All summer long the ants worked industriously, gathering grain from the fields and storing it away in their underground store houses. While the ants worked, carefree grasshoppers danced, sang and took long naps in the summer sun.
One day a grasshopper asked, “Why do ants work so hard hour after hour, day after day, all summer long?” Another grasshopper replied, “They work for a dark queen who commands them to serve her every need. Everything they do is planned out in precise detail and they work for almost nothing.” “Our life is much better,” said the 1st grasshopper, “Because we are so clever, we do what we want and have much more fun.”
“I have a plan,” said a 3rd grasshopper. “Let’s demand that the ants pay a toll for the path they take from the fields.” They sent word to the Ant Queen that the grasshoppers would require 1 seed in payment for each 100 seeds that passed on the path from the field. The Queen agreed but stipulated that they must replant 9 of 10 seeds collected before they kept one.
The grasshoppers were delighted and passed their new plan on to their friends. Other grasshopper agreed to plant seeds in return for a percentage of the planting. Each new grasshopper received 9 seeds, planted 8, and kept 1. They found even more grasshoppers that would plant 7 seeds, keep 1 and so it went. Soon hundreds of grasshoppers were engaged in the seed trade and the head grasshoppers were collecting bags full of seeds which they used to encourage even more grasshoppers to get involved in the planting process. The Ant Queen was happy that so many seeds were being planted for the next year’s harvest. The grasshoppers were happy that so many seeds would be growing into juicy green shoots. The head grasshoppers danced, sang and gambled with one another for the seeds that they expected to collect from the ants.
One day some of the grasshoppers discovered they had promised to plant more seeds than they had actually collected, so they began using notes that counted the seeds that would sprout in the next season since each seeded plant should produce 10 more seeds. It was easier to write notes than to plant seeds.
Then it occurred to the grasshoppers that they could also sell other grasshoppers the rights to the juicy green plants that would grow from the seeds that they had promised to plant. Grasshoppers could claim all the new plants that would grow from each packet of seeds they promised to plant. The more they promised to plant the more they could gamble or sell.
Soon the grasshoppers spent more time gambling with their promissory notes than they spent actually planting seeds. The worried Ant Queen finally sent out a message that no more seeds would be given to grasshoppers that had not actually planted the seeds as promised.
Then the weather turned bad and it became difficult to plant any more seeds. All the grasshoppers that had come to gamble for seeds began to look around for food and could only find leaves from the last of the plants the ants were harvesting. Soon the fields were stripped bare and the hungry grasshoppers demanded to see the Ant Queen.
“We are starving,” they said. “Let us have some of the seeds you have stored away for the winter!”
“My ants need those seeds to survive the winter so I cannot give you any from our storehouse. You wasted many of the seeds we gave you to plant or traded them for pieces of paper that you can’t eat,” she said. The head grasshopper reminded the Ant Queen that he had promises on paper from the grasshoppers to plant thousands of seeds. “Yes,” said the Ant Queen but those grasshoppers will not survive the winter and they have eaten all the plants that were producing seeds this year.”
“But what will we do?” asked the head grasshopper.
“Learn to eat paper,” said the Ant Queen.
“What will you do if no grasshoppers plant the seeds for next year? “ said the head grasshopper.
“Learn to eat grasshoppers,” said the Ant Queen.
That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
The houses are all gone under the sea.
The dancers are all gone under the hill.
T.S. Eliot (1939)
by Bob Worcester
Whisper out loud the name of someone you know that could be affected by catastrophic climate change. Making it personal is hard to do but necessary. Climate change is potentially the single most critical issue humanity will face in the 21st century. If it does not affect some of us directly now, it will affect those we love and care about. Why, in the 40 or so years that we have known that catastrophic climate change is possible, have we, as individuals, a nation or a species, not taken effective action to avert this possibility? We can focus primarily on the psychological dimension of this problem but political, economic and cultural factors also constrain affective action on climate change.
The people who engage seriously in genuine climate research are saying that burning fossil fuels is contributing to dramatic changes in the climate that lie outside the range of previous human experience and possibly beyond the limits of human ingenuity to intervene. Some concerned scientists indicated in the 1990s that there was a 10-20 year window of opportunity to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHG) to safe levels before the worst effects of climate change became inevitable. It has been over 20 years now and very little has been done to curb GHG emissions and there is nothing on the public policy horizon for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, public interest in the issue has been declining recently as massive PR campaigns and powerful lobbies promote “ethical oil” from the tar sands, “clean coal” and cynical “scepticism” to obscure the issues and to polarize and paralyze the political process. They have been quite successful at doing that.
Like many people I find this deeply discouraging, particularly because my children and grandchildren will likely suffer the consequences. So the question is “why have efforts to address climate change failed and what, if anything, can be learned from that failure?” The issue is complicated and can be examined at the personal, political and cultural levels of analysis.
Psychologists focus their attention on individuals and it is not hard to see why many individuals find it difficult to get their heads around the idea of catastrophic climate change. The consequences of climate change can be literally “unthinkable.” An inability to acknowledge something that is very stressful has been called “denial” and is seen as a highly ineffective coping strategy. “Denial” is, however, a strong word that suggests a powerful motivation to ignore reality to a pathological degree. Here is a list of more commonly available cognitive strategies with examples that psychologists have identified.
- “Cognitive dissonance reduction” refers to the general human tendency to maintain the perception of “consistency” between what we think and what we do. When there is an inconsistency we will either change our thoughts or our actions. For example – “I am a good person who would not knowingly endanger the safety of my children, yet when I am driving them to hockey I might use my cell phone. I might slightly exceed the speed limit. I might skip doing up their seat belt if it’s just a short trip. I might even have a drink or two or three for the road.” How would I deal with the “dissonance” if these inconsistencies were pointed out to me? I can change my behaviour or I can change my perception of what is an acceptable risk.If I can see the odds of an accident as a reasonably acceptable “one in a million” then I am still a good person.If driving my car has an “unlikely” relationship to the droughts in Africa then I am still OK. Since the actual risk is “uncertain” my perceptions can be flexible and easier to change than my actual behaviour.
- People generally find it difficult to relate to low probabilities, to distant events and to long time frames. What are the odds that we will have a Fukushima-scale quake by next Friday? Next year? It happened “way over there” and it may not happen here for decades. This is not a “denial” that there an earthquake problem, it may simply be a limitation on our cognitive abilities.
- Most people have a localized “hierarchy of needs.” Immediate needs often trump more important ones. We feed our dogs but not the homeless. We would take the bus if we only had more time. We tend to prioritize our family first, our neighbours second and the rest of the world if we can get around to it later.
- Rationalizations are like mental offsets. A token effort relieves us of the obligation to do more. “I drove my car today but I rode my bike last week and I bought a local $2 garlic at the farmers’ market.”
- Psychological reactance is the reaction to imposed restrictions. We tend to find that the things we can’t have become more attractive. “Don’t tell me to have a nice day! – I WANT shark fin soup and a HUMMER!”
- Reduced self-efficacy is the feeling that “I can’t do everything, I might as well do nothing besides there is really nothing I can do.”
- The “rose-coloured glass effect” is a common psychological defence against negative outcomes. “Things will work out somehow, someday”. “Technology will save us.” “We always muddle through.”
- Cynicism relieves us of the need to take something seriously. `”76% of all statistics are made up”. “I don’t trust government, the media, grant hungry scientists or scruffy environmentalists.”
- Social identity protection helps us maintain our sense of ourselves despite negative feedback. “I am not a latte-sucking Kitsilano yuppie who can afford a Prius – I like trucks – BIG trucks!”
- Social norm conformity — we all have a strong desire to appear “normal” to our peers. “Everyone around here commutes by car and no one here recycles except those tree huggers.”
- Uncertainty /complexity paralysis can occur when there are strong conflicting possibilities. “Let’s just wait and see.” “Its better to do nothing than the wrong thing.” “I don’t know where to begin.”
- Selective attention and confirmation bias filters information to fit the way we see the world. “It’s cold today – what does that say about global warming?”
- The “Cassandra effect” is our habituation to repeated alarms – terror attacks, pandemics, asteroids, earthquakes, ozone depletion, floods, forest fires, famines, tsunamis and radioactive fallout.
- The “commons effect” is the feeling that my contribution to a problem is so small, how could it matter? “If I idle my car for 5 minutes it produces 100 grams of CO2. When a jumbo jet takes off it produces a tonne. It would take thousands of idling cars to match that!”
- Habitual behaviour is hard to change and the familiar is usually preferred. “I like my old gas guzzler and I think incandescent light is nicer than fluorescent lighting.”
- Apathy can help cope with the unthinkable. “We are here for a good time not a long time – it’s not really my concern.”
This is not an exhaustive list of mental strategies. The key is recognizing ineffective coping strategies and taking steps toward dealing effectively with a real problem. It may also be necessary to take these strategies into account when developing messages and proposing actions to deal with these difficult issues. People respond differently to the same information and “doom and gloom” scenarios are understandably hard to deal with. Psychology focuses on individual reactions but group dynamics are also important. The sociology of climate change denial, however, is a topic for another day. These cognitive factors suggest ways of approaching individuals who are attempting to deal with their role in climate change. Here are some suggestions.
- Deal with information, motivation and behaviour related to climate change holistically.
- Acknowledge the emotions created by the prospects for catastrophic change particularly fear, grief and anger (Joanna Macy).
- Moderate “alarm reactions” with specific suggestions to avoid the danger.
- Recognize or reframe the issues as national defence, public health, religious-ethical as well as “environmental” issues.
- Stress success and possibilities over “doom and gloom”. There are LOTS of good examples in books and on TV!
- Recognize diverse personal interests and social constituencies and work within their unique narratives: urban – rural, male – female, young – old, liberal – conservative, knowledgeable – naive.
- Connect people’s immediate needs and interests to the long term goals of “sustainability.”
- Build community “interdependence.” Caring and consideration for “seven generations” got our species through the last million years of evolution and is probably our best shot for the next million years.
by Bob Worcester
Eldership requires a balance of action and reflection – each informed by the other. There are many good causes that call for concerted action but what action is effective in the pursuit of our good intentions? I recently attended a workshop sponsored by the Metro Vancouver Alliance that addresses this question. The fundamentals of this approach can be summarized in 3 Ps: people, power and perspective.
In brief, informed action begins with authentic relationships between people. Each of us has a view on where we are and where we would like to go. We each have a story of how we came to our current situation. Listening to each other is the key. Most of us are content with some aspects of our current situation and discontented with others and we each imagine different ways in which positive change could happen. Relationships are based on shared understanding and the appreciation of differences. Networks form on the basis of authentic relationships and shared vision.
People in relationships have power, and power is useful when used wisely. Power can facilitate change or it can be an obstacle. A realistic understanding of power relationships is necessary for effective action. Power involves information, resources and influence involving strategic alliances and leadership. Politics has been described as the art of the possible where incremental steps often precede dramatic change.
Power for its own sake lacks legitimacy; it is perspective that shapes the goals and aspirations of a movement for change. Perspective derives from wisdom and experience and incorporates shared human values. It is the big picture that guides action and becomes the measure of achievement. Perspective emerges out of the authentic relationships among people who listen to, and understand, each other. Personal relationships provide the power which is in turn guided by appropriate perspectives that ultimately achieve significant change which often occurs in incremental steps.
Successful popular movements, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, involve the collaboration among people with 3 distinct skill sets: champions, mavens and networkers.
§ Champions devote their time and energy to a cause with persistence and passion. They often become the “face” of a movement. In the environmental movement Al Gore is a good example.
§ Mavens are people with accurate, up-to-date information that keeps a movement grounded in the realities of a situation. Spokespeople like Al Gore need people like Phil Jones, the director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, to help negotiate mazes of conflicting information.
§ Networkers know people who know people. Recent ‘tipping points” in middle-east democracy movements relied on social networking to create crowds. If 100 people email 100 people, a crowd of 10,000 potentially shows up. A small number of people can trigger such a tipping point when conditions are right.
A simple moving message “sticks” in the communications process. “Freedom Now!” works while more complicated and nuanced messages often get lost in the process. “Limiting atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 350 ppm will likely limit future global mean temperature rise to 5 degrees centigrade by end of century” has not had the same effect.
Knowledge of these social dynamics can help make elder advocacy more effective.