Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall, October 2015. Bloomsbury, USA, ISBN 978-1632861023, 272 pages. RRP £12.99 (paperback)
This book examines why science on its own doesn’t convince people. It looks at the psychological processes and brain architecture that underlie humans’ tendency to disregard and skew difficult evidence. Drawing on research across many disciplines and presenting it entertainingly, George argues that these insights are critical to mobilizing public opinion on climate change.
He elaborates on the process of framing – how we apply pre-existing schemas of interpretation, based on our values, experiences and social cues, to new information, cherry-picking evidence that supports our existing beliefs and attitudes.
This is a particular problem with climate change. It’s impossible to identify a single cause, solution, or enemy. It lacks definite deadlines for action or a specific geographic location. It’s susceptible to multiple meanings and interpretations.
But George is equally clear that effective action on climate is possible, and this is what moves this book on from an interesting to an essential read for GC supporters.
Perhaps his main thesis is that trust is essential to effective communications. It is vital to build trusting relationships with those still unconvinced about climate change. We need to recognise how differently people see the world, then to focus on values shared by all people, regardless of political, cultural or religious differences. George interviewed many USA Tea Party supporters, and points to recent studies suggesting that respect for authority, reducing societal dysfunction, personal responsibility, avoiding intergenerational debt and loyalty to one’s community and nation could all be effective appeals for climate communicators. And to gain trust in different circles we may need new messengers as well as new messages.
He asks us to downplay the “eco-stuff”! Framing climate as an “environmental cause” has alienated groups, notably right-wingers and religious conservatives, whose cooperation is crucial to successful mitigation. He advocates an end to doomsday proselytizing around climate change, since it wearies listeners. But he also calls on all involved with climate change to act in accordance with our beliefs by not flying needlessly or otherwise wasting energy, as few things undermine communicator trust more than perceived hypocrisy.
George wants us to become passionate personal communicators and storytellers. The mind is wired to believe information presented in an engaging, narratively satisfying way, appealing directly to the “emotional brain” more than information presented unengagingly, even when the latter is accurate.
Most relevant to us in Green Christian, George sees the need for climate activists to learn from religions, as the faith communities have developed methods for sustaining socially-held beliefs. We can invoke non-negotiable sacred values that enable us to make sacrifices for the common good. But while acknowledging that real and difficult changes have to be made at every level, we need to frame climate solutions in terms of well-being and happiness, as well as pointing out that such solutions may also reduce inequality, obesity levels, and a host of other human problems.
This is why we embarked on Joy in Enough, http://www.greenchristian.org.uk/joy-in-enough/ – part of a wider strategy of getting the churches on board, so that we can be a powerful force in winning over hearts and minds in society. A strategy that does not include lone individuals continually hectoring congregations with doomsday warnings about “saving the planet” – a term George would ban!