Let’s put down the whip and reach for the carrot: The mental effects of climate change
In spite of climate change deniers’ loud protests, climate change, and human activities as main causes of that change, have become widely accepted (Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming, 2017). One could say they are now facets of our common knowledge. As climate change has been accepted as reality, climate change discourse has found its way into any and every arena, be it politics, journalism, filmmaking, literature, comedy, education, business or activism.
One common feature of climate change discourse is the dystopian view; alarmist portrayals and predictions of a disastrous future awaiting us. In fictitious works depicting the future (Spoiler alert!), we have ruined our own planet to such an extent that 1. we go look for resources on other planets (Avatar), 2. we live as immobile, jelly like lumps atop scooters on a spaceship, waiting for the day life once again may sprout on earth (Wall-E), or 3. the richest of us seclude themselves on a space station with the resources that are left, leaving the poorer majority behind on our wreckage of a planet (Elysium) – to name a few examples.
What the creators and spreaders of these gloomy predictions intend to achieve, and what they to some extent succeed with, is to get people’s attention, to shock them out of the comfort of their everyday lives, and ultimately into change. The thinking behind this method goes something like:
“If we show how bad it is, how bad it can get, we will break people open and make them perceptible to more sustainable ways of doing things. With fear, the willingness to change will come. With fear, we can chase people away from these horrible futures. With fear, we can get to a better place.”
There is reason to believe this method has flaws, though, and quite some detrimental flaws, at that. In a paper on the psychological impacts of climate change, Susan Clayton, Christie Manning and Caroline Hodge have recommendations for getting an environmental message through:
“Be careful with imagery. On the one hand, vivid imagery may be an effective way to increase the salience of climate change. This is because the emotional arousal and fear that such images produce can be successful in grabbing people’s attention and focus. On the other hand, that same imagery may discourage action by making people feel that the effects of climate change are inevitable.”
(O’Neill, Boykoff, Niemeyer, & Day, 2013; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009 as cited by Clayton, Manning, & Hodge, 2014).
It appears as though vivid depictions of worst case scenarios risk to get people down and close them up, rather than breaking them open. It is time for us to realise this. It is time for us to try another angle.
If the alarmism we are used to hearing and seeing is the whip, what is the alternative? That’s right – the carrot. The carrot is depictions of futures we desire, rather than of futures we dread. The carrot enables change inspired by our visions of a better future, rather than by our fear of a worse. The carrot appeals to what makes us feel joy, to what we value. It works up our ambition, our determination. It sets a goal.
There are those who have grasped this already, who are setting optimistic and promising examples, hinting to what a sustainable future might look like. The organisations Collective Evolution, The Story of Stuff Project and Circle Economy, the companies Oatly, Fairphone, and The Source Bulk Foods, the restaurant Instock and the documentary Catching the sun are a few examples. Mainstream media, activism, politics, business and education are, nonetheless, yet to join in.
Just like a child is more likely to behave well if it is told what to do, rather than what not to do (Novotney, 2012), society is more likely to change in the direction we want – and at the pace we need – if we stop whipping it and start feeding it with depictions of sustainable ways forward. The feeders are, however, not only hotshots. The feeders are everyone who interacts with other people on a regular basis – all of us. Yes, even you. In real life and on social media, you can contribute with carrots every time climate change and other sustainability related topics are brought up. You can envision a future worth working for. You can chose to share stories of and pointers to what we should do, rather than what we should not. You can amplify determination, rather than defeat.
I am running towards a good future, rather than away from a bad one – will you run with me?
– By Saga Norrby
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., & Hodge C. (2014). Beyond storms & droughts: The psychological impacts of climate change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.
Novotney, A. (2012, October). Parenting that works. Monitor, 43(9), 44.
Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming (2017). Earth Science Communications Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved from: http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/