Pessimism is Impeding Environmental Advocacy

Pessimism is blocking effective environmental advocacy

While it is easy to understand why so many environmentally concerned people are fearful and pessimistic, these attitudes detract from the goal of improving our environment. Fear is well warranted, we are on the verge of a widespread ecosystem collapse and we have reached 400 ppm of atmospheric C02 in the arctic. However, rather than just ask how bad things are, we should be asking how we can best address the calamities we face within the time we have available.

Fear mongering does not move us forward, if anything, it alienates people who most need to be brought into the discussion. The reaction to Rio+20 is a great illustration of the point. The summit in Rio has been justifiably described as “weak,” “remarkably listless,” and a “disappointment.” Sometimes the zeal of some environmentalists makes it hard for them to recognize progress. The business community’s commitments were the one bright spot at Rio, nonetheless they too were subjected to a barrage of harsh criticisms.  One article suggests that progress at Rio was derailed by big business. Some even dismissed the entire process, claiming that the summit was hijacked by powerful corporations.

Peter Bakker is head of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and he flatly rejects the criticism that the 1,000 businesses that attended Rio were not serious about creating change. As Bakker points out, there are good businesses that work to be more sustainable and there are bad businesses that work to undermine progress.  “The 20 percent of really bad guys we need to regulate out of existence…You can go home from Rio totally frustrated and create absolutely nothing, but if you see the result as half full, despite the disappointment, you will see hooks for processes, dialogues and for agreements around targets,” Bakker said.

While governments and most private citizens are doing little, some businesses are showing leadership. There is no doubt that corporations like those in the fossil fuel industry wield far too much influence, but it is both irresponsible and inaccurate to dismiss the sustainability efforts of a growing number of companies. The business community is doing more for sustainability than governments and private citizens put together.

Although Rio+20 did not produce the kind of results that many had hoped for, the business community did provide some reason for optimism. There were a host of announcements worth noting amongst the 150 corporate sustainability pledges made in Rio, they include the Natural Capital Declaration, a public-private partnership to reduce deforestation through sustainable agriculture and the launch of the Clean Revolution campaign. In addition, companies listed on the London Stock Exchange will soon have to provide annual emission reports and there is a plan to to reduce emissions through sustainable transport.

There was also progress on sustainable cities, (which is significant given the fact that cities are responsible for three-quarters of global GHGs). According to the mayors of major cities who gathered at Rio+20, there are already measures underway to reduce their combined GHG emissions by 248 million tons by 2020.

Selwyn Hart, a diplomat for Barbados, was amongst those who saw Rio+20 as progress. “The document represents a positive step forward. While it is not the major breakthrough we had 20 years ago, it puts us on the pathway to sustainable development,” Hart said. “The formal negotiations might be over but [we] need to focus on the implementation of some of the central issues dealt with in the document,” he added.

While there may have been some progress at Rio+20, we are still a very far way from creating a sustainable world. Given how far we are from the desired goal, one could easily conclude that the answer lies in providing more science-based information to people, politicians and business leaders. Others believe we need to make people aware of the horrors that await us in a world ravaged by climate change. However, a new study suggests that environmental action will not come from pessimistic fear inspiring facts about the environment. Research shows that positive appeals appear to be far more effective.

The kind of changes we need to see to save our planet will not be brought about by fear or even by science. The issue impeding popular support for progress on environmental policy is pessimism.

Research by historian Matthias Dörries examined the role of fear in our understanding of climate change. He explored how apocalyptic forecasting, estimates of mass extinctions and other fearful predictions have not produced the necessary changes. According to Professor Dörries, science invokes fear but does not auger a change in our behavior. Dörries concludes that the appeals for action on climate change are ultimately “political and cultural,” not merely a matter of science and reason alone.

Decades of research show that appeals to fear can easily backfire causing recipients to reduce the fear without reducing the danger, perhaps by denying that there is anything to fear or concluding that the fear appeal was a manipulation attempt by an untrustworthy source.

As reported in Nature Climate Change, Paul Bain and his colleagues conducted a study with important implications for increasing climate change advocacy. The research of Bain et al shows that informing people about the expected impacts of climate change had no effect on their positions. What did change the positions was thinking about how limiting greenhouse-gas emissions might promote interpersonal warmth and scientific and technological progress.

Ultimately, people’s attitudes on climate change are directly related to different psychological strategies to mitigate fear. Climate change deniers reduce fear through a variety of techniques that reject climate change impacts. Their tactics include avoidance of the facts, highlighting scientific uncertainties, focusing on minor disagreements and maligning climate scientists. What makes opponents of environmental policies so dangerous is the fact that they seek fear reduction without doing anything to address the threat.

Bain’s research shows that approaches based on hope work far better than fear. More effective approaches stressed values of community good feeling and of scientific and technological progress.

If our goal is to bring about the type of change that will enhance our chances for survival, we must move beyond pessimism and fear. We must learn to engage people in a more psychologically effective fashion.  We need to work towards building consensus and curtail the rampant cynicism that only makes matters worse. Unless we can find a way to entice those not yet engaged in environmental action, we are simply preaching to the converted.

People are not receptive to negativity and this has profound implications for environmental advocacy. If we are to communicate effectively we must move beyond angry rants. If we want to effectuate change, we must acknowledge that pessimism is an affront to progress and an impediment to efforts to improve our world.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: h.koppdelaney, courtesy flickr

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. I like the fashionable “fear does not compel people” armchair psychology that is sweeping the enviro community. It’s utter bullshit with very little to back it up. It was FEAR and ANGER that compelled millions of black Americans to demand their rights. It was FEAR and ANGER that pushed the Indian emancipation movement to victory. Fear, anger and violence are the primary factors in every single major social change in human history.

    We aren’t getting there through slow consensus building and iPhone clicktivism. Stop being a pussy and stand up for the earth already.


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