Learned Helplessness

Blog No.75.

NASA announced that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history, as was 2014 and as is expected to be, 2016. Hottest year 1. (Those looking for more technical data will find it here Hottest year 2. ) With all the publicity given to the impending disaster that climate change represents for humanity, one would expect that by now, a massive sense of alarm would have gripped the population and that the politicians would be vying with each other to develop the most impressive containment policies.

TemperatureNot a bit of it! In New Zealand at least, it is business as usual: more roads to be built; more dairy farms to be brought on stream and the government is down on hands and knees imploring foreign oil companies to find some ‘black gold’ (more properly, ‘black death’) and start extracting it from the seabed surrounding New Zealand. In a recent newspaper interview, the spokesperson for the Labour Party, New Zealand’s major opposition party, did not even mention climate change as among its current policy priorities.

Since the Paris summit, and at long last, the media seems no longer to be giving equal, ‘fair and balanced’ coverage to both climate change deniers and those, attempting to alert humanity to its peril. Despite the recent acceptance of the reality, it would appear that it will still take some time before the average Kiwi on the pavement ceases to treat the whole threat of climate change as a matter of indifference. It is something seemingly so remote that it warrants no debate, let alone an adjustment to life-style.

It is hard to imagine that the citizens of Pompeii would still have been discussing their arthritis, the rising cost of slaves or the new show on at the forum, for several weeks after Vesuvius had sprung to life and was emitting deep rumbles and the odd boulder. However, my research tells me that that is probably exactly what they were doing.

PompeiiFifteen years ago, we bought a barren Marlborough hillside and moved a home onto it. Anticipating climate change’s unimpeded approach, we planted mainly Australian tress that would be better able to survive the anticipated more arid conditions. (Given developments since then, I suspect we might have been overly optimistic: perhaps we should have been selecting plants on the basis of whether or not they made suitable camel tucker?)

I am not alone in having been able to see what is coming down the track, nor in being sufficiently concerned to adjust my behaviour accordingly. Policy-makers in the NZ Green Party and my colleagues at Climate Karanga Marlborough, clearly recognise the same perils that I do. Nevertheless, the Green Party receives the votes of around only 13% of the NZ electorate (and many of those, may well have been given in pursuit of other policy objectives on the Green Party’s manifesto, unrelated to Climate Change.)

There is no doubt that were say 50%, of the New Zealand population sufficiently alarmed at the prospect of rapid climate change to take action to address it, there would still remain time in which steps could be taken, which could inspire the community of nations and save the world from disaster. Sadly, but realistically, I have to admit that at the present moment, no such reveille seems likely to be heard in sleepy hollow.

There have been many articles written about how to awaken populations from their apathetic slumber in regard to climate change. One of the favoured explanations of the phenomenon is ‘Learned Helplessness’  Learned helplessness Individual citizens are fully aware of the problem, but have learnt the false lesson that they are totally disempowered in the face of disaster on such a scale. It is of course a false helplessness: the dog in the Wiki example could always leap over the low fence and escape the pain.

Likewise, a bucket of water is filled with a million drips. Millions of humans taking individual action to reduce their personal footprints on the planet and, yet, even more effectively, using their votes to force national political leaders to do the same, would soon have the bucket overflowing. To quote from the second of Lisa Bennett’s articles quoted below “… being unable to do everything never reduces the meaning of doing something.”

The question I have been asking myself is “what prevents that leap in understanding and motivation?” In my research, I came across what I feel is a most insightful and, dare I use the word, ‘inspiring’ article published in Grist’s magazine and written by Lisa.

Lisa Bennett
Lisa Bennett

Human nature & climate change

While the Grist article deals to the population as a whole, this second of Lisa’s articles, equally inspirational and taken from her blog, addresses the problem from an individual’s perspective.

Not freaking out!

No doubt, those of you reading the Grist article, will draw their own conclusions. For myself, the two out of Lisa’s ten points of direction, which I found most useful, were the third and fourth. The third indicates the importance of persuading our politicians to lead us into the zone of discomfort rather than continuing to keep to the rear of the flock as it follows its unthinking nose to whatever over-night pasture appears the lushest.

3. … no matter how good the reasons to switch to solar energy or demand that government take bolder action on climate change, people can always come up with reasons why they don’t need to do anything, such as: “If I don’t act right now, the world will basically be the same.”

Passing a law that requires people to change their behavior (especially if those changes are relatively easy to make) is one effective way around this…

Lisa’s fourth point indicates the cumulative, or even exponential growth in effectiveness of an individual’s taking of the decision to add their drop to the bucket.

4. We are vulnerable to peer pressure, especially about things that confuse us. We can watch the news, see photos of melting glaciers, even experience changing weather patterns. But if our neighbors aren’t doing anything about climate change, we’re unlikely to do anything either because, as much as we hate to admit it, we are herd animals, who use social cues to adapt to our environment, according to Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

And if you doubt how powerful this instinct is, consider the experiment Cialdini conducted in which his team hung four different kinds of flyers on people’s doorknobs in San Diego, with the goal of inspiring residents to reduce their energy consumption. Three of the flyers directly asked them to reduce their energy use, offering three different motivations: save money, save the environment, and benefit future generations. But none of these appeals made a significant difference. Only the fourth flyer did, which read simply: “The majority of your neighbors are undertaking energy-saving actions every day.” The lesson: Don’t be afraid to appeal to our instinct to fit in.

Of course, the major difficulty with Point 4 above is that peer pressure is a two-edged sword. If the majority of your neighbours are doing nothing about climate change, then why would you want to be the odd one out? All too gradually, as the urgency of the situation dawns on the population, will individuals find the courage to escape the peer pressure, exit the closet and be seen in public to be active in looking to their own and their grand-children’s futures. Only by individuals coming out and thereby, influencing others to come out, will the crucial tipping-point be reached. Climate Karanga, www.climatekaranga.org.nz together with its pledge site, offers the chance for every New Zealand citizen to stand up and be counted. Karanga Pledge

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