Is Hope The Greatest Enemy Of The Environmental Movement?

Daisy Forster 

How many people do you know who feel passionately about climate change? Perhaps they’ve attended a protest or a strike. Perhaps they adopt an animal with WWF. Perhaps they read (or write!) articles like these or share them on Facebook. And yet, how many of them have made a meaningful change to their lifestyle?

Have they stopped flying and gone vegan? Have they given up fast fashion and switched to an electric car? Do they bring reusable cups and straws wherever they go and do they check ingredients lists for palm oil?

I doubt the answer to all of these things is ‘yes’. There seems to be a collective acknowledgement that ‘we need to do something’ to address the climate emergency, yet nothing ever seems to be done.

The real battle with climate change isn’t between the sceptics and the believers. It’s between the actors and the non-actors. History will not differentiate between those who refused to accept climate change and those who accepted it but did nothing.

New York City will be uninhabitable

But why do we find it so easy to accept that climate change is happening and yet so hard to change our lifestyles in order to stop it? Here are some tough pills to swallow.

The Paris accord’s goal of halting global warming at 2 degrees Celsius is currently at a 5% likelihood of being achieved. The reality is, that if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees, 50% of animal and 60% of plant species will face extinction. Sea levels will rise 1.6 feet and New York City will be uninhabitable. This is what the most respected global environmental authority has said is best case scenario.

The reality is so alien to us- a world without polar bears and without Central park- that the human brain cannot possibly believe it

I struggle to imagine a world without polar bears, let alone a world without one of its most important cities. It’s this complete unfathomability of the climate emergency that, I think, is what makes it so hard for people to act.

The reality is so alien to us – a world without polar bears and without Central Park – that the human brain cannot possibly believe it.  If we heard these facts and truly believed them, most of us would change our lifestyles in a heartbeat. But it’s this state of disbelief that stops us from taking the necessary steps.

So, the human brain is hardwired to be hopeful. If we spent every moment of every day fearing the submersion of Manhattan, it would be exhausting. By not believing in climate change, we are protecting ourselves.

The reality is, it’s easy to paypal £20 to WWF; it’s much harder to adapt your lifestyle for the greater good

But we rarely hear these truths told to us, either. We hear a lot about ‘saving the planet’ even when much of it is beyond saving. WWF’s Instagram account is largely dedicated to positive news, announcing that tiger numbers are rising in five countries.

This is wonderful news, but these kinds of hopeful semantics aren’t doing much for the environmental movement. It may inspire donations, but it won’t inspire the meaningful actions that will help protect tigers – and countless other species – more permanently.

The reality is, it’s easy to paypal £20 to WWF; it’s much harder to adapt your lifestyle for the greater good.

Perhaps we don’t hear phrases like ‘we need to limit the damage’ because they are far less powerful than ‘saving the earth’. Perhaps doom mongering will make people less motivated. If we can’t save the polar bears, what’s the point in giving up meat? But here’s the thing… hope isn’t working, either. At this point, it’s about damage control.

Humanity is in a lethargic state when it comes to climate change and hope detracts from the urgency 

How many millions will die and how many species will go extinct. But humanity is in a lethargic state when it comes to climate change and hope detracts from the urgency. If we still have time to save the polar bear, why would I give up meat now?

In order to limit the consequences, we need more meaningful change. Without fear, people don’t sense the emergency. Giving up animal products or flying is a big adjustment to a lifestyle, and one that most people aren’t willing or haven’t seen enough reason to make.

We have to acknowledge our human instinct not to believe in climate change bit still take action, anyway 

But maybe this is because they’ve been fed the storyline that we still have time. Perhaps, with more fear injected into the rhetoric of our activists and charities, there will be a push for more responsible lifestyles.

We have to acknowledge our human instinct not to believe in climate change but still take action, anyway.

There is no way to combat the human instinct to alienate the realities of climate change. Our brains cannot possibly believe the outcome because it is too absurd and too terrifying.

However, we can use the moments when we do experience fear to help us. Why is our rhetoric exacerbating our delusion? Fear is a useful tool in inspiring change. It’s about time we start using it.

This article is largely indebted to Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We are the Weather’ and I would direct all human beings towards his books!

Daisy Forster 

Featured image courtesy of Chris Yakimov via Flickr. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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