Emotional response

Horror stories and denial - which makes me cringe more?

So I'm just topping up on today's environmental news feed (my feed of choice is The Guardian, a nice little app that even a web dilettante like me can add to their Google home page) and two stories stand out and demand a closer look. The first states, "Met Office warns of catastrophic global warming in our lifetimes".   The second say, "CO2 is green", which is less self-explanatory.  In fact, it's an astonishing TV ad running in the US aimed at scuppering a cap-and-trade bill - thanks to Leo Hickman for picking this up in his blog.

What I notice is that while reading them, I get that creeping feeling up the back of my neck and round to my jaw, and the sinking in my shoulders.  I'm physically cringing.  Not very much.  But it's there.

And which had the biggest cringe effect?  I can't be certain, but I'd say that CO2 denialists make me more unhappy than the Met Office's truly dire research.

So I wonder: what can I learn from this?

That I'm more comfortable with things which reinforce my existing world view, however awful?  Perhaps.

That we need to pull together now and use all our considerable intelligence and organising power to avert the worst and prepare a soft landing, and that I'd rather the US pro-CO2 lobby would 'get with the programme'.

I'm happier owning up to that as a reason!

The other thing I notice is that these cringe-related feelings are not empowering and motivating.  What I plan to do now is

  • forget I read either story,
  • remind myself of some of my reasons to be cheerful,
  • review my to-do list, and
  • plunge into productive work.

Does that make me a denialist too?

Psychology to save the planet

A recent report by the American Psychological Association, featured in the New Scientist, brings together some of the evidence and theory behind the 'positive thinking' approach to communicating about climate change. It goes something like this: people will block up their ears if you tell them the scary facts and make them feel bad.  Instead, discover what already motivates them and makes them feel good, and use that knowledge to promote the new behaviours you'd like them to adopt.  You might not mention the climate change links at all.

The areas picked up the NS article are:

  • social networks
  • immediate feedback
  • competitive instincts
  • fitting in with the crowd

I'm very excited that this kind of psychological analysis is seeping into the world of technical experts and physical sciences.   How have you been using psychology to help engaging people more effectively?

Just too depressing to think about

At a gathering of friends, new and old, over Easter, I'm asked, "What is it exactly that you do then, Penny?"  After a few fumbling attempts to explain,  they get it. Their responses, though, are telling:

“Yes, because I just wouldn’t think about climate change at all if I didn’t have to.”

“It’s just too depressing to think about.”

“And too frightening.”

“And you just feel overwhelmed. The more I know, the less I feel able to do anything about it.”

Those are the responses of my friends.  As professionals in our field, however, what is our duty to our clients? What do we do with their feelings of fear, depression and powerlessness?

An 'every-day' response might be to rescue people from their feelings, so as to spare them (and our) discomfort.  "It's OK, I'm sure we'll get through it, there's nothing to get upset about."

But I think that as professionals intervening with our clients, or active citizens helping to run grass-roots activities, that's not sufficient.

The work of people like Joanna Macy and Mary-Jane Rust can help us.  It can help us to understand the causes of despair.  And it can help us to honour it without being disempowered by it.  So we can confront that depressing thought and begin to make a path of our choosing.

Part of a wider change movement

This is a slide show that I gave to the EABIS Colloquium in 2008.  It presents the results of a survey I conducted of organisational change agents, and asks how we can better support ourselves, and each other, at a time when we're getting better informed (and many of us more anxious) about the sustainability crisis.


View more presentations from PennyWalker.

There's also a paper and a  journal article to accompany the slides.  The article / chapter was originally published in Greener Management International and in "Consulting for Business Sustainability", edited by Chris Galea.