Keep Hoping and Carry On
Of all the conversations I’ve had on climate change, the one that has stuck with me the most was not with a climate scientist, economist, futurist or politician. It was with a close family member who classified as “general public”. Someone with a family and a job, kids and real life, day-to-day survival issues. I wanted to understand how “top of mind” climate change was to them.
There was one particular phrase they said that has stuck with me ever since our conversation, and which I think exemplifies where our society stands right now:
“I’m sure at some point they will find a way to capture back huge quantities of CO2”
Let’s analyse this, because it is critical to really understanding the level of delusion across society:
Delusion 1: The parent-child relationship
“They will find a solution” denotes “not me”, “not my problem”, or “I’m powerless”. Somewhere in the world, someone more important than me will figure this out on my behalf. It indicates the classic relationship most people have with their government: expecting leadership, responsibility, accountability, in the way that a child looks up to its parent. But our “parents” sitting in government positions are the very people who have been failing us for decades already. The people with vested political and economic interests in putting Big Money and Business As Usual above all other priorities. Many of us are deluded that someone, somewhere, is going to take responsibility. This person doesn’t exist.
Delusion 2: The Tsunami Delay
The use of the word “will” reveals the assumption that the decisive moment is still in the future, that we actually still have time, and that effective solutions will magically appear at the last minute because everyone will come together in the face of disaster.
Indeed, everyone does come together at the last minute, but this can mean either one of two things: they all survive together, or they all die together. In our case, a situation similar to what happens with tsunamis is developing. People only start running when they see the tsunami. So yes, they do all come together in the end. They all come together and run screaming in the same direction. And most will drown. Climate Change is the earthquake that causes the tsunami. It is thousands of miles away, deep in the ocean. We cannot see it or sense it. Our day to day life goes on, even though we are creating the conditions for the creation of the faultiline, the earthquake and the tsunami that follows.
Delusion 3: The Problem-Solving Paradox
Public and media perceptions of climate change continue to focus on what the solutions to climate change may be and should be, when the problem is one of implementation of existing solutions rather than creation of new ones. In fact, the most important and simple of all of them has existed for millions of years: trees.
The paradox is that the more urgent the conversation becomes, the more it continues to focus on the technological solutions rather than on the social and political sea change in our attitude that needs to take place. Rather than immediately cutting down our current emissions and consumption, we devise Green New Deals with 5, 10 and 20-year plans for creating green jobs, green energy, and other white elephants of green-washed capitalism that will undoubtedely lead to further emissions.
Delusion 4: Having our cake and eating it
COVID-19 has resulted in a 17% drop in emissions. It demonstrates that if there is conscious intention, and the understanding that severe sacrifices are needed, we can do it. But solving climate change while focusing on growth, profit and consumption is a dead end. We’ve tried that, and it didn’t work.
The truth is the average citizen does not want to give up their lifestyle, does not even want to stop having children. Most of us profess we believe climate change is real, yet very few support drastic action, which is what is needed. At the end of the day our personal lifestyle comes before the planet, and even before the future of our children. In order to justify our incredibly selfish and suicidal behaviour, we have deluded ourselves in thinking that electric cars and other “green amenities” that come with huge carbon footprints will get us where we need to be.
Delusion 5: The Normalcy Bias
Surprisingly, my family member did not argue with me about the existence of climate change. They had simply accepted it. This means that the debate has shifted from questioning the existence of climate change to questioning whether we should actually act on it. We have reached a complacent “So What?” moment.
As generations grow up with climate change in the news, there is an increasing perception that it is a very slow phenomenon that we will be able to adapt to, however severe it might be. People are finding the news reassuring rather than alarming. Many question whether climate change is even as severe as we were told. If something is already happening yet we can still have a job and a normal life, surely this means it’s not as bad as predicted.
This false self-reassurance is something that I see all the time as a market research director understanding how people process the news. We can lie to other people, but we are best at lying to ourselves. Our immediate survival needs, what is “top of mind”, always takes priority over future needs, and any intention for action can be easily sabotaged by an elaborate set of post-rationalisations that can push ethics and rationality aside for the sake of convenience and short-term benefits.
We are about to witness the days of the Aral Sea, where for decades people saw the huge lake diminish through over use, but instead of restoring it they normalised themselves to the situation until there was no water, no fish, a toxic dust bowl, cancer, total ecological annihilation and mass migration.
As I was wrapping up my chat with my family member, I found myself trying to warn them about the doom and gloom of the future on a sunny day, by a marina full of yachts and happy sea gulls, having coffee. Trying to explain that the world as we know it could be coming to an end in the next few decades when it obviously isn’t right at this moment, judging from the idyllic surroundings our conversation was taking place in. What I got back was lots of “yes I agree”, as well as lots of interruptions in our convesation to check their phone, pay the waiter, etc. It couldn’t have possibly been a more surreal conversation. I could sense their self-normalisation taking place there and then even as they heard their own words. Why should we think that our politicians are any different?
As you walk through the desert, your judgement may fail you. But the mirages will be reassuring
to be continued…(or not)