Monday, May 14, 2012

The Monster in the Room

Another way of looking at the reaction to change (see previous post)  is in terms of the principal emotions it engenders.  For some, change represents opportunity, or simply the wonder of the new.  For others it represents danger, a threat.  The emotion it stirs is fear.

Fear is immediate and can be overpowering.  It is meant to motivate--to escape the danger, or to fight off the threat, with little time for thought.  But it can have other effects, especially if the fear is not responding to a threat that is seen and heard.  To a threat that is anticipated, imagined.  Then the reality of the threat is questionable, its imminence and proportions open to being minimized or greatly exaggerated.  Sometimes the response is denial, sometimes paralysis.   If the threat is abstract enough and far enough off in time and space, then denial and paralysis can become rationalized.

ABC News science reporter Bill Blakemore posted a commentary he titled "Hug the Monster’ for Realistic Hope in Global Warming (or How to Transform Your Fearful Inner Climate)"   I've written several posts about "the climate within" on some conceptual tools for understanding responses to the Climate Crisis.  But Blakemore is writing about a specific response to the Climate Crisis, not by denialists or the polled public but by climate scientists and officials.  He reveals:

"Global warming’s “risk to the collective civilization” (meaning global civilization) has been continually spoken of in secret or unofficial or private conversations among engaged climate scientists and government and policy leaders around the world.  Such terms — catastrophe, threat to civilization itself — have been commonplace in carefully worded private discussions among peer-reviewed experts that this reporter and other journalists have often experienced and sometimes engaged in."

But this isn't how many of these people have talked in public about the Climate Crisis.  Blakemore says why:  "Careful not to prompt destructive panic, nor to lose credibility, responsible experts have been careful to temper their public depictions of what the world’s climate science has been revealing about the worst effects — if humanity does not handle the problem immediately — of the rapid climatic and oceanic changes already under way."

Or more specifically:  "A few years ago, this reporter heard a prominent climate and environment scientist speaking at a large but off-the-record conference of experts and policy makers from around the world.... He told us that he and most other climate scientists often simply didn’t want to speak openly about what they were learning about how disruptive and frightening the changes of manmade global warming were clearly going to be for “fear of paralyzing the public.”

But Blakemore is writing about this now because he sees a change.  "References in some media to looming catastrophic consequences of climate change seem to this reporter to be more frequent."  My presumption was that recent research, particularly in the polar regions, has made this clearer and more urgent, but Blakemore suggests there is another reason, which he explains with the metaphor of hugging the monster:

“Hug the monster” is a metaphor taught by U.S. Air Force trainers to those headed into harm’s way.
The monster is your fear in a sudden crisis — as when you find yourself trapped in a downed plane or a burning house. If you freeze or panic — if you go into merely reactive “brainlock” — you’re lost. But if your mind has been prepared in advance to recognize the psychological grip of fear, focus on it, and then transform its intense energy into action — sometimes even by changing it into anger — and by also engaging the thinking part of your brain to work the problem, your chances of survival go way up.

Blakemore suggests that while scientists and officials have been getting used to hugging the monster in their discussions with each other, they are now going public because it's necessary for society as a whole to hug the monster or perish.

Besides officials and scientists, Blakemore also include journalists among those who have been reluctant to talk about the extent of the threat.  He points to a recent article in the New York Times about the possible consequences of the Climate Crisis as one of the indications that reporters as well are ready to hug the monster in public.  "As a growing number of professional journalists around the world are finding, the story of manmade global warming (and the other evil twin of excess carbon emissions, the rapid acidification of the oceans) is unprecedented in its scale, almost “too big to cover,” and frightening. But there are now signs that, little by little, voices and personalities are beginning to emerge around the world who are starting to hug this monster, manage the fear, and turning the emotions it causes into action."

Blakemore quotes a book on the psychology of survivors in life-threatening circumstances: " Survivors aren’t fearless. They use fear: They turn it into anger and focus.’ The good news is that you can learn to subdue the monster and extinguish some of the clanging bells. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. Indeed, with enough hugs, you can even tame the beast and turn him into your best friend and most dependable ally.”

Blakemore's article is an important one, and certainly worth reading in its entirety.  It calls for more courageous reporting, and it ends with a "to be continued."  But even in these excerpts, its revelations are huge.  So are its challenges: applying the lessons of survivors of immediate situations to this different order of threat--another way of saying what's always been the challenge here: humanity's opportunity to take a leap forward by anticipating and dealing with a threat to civilization before it becomes simultaneously obvious and unstoppable.

But to circle back to this issue in the context of fast and pervasive change: for people who fear (with some degree of justification) that their way of life is being destroyed by change, there could not be a bigger change than this.  Gay marriage won't mean much in this world.  Plus the dogmas they cling to either discount the possibility of the Climate Crisis, or see it as God's will, as the Final Judgment, as the Apocalypse that will end all this change, forever and ever.   

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