How to avoid being sanctimonious, negative, and alarmist
My 15-year-old son is a smart, responsible kid with a very strong sense of right and wrong. But he groans when I remind him to toss his empty can in the recycling, and he rolls his eyes when he hears people talk about climate change.
Given that I’ve spent much of the past decade thinking about the environment (and, because I have children, thinking especially about climate change) his dismissiveness baffled me until I asked him: “Do you think taking care of the environment is stupid?”
“No,” he answered. “I think taking care of the environment is really important. What’s stupid is how people talk about it.”
Oh, right. That.
Like my son, many of us seem to think one way about the environment and feel another. That is, we think safeguarding the environment is important but we often feel alienated by the way other people talk about it. And so we don’t get as engaged as we otherwise might, which–at a time when public opinion is essential to breaking through the political deadlock on climate change–has significant consequences.
So what are the traps, and how do we avoid them? Here are three that emerged in my conversations with hundreds of Americans about climate change in recent years:
Trap #1: Being sanctimonious. There are two ways in which people who speak out about climate change (and the environment more generally) can be perceived as sanctimonious: One is by conveying a sense that they are better than other people; the other is by suggesting that their issue is more important than other issues.
The latter is an easy trap to fall into, given the ways in which climate change has the potential to change life on Earth as we know it. But is climate change truly more important than Ebola, Alzheimer’s, or cancer? Is it more important than an equitable economy? Or a functional and representative government?
Opinions may vary but this much seems clear: Suggesting that climate change (or any issue) is more important than all others is simply not helpful. It invites argument. It belies the fact that all big issues are complex and, in many ways, connected. And, perhaps most importantly, it fails to reflect how human beings experience life, which is on a much more immediate and personal level. Last year, for example, when my mother was dying, climate change became a complete abstraction to me. When I’ve been out of work, making money has been the most important thing. When I’ve been sick, getting healthy trumped everything. And people have these kinds experiences every day, which means that every time someone says climate change is the most important issue of the day, they run smack into the objection (repeatedly affirmed by polls) that says: Not to me. At least, not to me right now.
So if you want to avoid the sanctimonious trap, refrain from saying that climate change (or whatever your issue) is the most important issue of our day. Call it important; or better yet, say it concerns you for whatever personal reason it does—and whatever reason you think might be shared by the person you are talking to. Avoid implying that you know better, or in any way are better than others because of what you understand or do about the environment (even if it makes you nervous that they “don’t get it.”) And do not act as if you know best what other people should do. As one Bay Area Democrat told me: “I don’t even care if they’re right. I hate when other people try to tell me what I must do.
Trap #2. Being negative. Many environmentalists are, at heart, drawn to what they do out of love for the natural world. Yet what many other people perceive is a primary focus on the negative: that is, on all that is wrong with the natural world, or more precisely with what people are doing to the natural world. And this raises a host of negative triggers, such as defensiveness, fear, and anxiety, which people naturally want to distance themselves from.
What is the antidote? Certainly not being positive if one thinks of that in terms of smacking a happy, cheerful face on the issue. The seriousness of climate change demands authetnicity–I would suggest, just a more full-bodied authenticity than we have been giving it. I am thinking of the kind of authenticity that makes room for reflection of the good as well as the bad in today’s natural world–and above all, in human nature itself.
Trap #3: Being alarmist. To be fair to my son, I have, on more than one occasion, reacted to his throwing recycling in the trash as if the health of the world depended upon that one action. I have, in other words, been alarmist, which tends to emerge from the tremendous mismatch between the scope of the global threats we face and the seeming insignificance of what we, as individuals, can do about them. What we know we can control, in other words, is whether the paper and plastic end up in recycling–and so, for some of us, some of the time, those small actions are going to come with an outsized emotional force that will seem alarmist to others. (Likewise, our talk about climate change and other issues will have an edge of intensity to it.) But as we know from when we’ve been on the other side, there is also a natural predisposition to recoil from alarmist talk.
As Rory McVeigh, director of Center for the Study of Social Movement at Notre Dame University, observed: “In conventional wisdom about social movements—about what works and what doesn’t—it seems there are two things competing against each other in the climate change movement.” One is a sense of urgency, and the other is a sense of efficacy. In other words, when social movements succeed, it is often because there is a sense of urgency and efficacy. But in today’s climate movement, a sense of efficacy is lagging behind the sense of urgency. As a result, a big focus on the urgency of the issue feels uncomfortably like alarmism to many.
Avoiding this trap can be more challenging than the other two, as it requires a sense of patience that can be difficult to access, especially in the early days of becoming deeply aware of our environmental challenges. But then again, cultivating patience as the antidote to alarmism is deeply rewarding, in itself, as I will explore in a future blog post.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.