Why don't more people care about the environment?
Why aren't more people anxiously engaged in addressing climate change?
Why are so many good smart people seemingly indifferent to the looming catastrophes?
We greenies muse about these questions now and then. And sometimes thinking about the apathy of others gets us really discouraged and stuck in a feeling of hopelessness (what's the use?). Green Bean recently shared with me an interesting article that explains that the green movement has a major PR problem, and that the solution is to never say "earth" or "planet" or "environment," to focus on people (not polar bears), to enlist celebrities, and to repeat, repeat, repeat.
Recently I've been reading Daniel Goleman's book Focus about the nature of attention, and his discussion of attention has an enlightening explanation about why are paralyzed by climate change. He gives two very compelling reasons why we are very ill-equipped to address "our slow-motion mass suicide as human systems degrade the global systems that support life on this planet."
First is the fact that we can't perceive the threat with our senses and that it seems far off. As one expert (Dr. Larry) in the book explains, "'I have to persuade you that there's an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas that's gathering in the heavens and capturing the sun's heat because of what man does in using fossil fuels. It's a heavy lift...The dimension of time is a huge problem -- if the pace of global warming were accelerated to a few years instead of over centuries, people would pay more attention. But it's like the national debt: I'll leave it to my grandchildren--I'm sure they'll think of some solution.'"
In addition, the topic of climate change is downright depressing! And the human mind does not like to dwell on the distressing: "Emotions, remember, guide our attention. And attention glides away from the unpleasant." Who wants to think about humanity's eventual demise due to our own failure to act? Not me! Even I find myself recoiling from the thought and redirecting my attention elsewhere. Goleman explains that he used to think that complete transparency about the negative impacts of our behaviors and purchases would encourage us to find better alternatives. But, he says, "I neglected a psychological fact. Negative focus leads to discouragement and disengagement."
I found this example, from Columbia's Elke Weber, particularly enlightening: "[Y]ou can get women's attention about getting breast exams by scaring them about what might happen if they don't get examined. This tactic captures attention in the short term, but because fear is a negative feeling, people will take just enough action to change their mood for the better -- then ignore it."
As Weber explains, "'Negative emotions are poor motivators,'" and for long-term change you need sustained action and a positive message. Goleman's book touts a shift from talking about negative eco-footprints to positive eco-handprints as a better source of sustained motivation. The website handprinter draws on LCA (life cycle analysis) data to tell you the sum total of all your good habits: your handprint. The key idea being to keep making improvements until your handprint is bigger than your footprint. Using the power of social media, you can inspire others to join with you on this path.
I checked out www.handprinter.org online as soon as I read about it in Focus. It has just shy of 2,000 FB fans so I think it's safe to say that it hasn't taken off (yet, hopefully). But it's an interesting concept.
I've been thinking about my own life and how I became more engaged in green issues, what worked to get me to pay attention. And thinking about what I can learn from that to help me be more strategic in my attempts to get others' attention. But that's the topic for another post. First I want to hear from you!
Here are the questions I pose to you, super readers:
- How did you develop a sustained interest in green issues?
- How can we talk about our green concerns and choices in a way that doesn't make others' eyes glaze over?
- How can we talk about climate change and other environmental issues in a way that engages the unengaged?