doom, and in the next breath proclaim that the worldview of humankind must change fundamentally, that we need a global spiritual transformation.

The former triggers worldview defense and the latter exacerbates it. If you tell people that all they know is false and corrupt, and that they must leap with you into an entirely new world, you are going to create extremely high barriers. Almost by definition, very few people are going to join you. The rest will find some way to preserve their reality -- by disputing the message, by disdaining those who carry the message, or simply by tuning the whole mess out.

We -- you and I and all human beings -- cling to what we know, what gives our world order and meaning. Threatening that causes us to cling tighter. We fear loss of control, particularly when confronted by the ultimate loss of control: death.

That reaction is fine if your goals are reactionary. If your goals are progressive, it works against you. Progressives must convince people that changes in the direction of justice and sustainability are the logical extension of who they are. They are a fulfillment of our true nature, not a fundamental break with our past. They are: what you have, what you know, only better, moreso.

Progressives must show people a path from here to there, a continuity that can be bridged with hope and confidence. Fear yields neither.


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What I've noticed is that the majority of climate activism seems to create the following spectrum of emotional responses:

1. "You are right, and we are wrong? OK, we'll resist you." [deniers as well as those who don't believe in various aspects of climate activist orthodoxy]

2. "We are to blame? We'll resist you." [people who resent apparently innocent actions such as turning on an air conditioner being labeled as 'bad'; this group sees carbon footprints as 'blame footprints']

3. "The problem is so big, and our choice of meaningful actions is so small. We're powerless, and therefore this problem isn't high on our agenda."

4. Those who are engaged.

The perceived authoritarianism of climate activists, their intolerance of dissent and diversity, will affect the proportions of the four basic responses. The common climate activist agenda, to reduce emissions, is necessary but inadequate. (See

The above spectrum of responses is not rational, but it is what you will find if you go outside the "choir" of the engaged.

Posted by: Peter Donovan on 27 Aug 07

This is excellent! I'd been thinking about doing a post along these lines, but you got there first. Thanks for summing up beautifully a critically important idea. We need to frame the coming changes in terms of opportunity (40% annual growth in solar, for instance) rather than in terms of crisis. It's the only way we'll effect the changes that are needed.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 28 Aug 07

Good for the "population manipulation for progressives" file, but criminally simplistic otherwise. Sometimes jolts of mortality awareness have inspired a clinging reaction in me; very often, though, these jolts inspire a deep appreciation for the preciousness of being alive, inspiration to take action now while I still can. Equally, walking away from a film like 'An Inconvenient Truth' that smothers the weight of the crisis it describes with a feel-good "we can do it" ending leaves me with a limp, "it'll all work out if I just do my little bit" feeling.

Different strokes, of course :) But claiming that being made aware of your mortality makes you intolerant, and is hence "bad", as some sort of broad scientific conclusion, just seems like a recipe for feeding the culture of ecology-denial that got us here in the first place. Depends how it's done. Just as messages of hope can induce passive "it'll be alright"-ness - depending on how it's done.

Posted by: Gyrus on 28 Aug 07

I think there must be a difference between fear-mongering (e.g. categorisation of certain religions and peoples as terrorists or the looming threat of economic loss) and the "jolt" that Gyrus speaks of.

We are, as a race, rather hardwired for religious experiences (or, at least, experiences that reach out beyond the rational). If we were rational, we would face less of a problem surmounting the environmental issues at hand. The problem is that we do require a radical societal change that will place people outside their comfortable "zone of control." If we cannot communicate this "jolt" now through words and ideas, it will only come about later through environmental collapse (verging on fearful language there, I know).

How may we communicate this without causing alarm or despair? How do we adequately speak without resorting to the metaphors of faith and transcendence that make our languages resonate with special meaning? How much of our apparent impotence (in communicating a positive message to society to encourage change) is our fault? Is it that we are unable to code switch our language appropriately or, and I think this more likely, is it that our societies are unable to make this evolutionary leap to catch up with the responsibilities of what has come about? Are we hard-wired for denial and withdrawal from issues of such magnitude?

I realise we (environmentalists) are sometimes at fault for sounding the siren so suddenly and sharp; however, if the family sleeps in a burning home, better to wake them to the danger than let flames consume them--no matter what dreams they may be shaken from.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 28 Aug 07



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