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Apocalypse Fatigue, Selective Inattention, and Fatalism: The Psychology of Climate Change

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

[If you prefer to hear this post instead of read it, click here and scroll to Audiofile #50.]

Today The Washington Post has an article about the conflict homeowners and neighborhoods face between wanting to reduce climate impact and wanting to preserve historical architecture. Specifically, should solar panels be put on the front of the roof where they are visible to a historic neighborhood? Which principle, greenhouse gas reduction or historic preservation, is more important? Here is one resident’s reaction: “Green . . . has no problem with existing historic district regulations that allow solar cells on flat roofs, where they cannot be seen from the street. But she believes it would be a mistake to permit installations on sloped roofs like those visible on the facades of many bungalows in her neighborhood. ‘The impact on the polar bears or on climate change is extremely minor,’ Green said. ‘However, the impact of putting solar panels on front-facing elevations in the Takoma historic district is enormous’.” Notice which impact is “minor” and which is “enormous.”

It’s not that she and people like her don’t “believe in” climate change. More and more people these days seem to accept that climate change is real. Even the U.S. president has been changing his tune. But one can’t help but notice that climate change acceptance doesn’t always translate to drastic action on either the individual or the global level. If we’re convinced that rising temperatures and sea levels are real, why are we doing so little about them? Is it just apathy?

Connie Barlow, a climate activist, writer, and film maker, dislikes the word “apathy” used to describe people’s response to climate change. She says, “I now bristle at that word. In my view, what looks like apathy, especially when it comes to climate disruption, is actually a variety of psychological protections.”

So what are these psychological protections we’ve built up, and why do they prevent us from acting as vigorously as the circumstances seem to call for? Here are a few of my ideas, but I’d be interested in hearing what insights other people have as well.

Visceral Disbelief

First of all, we have to go back to that term “believing in” climate change. Even people who say they are convinced by the evidence find it hard to realize that climate change will happen, that it will affect them, or that it will be as bad as experts say. It’s not something that anyone wants to accept, of course, and popular science and the media seem to offer doubters plenty of reasons to support secret disbelief: experts disagree, they say; claims have changed over the years (remember nuclear winter?); leaders who shout about climate change have agendas. Sure, climate change will happen, they believe, but maybe not as soon or as extremely as they say.

Selective Inattention

(Thanks to Connie Barlow for this term.) This is an adaptive ability to screen future worries in favor of daily chores. Generally it’s a good thing; Stephen Jenkinson, an author and grief-worker who prefers the term "adaptive inattention," says, “Inattention to the world's ecological state is well advised, because attention to it mitigates against your happiness, contentment, and your sense of well-being.” But sometimes inattention becomes the wrong choice, as it is now when we face potential catastrophe and have to sacrifice our present happiness, contentment, and sense of well-being in order to come to terms with our future problems.

It can be hard to break free from selective inattention, though. Current issues are always more concrete than future ones. If I’m the owner of a historic house, for example, the current impacts of solar panels are “enormous,” compared to the future impacts of my energy use: I could be looking at neighborhood arguments, fines, or even legal battles in the next days or months. And regardless of how informed any predictions of the future are, they cannot be as real as the problems we face here and now, because, like all predictions, they are sometimes contradictory and always uncertain.

People also see and reject bad examples of people who believe in the reality of a particular future; the nuttiness of extreme survivalists or of those people who climb mountains to await the end of time isn’t something most people want to copy. So they hunker down, deal with their everyday challenges, and figure the future will take care of itself. That’s reasonable if the future is really unknowable and if we have no impact on it – which isn’t the case with climate change, of course.

Fatalism and Hedonism

Fatalists and hedonists don’t question the reality of the coming climate disaster. In fact, unlike most people, they’re utterly convinced. But because they see themselves as powerless to affect something so huge, they have one of two responses: fatalism, or “Whoopee! We’re all gonna die,” (to quote Country Joe and the Fish) and hedonism, or “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die” (to quote the Bible). If their failure of hope inspires them to live a Stoic life of honor while waiting for the end, then they’re worthy of respect. Some, though, seem to take a perverse delight in racing toward apocalypse and even boast of their antisocial behavior. Around here, for example, I occasionally see pickup trucks modified to spew clouds of black smoke through a smokestack. The polite version of the visual message is obviously “So there, climate snowflakes.” It’s no different from the impulse to keep coal plants burning even when they’re not economically feasible, or remove emissions standards, or build ever bigger McMansions. The message is clear: if it’s all gonna burn, then I’m stoking the bonfire.

Apocalypse Fatigue

It’s a real thing, and many of you reading right now are probably feeling it to some degree. It’s the exhaustion of having to make endless moral choices when they don’t seem to make a difference, and it’s the psychological rebellion against always having to worry about every choice when other people’s lack of concern negates your efforts. The fatigue is physical as well as psychological. The worry and adrenaline that keep you up at night after reading the latest harrowing report leave you exhausted the next day; faced with the endless decisions about what to buy and how to live, you just put your head down on your arms and give up.

So what do we do? What responses to the looming climate catastrophe would be better than these? Well, I can’t say I have the answer, because I suffer from all of these psychological protections myself. But I have a few thoughts, some practical, some aspirational. Again, I’d like to hear what you think, too.

Redesign Systems

Ultimately we need nationwide and global systems in place that restrain greed and shortsightedness, reward social responsibility, and accept natural limits. These systems can vary and don’t all need to be founded on laws and regulations, although many will be. They could be more like the habit of the !Kung people of mocking big men and benefactors, to make sure the balance of power and goods within the tribe is preserved, or like the Swedish shame of unequal wealth. But it is also possible to establish personal systems to reduce the stresses that lead to apocalypse fatigue and to wake us up from our selective inattention. It’s the same principle that successful dieters and Alcoholics Anonymous members put into practice: don’t have stuff in the house if you think you’ll be tempted to use it. If you think you use too many paper or plastic products, don’t buy them; then you’ll have to use something else. If you think you spend too much time watching shows that increase anxiety but don’t actually lead you to accomplish anything, cancel your subscriptions. If you keep agonizing about taking public transportation instead of driving, sell the second car – or both of them. Honestly, it is much easier to live without something, once you’ve gotten used to it, than it is to have to weigh your options every single day: “I know I should take the bus, but it’s raining today, so maybe tomorrow, when I’m not wearing my new shoes . . .” If you don’t have a car, you take the bus without thinking about it.

Being freed from agonizing about everything leaves you with more emotional and practical energy to address the problems that you have been hiding from behind your psychological protections.

Tackle Worry

I know we feel as if worry is something we can’t help, and from time to time that’s true. Sometimes the best we can do with worry is to force ourselves to live as well as possible despite it. But we should also recognize that we are being pressured by our society to worry. Worry is seen as a sort of virtue-signaling: it’s proof that you care, that you believe, that you accept the seriousness of the problem. If you worry more than those around you, society – and your own pride? – would have you believe that you care more and understand more than they do. Well, if that were true, the soaring numbers of people suffering from clinical worry should be a sign that we’re all smart and caring and things are getting done, right? No. Worry is debilitating. It’s generally self-contradictory; not everything we worry about can happen. It does us no good now or in the future. But we still cling to our bundle of worries as if they were our security blankets and participation trophies combined. We don’t have to.

Be Grateful

I know it seems wrong to be grateful for our comforts and pleasures when we face threats of climate disaster – but that’s the pressure I’m talking about, that you’re supposed to worry to prove you’re serious. You’ve already worried, you’ve already comes to terms with what you can and can’t do – now look around you and enjoy what you have, even if it’s fleeting, or as Shakespeare put it, “This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Life can only be lived now. Do what you can to prepare for the future, then live here and now with contentment and gratitude. People may accuse you of hard-heartedness and not caring, but you’ll have a measure of peace.

Our evolution, our social systems, our habits of mind and body – not all of these align with what we have to do to survive in the future, and in some cases they prevent us from responding to threats appropriately. It remains to be seen whether our species can deal with the unprecedented catastrophe of creating the conditions of our own extinction, but one step in the right direction is to understand why we do what we do, to communicate our insights, and to help each other change.

If you'd like more on the topic of coming to terms with our uncertain future, here is a conversation I had with Michael Dowd, and here is the website that hosts more conversations. I would also recommend reading John Michael Greer's book Not the Future We Ordered.

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