Why Hurricanes Don’t Change People’s Minds

We went to bed last night feeling a deep sadness for the people of Puerto Rico. Having been ravaged by two hurricanes in a week our heart goes out to those who are facing devastation. I’m particularly aware these days of how many people effected by climate change already are the ones who can least afford to deal with its consequences. And yet I find myself doing very little to change my own behaviour and the ways I contribute to it.

I think many of us live in various degrees of denial about our human impact on the planet. Some vocally deny the existing scientific consensus and completely deny that there’s a problem we’re causing. Others of us who acknowledge a role for human behaviours in changing the planet, are often tempted to despair. We recycle our newspapers, or install an LED light here or there; reassuring ourselves it’s better than nothing but hoping that someone else will do the heavy lifting of substantive change. I confess to you that I’m putting a lot of hope in Elon Musk perfecting electric cars so that I don’t have to make any changes to my driving lifestyle. But slowing the rate of damage, isn’t the same as solving the problem. Putting food scraps in your composting bin is a good and helpful thing to do, but it only slows the rate at which our species (especially we wealthier members of it) are producing cataclysmic change. The small acts of environmental stewardship are perhaps also the most dangerous because they allow us to tell ourselves a story that we are addressing the problem. They assuage our fears enough to sleep at night and not worry about things like rising sea levels or droughts. They comfort us, but allow us to ignore all the larger scale issues to remain relatively unchecked.

What seems clearest to me in recent weeks is that telling the story (or perhaps yelling the story) of climate change and the peril of our planet is not producing the needed results. And by that I mean, it’s not just convincing the aggressive deniers like Donald Trump, it’s also failing to change in deeply meaningful ways, ordinary folk like you and I who drag our recycling bins to the curb each week but still have an awfully large carbon footprint.

And as much for myself as anyone else, I wonder aloud, why catastrophes like hurricanes and messages of fear don’t seem to motivate us to stop destroying our earth? Why do we stay stuck in pretending to ourselves that it will all work out somehow?

Take this idea out for a test drive: I think we’ve tried scaring people into change, but messages of fear are leading us to avoid, rather than engage our great struggle for survival as a species in protecting our home planet. Fear is an awfully good motivator for certain kinds of things, like keeping people from making destructive choices in which there is a direct and immediate result. Don’t put that knife in the toaster – you’ll really suffer if you do. But climate change is a complex, indirect, distant, delayed phenomenon. Even people who have suffered greatly in Florida from hurricanes don’t experience their loss as related to their actions, so it’s pretty hard for them to be convinced of the relationship between their leaving the AC on all day, and the indirect contributions it may have had to what happened last week. Because I don’t suffer when I throw batteries into the landfill, it can be relatively easy for me to maintain my denial of how such actions impact the world.

Fear is also really good at motivating people when the desired action is one of avoidance: don’t eat that chicken that’s been in the back of your fridge for 3 weeks unless you’re wanting to develop an intimate relationship with your toilet. But avoidance only helps us reduce the likelihood of a negative outcome, and it’s sure not the same thing as caring about something or someone. If your neighbour only fed and clothed their children to avoid getting in trouble or hearing complaints or to keep from looking bad, you probably wouldn’t consider that love or care, or even adequate parenting. But our mindset with problems surround climate change are very often born out of avoidance of the bad we foresee, rather than as a natural expression of something we deeply care about.

Fear was perhaps useful in sounding the alarm to humans who needed to wake up and realize the path we’re on. But now we need something else. Scaring people isn’t working, and it might be making our climate change problems worse.

Perhaps we’ve been confusing the symptoms for the problem. Climate change, pollution, destruction of natural environments; these may just be symptoms of a bigger issue many of us have in the human family: we don’t have much of a relationship with the planet that gives and sustains all life. 

To be truthful, most of us would have to describe our relationship with the planet as exploitive. We take all we can get and give as little as we have to. We may say we love nature because we get a certain warm feeling when we watch the sun set over the ocean, but our affection for the beauty of the planet should not be confused for committed and consistent care for the well being of our earth.

Are practices of environmental stewardship a barely tolerable inconvenience, or an expression of care for something you have an ongoing relationship with?

I never much minded changing my own kids’ diapers because this otherwise objectionable task was transformed by the love and nurture I felt for them. Lots of the time I recognize that all of the hard work in raising them is part of my deeply held commitment to helping them flourish as human beings. And when it comes to my own parents, I don’t feel resentment or obligation to help them – I act out of response to the relationship with the people who gave me life.

Quite honestly I don’t have those feelings toward this “mother” earth who gives me life. I don’t like to pay more for eco-friendly stuff. I’d rather indiscriminately consume and use whatever is most convenient and pleasure giving. Which tells me about the state of my relationship with the planet – and I suspect I’m in the majority with this confession. Most of us, are alienated, estranged, or at least distant and unfamiliar with our earth. We’ve bought into illusions of separateness and narratives of superiority. We’ve lived lives of utter disconnection. Yet sometimes our longings show through as we pursue experiences of connectedness like feeling the warm sand between our toes, camping, or even raising a garden.

Environmental care is best as a natural response that happens within an already caring relationship. Programs that allow you to be a participant but only at a detached level, fail because they are periphery actions at best, rather than a consistent pattern of nurture. If you take your kids to Disneyland but ignore them the rest of the year, it’s a bit of a stretch to say you’re a great parent. If you buy your friend dinner, but sleep with his wife, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people you really care about his wellbeing. But this is perhaps what most of us educated wealthy socially conscious folks do. We buy off our conscience with certain actions that are caring while fundamentally violating our relationship with the earth. Only in our estranged state can we convince ourselves that this is okay.

So how do we bring ourselves to learn to love this earth again? Probably the same way we cultivate our love with other human beings. Perhaps you begin by delighting in it; whether it’s enjoying cuddly animals or being amazed by the stars at night. It’s fine to start there. Many of us begin with infatuations towards romantic partners based on physical attributes and experiences…but we can’t just stay there long term if a true relationship is to develop and sustain. The maturation of our love occurs within a commitment to interdependency: the meeting of, and having needs met. Most of us are pretty good at having our needs met by the earth, but how do we do at tending to the needs of the earth in response?

Hurricanes make people scared – on that we can all agree. But the responses to those fears: panic, denial, complacency, are not kind of response that generally brings careful and committed change. Neither will scaring people about polar ice caps and polar bears, or using polarized political discourse. We humans change in the best and most enduring ways when we enter into relationships of long term caring and being cared for. An environmentalism that works is not primarily a matter of technological advances or policy changes, it’s matter of what human individuals and cultures love. It’s about relationship with each other and our planet.


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