Break It To Me Gently

What’s the link between Illahee’s last speaker, Jonah Lehrer, and our next one, Richard Heinberg (Monday Feb 22)? It’s just this: Richard has some sobering news for us.  We’re running out of energy, and we need to make “other arrangements,” as Jim Kunstler would say. People hate bad news. And we often respond to it by denying or ignoring it.

Heinberg has been slinging bad news for most of the past decade.  And the response from the vast majority of individuals, businesses and elected leaders has been… nothing.

Granted, here in Portland we have a Peak Oil Plan, Climate Action Plan, and lots of renewable energy activity. But we’re weird. And even with all that activity, we’re still in for a shock sometime this coming decade. More than likely, we’ll muddle through, with our freakishly high proportion of hydro power, our approach to sustainability, and the social capital that’s been built up around these issues. Many parts of the country won’t have it so easy, and when the country gets a cold, we get the flu.

Back to Jonah and Richard. What does brain science tell us about delivering environmental news? First, we’re time discounters, so climate disruption in 2050 isn’t going to motivate a lot of individual action.  Second, we like confirming our biases, so bad news that disagrees with our beliefs and observations (hey I just filled my tank with cheap gas!) lands with a thud. Third, if there’s even a grain of truth to the notion that conservatives, like Glenn Beck, are burdened by over-active amygdalas, then freaking them out with Silent Spring and The End of Nature is only going to make things worse.

The Fox News / Tea Party set come from a place of fear. They fear terrorists, they fear socialists, they fear government, they fear environmentalists, they fear gays, they fear immigrants. But why don’t they fear climate change and energy shortages? It may be this: we tend to fear – and demonize – active threats, like snakes and people, but it’s easier to simply deny reality, especially if it’s remote in time and space.

That’s why Paul Revere could rouse colonists; the British were the enemy. That’s why Churchill and Roosevelt could call for sacrifice; Hitler was the enemy. Same with Communists and the Viet-Cong, and terrorists, and so on.  These are real people who can be demonized, deservedly so in some cases, and fought.

But what if the problem is the person starring at you in the mirror? What if you’re the demon sucking up oil, burning coal and heating up the planet. How do you fight that? Well the easiest way to deal with it is too deny it, or ignore it.  Then you’re no longer your own worst enemy.

We have a problem here. We don’t have a common enemy to fight. We’re much more comfortable distracting ourselves with false enemies – socialists, gays, immigrants – who have faces.

The problem is that we have a behavior dysfunction, we’re addicted to cheap energy and perpetual growth, and we probably have to approach it like an addiction problem. But that’s no fun.  And addictions are notoriously hard to kick, especially cultural ones, where everyone is an addict.

What’s the solution that environmentalists and sustainability advocates offer? Kick the addiction, scale back, live more simply, use less, travel less, ditch your car, downsize your house. And this solution is directly opposed by an especially sticky human trait that Jonah Lehrer described: loss aversion.  We hate giving up stuff. We hold on to stocks as they decline, instead of dumping them, because we don’t want to take the loss.  We stay in lousy relationships or jobs, because we don’t want to admit the loss. We hang on to all sorts of “stuff,” even renting storage lockers, rather than just letting it go.

Addressing climate change and “peak everything” will require us to let go of the stuff in our culture that’s holding us back. But the other part of the equation has to be that what’s around the corner will be better. Maybe we should flip this proposition and start with the “better” part first.

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