After covering a AAAS session on science and the media in my blog post last week, I’d planned to focus on another titled “Adapting to a Clear and Present Danger: Climate Change and Ocean Ecosystems.” Two of the talks stood out for me: one on the potential impacts of ocean warming and acidification, and the other on coral reefs, and all the threats they face. I had all my notes, including quotes from the speakers and abstracts of their talks. I’d even hunted down some of their earlier talks, and found cool graphics to accompany the post. Then, I sat down to write. But I couldn’t.
Why? Work’s been busy lately, especially since we’re trying to raise money for my primary project. I’ve been neglecting my WIP (work in progress: a first person sci-fi novel), and wanted to work on that. And on top of all that was simple procrastination – or so I thought. I should have suspected that something was up. I like writing this blog, and don’t usually look for excuses not to. So why was I having so much trouble?
Some people would turn to soul-searching at this point. I turned to the web. And what do you know? It turns out that I’m not the only one who gets tired of reading (and writing) about bad news.
Wait, Don’t Tell Me
Climate change is real. So is ocean acidification, the demise of coral reefs and the destruction of rainforests. Not to mention (but I will anyway), the loss of dozens endangered species, overfishing, air pollution, ocean dumping and oil spills…
Have your eyes glazed over yet? Were you tempted to stop reading, to find something positive to check out for a change? Me too. It’s natural. No one can take a steady diet of misery – it just wears us down. Some psychologists believe that we have a finite capacity for worry and just can’t take it all in at once.* The kids are sick, I’m being downsized, the mortgage is due, there’s a tragedy in Japan – oh, and the climate is changing? Take a number. Sometime we go numb, tuning out what our brains just can’t handle.
That’s not a cop-out. Humans evolved to handle immediate threats like hungry predators, and modern-day stresses trigger same basic fight or flight response. But our bodies can’t stay on high alert all the time. After a while, the alarms stop ringing, and we go back to business as usual. Without doing anything.
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…
That’s another problem – what can we do? The problems I’ve mentioned are so huge, is it even possible for one individual to make a difference? Too often we scientists, reporters, bloggers and the like give folks the bad news without any ideas of what to do. Any reason for hope. Is it any wonder people stop listening?
Some studies** suggest that people resist doing anything about climate change – and even deny that it is happening – because it contradicts their views of a “just world.” Surely, if God (or the Universe or humanity, etc) is good, things can’t be that bad. Or it will all work out in the end. I have to admit that I fall into this camp sometimes. I have to or else I could never keep working and writing about the issue of climate change.
So now what?
What does that mean for someone like me, who lives and breathes this stuff all the time, and tries to educate others about it, too? Some take-home lessons:
- Stay away from the apocalyptic messages – they cause people to tune out.
- Give people reason for hope, including things they can do and info about efforts underway to make a difference.
- Share as much good news as possible.
- Enjoy all the wonderful things about people, the environment, life – celebrate! Those are the REAL reasons we work so hard to save it all, right?
As I said, I do believe in a just world. I know we humans have the capacity to address the challenges of climate change in ways that will make the world a better place for having done so. And we can even have a good time while doing so. To quote the incomparable Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Keep fighting the good fight – and dancing all the while.
What do you think? Does bad news about the environment cause you to tune out? Are there strategies that can help people see the threats – and the solutions? What things do you celebrate and work to save? Please share in the comments below.
BONUS: Cool Science Swag Giveaway
For the rest of March, anyone who leaves a comment will be entered into a random drawing for one of the fab calendars that I got at the AAAS conference last month, shown in the photo below. Each comment = an entry, so feel free to check out some older posts and comment on those too. Forwarding a post from the blog, RTing it on Twitter, or following this blog via Facebook will also get you an entry. Two weeks to go – start your entries now!
* The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, published by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University
** Feinberg, M., and R. Willer, 2011. Apocalypse Soon? : Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World
Beliefs Psychological Science 2011 22:34 Originally published online 9 December 2010 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610391911