Seeing the Rational in the Irrational
Beyond understanding how human irrationalities are rooted in our evolutionary history, we must, through a kind of psychological judo, turn the irrational to our advantage. Consider that people tend to underestimate the likelihood of an unpleasant event if they believe that they have no control over its occurrence. The more powerless people feel about their ability to deal with a particular problem, the more likely they are to believe that it's not such a big threat. Such is the logic of the person living underneath a dam at risk of exploding: I can't afford to move; therefore, that dam is not going to explode. This attitude strikes us as utterly irrational, but there's no advantage to despairing over things outside of our control. In fact, unnecessarily despairing has all sorts of disadvantages (like believing there is no way we can possibly outrun that ax murderer).
The implication is fairly dramatic. The more powerless people feel about global warming, the less likely they are to believe that it is a major problem.
Now imagine how powerless the dominant eco-tragedy and apocalypse narratives make people feel. Many environmentalists—and liberal movie critics—walked out of An Inconvenient Truth feeling excited and happy because they believed that now Americans are finally going to get it. Well, we believe that Americans "got it" all right: they got that global warming is so overwhelming that there is little they can do about it. After ninety minutes of overwhelming evidence that global warming has arrived and that it could trigger violent cataclysms, why would anyone believe that buying fluorescent lightbulbs and hybrid cars could ever be enough? Katherine Ellison aptly captured the feelings of many in an op-ed she wrote for the New York Times after seeing An Inconvenient Truth:
Well, I for one am very, very worried. As the mother of two young boys, I want to do everything I can to protect their future. But I feel like a shnook buying fluorescent light bulbs— as Environmental Defense recommends—when at last count, China, India and the United States were building a total of 850 new coal-fired power plants.8
The bottom line is that most people walked out of An Inconvenient Truth feeling disempowered, not empowered, which is why the June
2006 Pew survey found that global warming remains far down the list of the public's priorities.
How can we turn this irrational predisposition—the tendency to underestimate global warming's importance—to our favor? For starters, we can help people feel powerful enough to deal with the cataclysmic effects of global warming. That in itself will require a lot more than better lightbulbs and more efficient appliances.
Continue reading here: The Perils of the Blame Game
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