Saturday, November 13, 2010

How Do We Slow Down the Train?

Those who read my blog or the links that I consider newsworthy on facebook will (or should) realize that I am profoundly concerned about how the 21st century will play out for humanity on planet earth. I believe we are witnessing the slow motion train wreck of human civilization. There we are, gorging ourselves in the dining car as we occasionally glance out the window to gaze upon the passing scenery. Only the sober ones amongst us seem to realize that we need a healthy planet far more than the earth needs healthy humans. If the earth had a say in the matter (and, ultimately, it does), I expect it would rather not have us here at all.

There are many around the planet who share my fear for the future but are despairing as to what to do. We have been convinced by the science that humanity is slowly but inexorably incinerating the planet with the last of our remaining fossil fuel endowment as we desperately seek to satisfy our addiction to economic growth. I will be sixty next year, so I expect that I will not be alive to witness the conclusion of this unfolding catastrophe. I think it doubtful, however that my children and grandchildren will avoid suffering through the collapse of civil society as we know it.

For quite some time I have been trying to do my part to ring the warning bell. I have searched for ways to encourage more of us to appreciate that we must change our ways, not just personally, but at a broad-based, systemic level. I am beginning to sense though, that I may have been going about this in the wrong way. I have been working on the assumption that if I, in conjunction with the millions of other concerned souls linking together around the planet, simply continued to make reasoned arguments, based on fact and logic, that change would happen.

Hmmm. Noble thought. But is the earth going to wait while we humans engage in our anthropocentric "reasoned debate"? Perhaps not. What I hear the earth saying is that it could care less what humans think or decide. It will continue to be here regardless and would probably prefer that we hasten our own destruction so that it can get back to enjoying a flourishing biosphere without humans.

I may have been to one too many "group hugs" of late. You know, those wonderful progressive sessions where like minded people get together and nod knowingly about how important it is to reduce consumption, change light bulbs, lobby governments, write letters to the editor, make noise, or do whatever we can to get our "point" across.

I, in concert with millions around the globe, have been beating this drum for years. Beyond writing a blog I have joined groups such as my local Transitions Town movement, attended rallies, participated in seminars, workshops, meditation sessions, run for political office, written letters to the editor, protested in front of 24 Sussex, given up my car, (almost) sworn off air travel, ridden my bicycles thousands of kilometers, bought a bus pass, tracked and reduced my resource consumption, yet the stark reality is; the train keeps hurtling down the track, and most of the passengers aboard take little if any notice as they look for yet another way to spend money they don't have, on things they do not need. Why is that, I ask myself?

Speaking of things we do not need, I doubt that the person who drove past me recently in his Maserati (yes, it really was a Maserati) while I stood on the Vanier Parkway in Ottawa waiting for my bus cares a whit about climate change or long term sustainability. I have the same opinion about the comfortably dressed thirty something dweeb (I don't know what else to call him without launching into a vituperative rant) I watched a couple of days ago nonchalantly toss his water bottle against a tree (after he urinated against it) in my local park before hopping into his car and driving off. Something tells me that what these two people value is probably not anything close to what I consider to be important in life. Not only that, it is highly unlikely that they are interested in listening to what I have to say. They tuned me out long ago, because to do otherwise would mean they would have to consider a more modest form of transport or, heaven forbid, that they may need to acknowledge that they are responsible for cleaning up after themselves.

And that, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. It is our value systems that are clashing. When I go to one of my "group hug" sessions, I am surrounded by those who are "in synch" with what I value. It feels wonderful, of course, they are profoundly life-affirming events and I have no intention of giving them up, but, something is clearly missing. There are a lot of other people I need to be having this conversation with. I want to know how I can be a part of connecting with that Maserati driver, or, that dweeb in the park.

I find it sobering to acknowledge how monumental this task is. In my view, the Maserati driver and his dweeb brother are indicative of what I see as the slothful plague that is decimating our planet. From their perspective, however, they are pursuing what they see as their inalienable right to move about the earth in whatever way they see fit. We are, I suppose, of two extremes. They value personal freedom, believing that humankind has the absolute right to exercise dominion over the earth. In their view, money is power, they have lots of it, and they resoundingly resent any perceived encroachment on their ability to spend that cash and exercise their power as they please. I, like many others of a similar socialist and/or progressive persuasion value collective responsibility. We believe that as a species humans must rein in their egotistical, domineering ways or we will soon destroy the one and only planet we have. Is it any wonder then that we find it difficult, if not at times impossible, to listen to one another? (I know I go to great lengths to avoid the writings of Ezra Levant or David Warren.) We not only figuratively, but literally don't believe we are from the same planet. We certainly don't talk the same language.

How have we got to this point? And, more importantly, how do we move beyond polarized positions and re-engage in meaningful conversation that may help us uncover our shared interests? I have recently been introduced to an interesting analysis of this issue by reading an article by George Monbiot. He summarizes a lengthy (100+ pages) report written by Tom Crompton, under an initiative developed as part of WWF-UK’s Strategies for Change Project.

At this point I shall let Monbiot speak for himself, as I flagrantly "cut and paste" his comments. (Please contact me, George, if you take offense.)

The acceptance of policies which counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st Century. In the United States, blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without healthcare, and insist that millionaires should pay less tax. In the UK we appear ready to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest. What has happened to us?

The answer, I think, is provided by the most interesting report I have read this year. Common Cause, written by Tom Crompton of the environment group WWF, examines a series of fascinating recent advances in the field of psychology(1). It offers, I believe, a remedy to the blight which now afflicts every good cause from welfare to climate change.

Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the Enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.

A host of psychological experiments demonstrates that it doesn’t work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.

Our social identity is shaped by values which psychologists classify as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs which transcend their self-interest.

This helps me understand the chasm between myself and the Maserati man and his Dweeb brother. I've been thinking all along that all I need to do is "explain the facts" and they and everyone else will understand. Duh, no! It ain't gonna work that way. The more I, and my "progressive" friends talk, the more we challenge the extrinsic value system of those we don't understand. And, of course, the more alienated from each other we become.

Monbiot points out that:

Rightwing politicians have also, instinctively, understood the importance of values in changing the political map. Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that "economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul".

Conservatives in the US generally avoid debating facts and figures. Instead they frame issues in ways that appeal to and reinforce extrinsic values. Every year, through mechanisms that are rarely visible and seldom discussed, the space in which progressive ideas can flourish shrinks a little more. The progressive response has been disastrous.

Doesn't this sound remarkably similar to the approach of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in Canada? Constant appeal to personal pocketbook issues, every tax is a bad tax, government is bad, turning away from data by dismantling the census and on and on. They are in the process of successfully changing the conversation in Canada by appealing to our personal greed, our extrinsic values, as opposed to "bigger-than-self", collective responsibilities.

Monbiot then chastises progressives,

Instead of confronting the shift in values, we have sought to adapt to it. Once progressive parties have tried to appease altered public attitudes: think of all those New Labour appeals to middle England, often just a code for self-interest. In doing so they endorse and legitimise extrinsic values. Many greens and social justice campaigners have also tried to reach people by appealing to self-interest: explaining how, for example, relieving poverty in the developing world will build a market for British products, or suggesting that, by buying a hybrid car, you can impress your friends and enhance your social status. This tactic also strengthens extrinsic values, making future campaigns even less likely to succeed. Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.

Tom Crompton proposes a simple remedy. Progressive campaigners

should stop seeking to bury (their) values and instead explain and champion them. (They) should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish.

I haven't finished the Crompton article yet, and my response to it is very much a work in progress. It is proving to be a fascinating read. I am continuing to look for ways to be a part of slowing down this greedy train. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. I would suggest though, that the two examples you mention don't really think about their "inalienable right" to dirty the planet. They just don't think at all. For them only the world within their immediate field of vision exists, and only satisfying their own egos matter. Out of sight is quite literally out of mind. Since the only thing such people care about is their own personal lives, the only way to change their effect on the planet is to take steps that affect them personally. Your Maserati driver might think differently if gas was thrice the price, or if he had to pay a toll to drive downtown. Your litterer might think differently if the penalty for littering was to spend the day cleaning up dog crap in the park. Then again, they might not, but on the plus side we'd have more tax dollars for public transit and there'd be less dog crap in the park.