Clear and Present Danger: Overwhelming Ourselves into Apathy

Head in Hands

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!

Follow @Danielle_Meitiv on Twitter, and Facebook: Brave Blue Words, Danielle Meitiv, and Author Danielle Meitiv.

Cool science calendars
Yes - one of these can be yours - just comment, forward or RT Brave Blue Words!


* 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


15 thoughts on “Clear and Present Danger: Overwhelming Ourselves into Apathy

  1. Hi Danielle,

    First off, I hope you find some time for the sci-fi novel. I know how hard it can be, I carved time early this am for creative writing and found excuses not to do it.

    As for your climate message, your bullet points really spoke to me. I do find the big gloom-and-doom messages leave me either highly doubtful or figuring there’s nothing we can do.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the horror with the nuclear plant in Japan, thinking about how it seems every energy source that powers our conveniences (including the computer I’m using right now) has a real downside. Frankly, it makes me want to tune out, which I know doesn’t help.

    Your blog is well-written, well-researched, and accessible. I’d love to read that sci-fi novel, but it seems you could also write a nonfiction book for common folks like me about our fragile ecosystem.


    1. Thanks for the writing encouragement! A new writers group will surely help 🙂

      Yes, energy is one of the primary sources of environmental problems, and also the source of so much good. There are a lot of people working on alternative forms of fuel, transportation, and technology. That’s part of the good news we need to read and write more about.

  2. Part of the reason I don’t watch the news is all they do is create a state of constant panic. It’s like hanging out with Chicken Little…all the time. What happens is we get to where we don’t take anything they say seriously.

    I firmly believe that the reason so many people died in Katrina is that weather people had cried “Wolf!” so many times to get the ratings up that people just ignored them…and paid the cost.

    I don’t want to hear about the world’s problems unless I am offered some way to make things better. I just tune out.

    Great post and looking forward to more :D.

    1. Amen on tuning out the news. I get mine from the Internet, where I can digest it a little more slowly and selectively. If I’m not up on the latest the second it happens, I know it will be there when I’m ready to read it. And I couldn’t agree more about Katrina. We have the same problem in the environmental community – if everything is THE big problem, how can anything be considered important?

  3. Ooh, you’re so on the mark with your ‘head in the sand’ idea. I have a ten year old daughter who keeps lecturing me on the evils of humankind and how we’re destroying the planet. I think “Hey, I pick up after my dog, I can’t do everything….”

    1. It’s especially hard if you have kids – sometimes I feel guilty about the world we are leaving them. I have to remind myself that I can’t do everything and guilt just wastes what energy I have to do good.

  4. Yes..all you wrote is true and We Humans,like you say have tendancy to draw into apathy; which is like dreams,that are mocking beds accomodating in the stillness of memory.What is happening badly is that manmade catastrophies are inevitable;then fixable for most times=less for the climate. Go ahead and educate us more on what researches you do conclude.Thanks.SAMTHECLAM

    1. Thanks. The issue of climate change is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, but I do believe it is fixable. People are amazingly creative and adaptable when we want to be. Maybe this ‘crisis’ is an opportunity to prove it. Stay tuned for more!

  5. Some days I find myself aimlessly scrolling through the blogs I usually love to read, dodging the descriptions of our planet’s downward spiral into man-made destruction. Reading your post was actually refreshing. It made me realize that there will always be days when it seems overwhelming, but we need to keep fighting. We need to keep using reusable bags and promoting recycled products. We need to watch our water and paper consumption. We need to keep contacting our senators about environmental bills, even if we dread the worst response. These things still matter, regardless of our temporary moods.

    1. You’re so right Erin – and we need to give ourselves permission to tune out sometimes, too, to refresh ourselves with good news and reminders of all the good things that make the struggle worth it.

  6. I think when we see the horrific catastrophes in Japan, the destruction of earth and the human sacrifice, we have to balance our views with the heroism and good things that come out of it all. I personally lost friends and family in Katrina, but today, when we visit NOLA, we see much needed improvements (28 foot tall levee built behind my uncle’s old home), and we value each other in our lives that much more.
    I have a 16yr old who wants to be a marine biologist, an oceanographer, a rescue diver… anything that will let him study underwater life all day. I’m thankful there’s so much yet to be learned and discovered by those coming up, who are as yet undeterred by the doomsayers. Because when it touches you personally, you’re invested.
    I can’t wait to share your blog with him! ‘Fins’ will love this stuff! P.S. Came from dtrasler’s & kristen lamb’s course.

    1. I can’t imagine losing people to such a disaster – my heart goes out to you. To be able to still see the good takes a special person.
      I hope you son enjoys the site – I was once a 16 year old who wanted to be a marine biologist, so tell him there’s a great future in it! There is still so much we don’t know.

  7. It is true – we tend to tune out when it comes to doom and gloom. Still, we need people to react and take action otherwise nothing will change. Finding the perfect balance between the apocalyptic messages and only good news is key so your take-home lessons are great… thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s