Why we are going nuts
Lessons from cognitive dissonance theory for US environmentalists
by Ken Ward, first published on Grist, March 4, 2009
"If we do not raise our sights and ambitions, then we are guaranteed to fail. Itʼs a tough but simple choice and if we continue down our present road, we will leap from foggy thinking into pure madness, there being no other means of keeping reality at bay."
Our denial comes in a variety of forms: we believe that President Obama can and will solve the problem; we ignore Jim Hansenʼs assessment and timeline; we concentrate on our jobs and organization agendas and pass over the big picture; we focus on the molehill of climate policy rather than tackle the mountain of climate politics; we assess our efforts by looking back on how far we have come and do not measure the distance still to be traveled; we scrupulously avoid criticizing each other, lacking conviction in our own courses of action and not wishing to invite criticism in turn; and we are irrationally committed to antique approaches that are self-evidently inadequate.
In our hearts we know that what we are doing is futile, but we do not know what else we should or could be doing. The constraints within which we work feel so intractable and out of human scale that we cannot imagine how to break them. Despite our best efforts, Americans just donʼt seem to get it or they donʼt care, and we are at a loss to explain this. Unable to influence our own nation, we are further dismayed by the far vaster challenge of altering the trajectory of China, India, Brazil and the rest of the world.
Nothing we now confront should be a surprise. We have known for more than thirty years that the world was bound to reach this state (with twenty years specific warning on climate). The purpose of environmentalism was to alter the self-destructive parabola of growth by introducing new values and sensibilities, which, as has been clear for some time, we have manifestly failed to do.
We are the ones who warned the world what was to come and we are the custodians of the only true solution, yet our current best ideas amount to no more than fiddling with the dials of corporate capitalism (cap and trade) and gussying up environmental policy as one item on the domestic progressive agenda (green jobs).
We do not seem capable of taking even the most elementary steps to extricate ourselves from the trap in which we find ourselves. Why, for example, have we never convened a general conference of environmental leadership to consider what to do, or formed an association bigger than the sum of our parts? Why do we not spend some of the billions in our control to experiment with new approaches and campaigning (or support those already doing so)? Why is there no internal debate or discussion other than a quarrelsome wrangling over the minutia of policy?
"We do not seem capable of taking even the most elementary steps to extricate ourselves from the trap in which we find ourselves. Why, for example, have we never convened a general conference of environmental leadership to consider what to do, or formed an association bigger than the sum of our parts? Why do we not spend some of the billions in our control to experiment with new approaches and campaigning (or support those already doing so)? Why is there no internal debate or discussion other than a quarrelsome wrangling over the minutia of policy?"
is true. Weʼre smart as individuals and successful as a species, but the very attributes
which make us sociable and industrious tend to turn our societies and institutions rigid
While this broad truth might suffice to explain why society at large has yet to come to terms with impending cataclysm, it does not explain why environmentalists are acting as we are. It is one thing for those engaged in running a business, or farming, or studying, or living on the margin to resist the awful prospects of abrupt climate change (1), but it is quite another for the only group of individuals whose job is to solve the problem to continue with business as-usual in the face of overwhelming evidence that this road leads nowhere (2). Besides, environmentalism was intended as a system of thought to overcome myopia and greed and keep our eye fixed firmly on the big picture.
So how and why do we keep showing up to work every day with barely a ripple of disaffection? How can we have arrived a year or so away from a last chance to stave of cataclysm with no clue what to do and not be going nuts?
The best answer, relying on Leon Festingerʼs theory of cognitive dissonance, is that we are going nuts and our increasing determination to act as if nothing were out of whack is a very ordinary, very human response to the crisis arising from conflict between our beliefs and hard reality.
What is the nature of our crisis? We believe that everything is going to work out, that the ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica will not slip off into the ocean and our shorelines will not be inundated even though all the evidence demonstrate that this is already underway.
The contradiction between our belief in deliverance and the reality of a rapid descent toward chaos creates within us the turbulent and distressing state Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Caught in a bind, we act unconsciously to ease our psychological burden in two ways:
- by reducing the sources of conflict, and,
- by avoiding, rejecting or denigrating new information that would increase dissonance. As Festinger observed, these tendencies in individuals may reach mass acceptance, bolstering a catechism of erroneous beliefs. If everyone else thinks the same way, it is much easier to screen out contradictory information.
- Most US environmentalists have yet to endorse Jim Hansenʼs call for a 300-350 ppm bright line, continuing our record of trailing well behind climate science in our assessment of the problem. This is a most graphic illustration of our capacity to downplay the problem, particularly when compared with our record in areas other than climate, where environmentalists almost always stake out a precautionary position based on scientific data that is considerably more conservative than scientistʼs own recommendations.
- We eagerly and endlessly share scraps of information that shore up our sense that momentum is building behind fossil fuel alternatives, but we scrupulously avoid putting that data into context. We want to believe that energy efficiency, solar and wind power, and so on are viable so we focus on phenomenal growth rates in those sectors, and in our mindʼs eye a sustainable future appears possible. But this happy fiction can only be maintained by screening out evidence of the far more massive ramp-up in fossil fuel extractions.
- The emotional response to Obamaʼs win is one visible expression of our wish to believe that things will be put right, but the persistence of “cap & trade” as the US environmental climate solution is the more important and pernicious example of unrealistic optimism (3). For all itʼs market rhetoric, “cap & trade” is predicated on enforcement of emissions limits (the “cap”). If there is any one thing that environmentalists know with certainty, based on our extensive experience implementing the early milestones of US environmental policy, it is that polluters escape emissions limits with ease. It took decades of vigorous enforcement campaigning and litigation to bring most states into moderate compliance with the federal Clean Air and and Clean Water Acts and even then key sectors and sources managed to loosen restrictions or get around them (as direct dischargers got around permit limits by tying into sewage treatment plants). To imagine that such a system can be imposed without massive governmental enforcement, and that it will work right out of the box with factories in Shanghai, Bombay or Sao Paulo is a triumph of wishful thinking over hard-won experience.
We feel better hanging out with upbeat corporate executives, because their story reduces our dissonance, even though itʼs a lie, than we do paling around with climate scientists, whoʼs dismal narrative increases our dissonance because they tell the truth - but this may be changing.
Collapse of cognitive barriers. Our unconscious strategy for suppressing dissonance shows signs of crumbling, though it is by no means clear whether we will come to our senses fast enough to reshape our institution and reorient our approaches in time. Cognitive dissonance theory argues that escalating challenges to irrational world views tend to harden rather than weaken belief. Still, unusual pressure is beginning to build from unlooked-for directions:
Our children. The reality that our children and grandchildren will face catastrophic climate change, collapse of planetary ecosystems and disintegration of global society (if not civilization itself) (4) is transforming from major emotional block to a driver of opening awareness. Iʼm not able to explain why this is occurring now - it may be no more complicated then the fact that there are more babies being born and kids are getting older and asking questions - but whatever the cause, there is a discernible breaking down of private barriers to awareness and a limited conversation on such matters as how best to prepare oneʼs children for the life they must now expect, is breaking into the open. Perhaps some evolutionary response to parenting in time of grave danger has begun to kick-in (which may also explain why so many still choose to become parents).
Next generation leadership. Control of our organizations is shifting to a new generation who are not the architects of our present approaches.
Sidelined. Environmentalists are being left in the dust in every area. Although we retain a commanding position in the broad public debate, we are increasingly irrelevant in the specifics. Climate scientists define the problem. Politicians, from Obama to Schartzenegger, define the agenda. Public education is the province of journalists, educators, specialized media and web centers. Mass communications is in the hands of consultants to Al Gore. Green building, the one sector where environmentalists did hold a significant share, is being swamped by giants in the construction and building materials businesses. Even critical areas of intellectual inquiry, such as the examination of the roots of climate denial, are underway in conversations between academics and pollsters without our participation, let alone leadership.
Growth areas. The most important climate action and environmental campaigning, like West Virginiaʼs Coal Spring Mountain campaign and the effort of Bill McKibben and 350.org, originate outside our mainstream organizations.
Personal crisis. The strain of living in existential hell is beginning to wear people down, even if it is mostly unacknowledged. Itʼs simply getting harder to deny reality. Is US environmentalism important? Why bother with trying to shift the current agenda if our organizations are increasingly irrelevant and superseded?
For one, climate will be decided by players now on the field and our major organizations and foundations must therefore be changed or they will stand in the way. The argument that climate can be addressed without the need to reshape US environmentalism is based in the perception that US environmentalism cannot be changed, but if we cannot adapt our own organizations and institution to meet the challenge for which they were founded, why on earth would we think it possible to shift the course of the nation?
Second, without environmentalists it is unlikely that there will be an environmental solution. Although environmentalism is now better expressed and advocated outside of US environmentalism, from Jim Hansenʼs scientific papers to the planning committees of architectʼs trade associations, a comprehensive green vision is still unlikely to be conceived in any forum other than environmentalism.
Third, we are the only sector with the money, skill bank and international reach to undertake the scale of effort necessary to shift the course of the nation. I have written elsewhere (5) on the lessons to be drawn from US history that argue such a transformation is possible, about conditions which might create a more fluid environment, and on the critical and singular role of the US in driving global change.
The odds of success are vanishingly small, but not so small as to be dismissed.
The less utopian argument for aiming high, is that doing so will reenergize US environmentalism, bolster the wider forces behind green solutions, more effectively put our enemies on the defensive and gain better results in present political conditions. If we up accept reality and up the ante, in other words, we win more than we can now, elbow room for more fluid political conditions, and take a shot at winning the whole shebang. If we do not raise our sights and ambitions, then we are guaranteed to fail. Itʼs a tough but simple choice and if we continue down our present road, we will leap from foggy thinking into pure madness, there being no other means of keeping reality at bay.
1. Until very recently, only climate scientists and biologists were in a similar bind, and theirs was a lesser burden because scientists are discouraged from political action. It has taken a collective effort of some magnitude for academics to reach an early consensus and breach ordinary rules restraining civic advocacy, when it became evident that environmentalists were failing to broadcast scientific findings.
2. Our ineffectualness signals the failure of environmentalism as a system of thought and belief, because our vision was supposed to allow us to escape the blinders that inhibit others from seeing reality. Environmentalists were to operate from the big picture, be acutely tuned to human impacts on other species and ecosystems, and be grounded on the knowledge that humankind can survive only by wholesale revision of our values. This is not, however, invalidate environmental analysis or prescriptions, without which humankind can neither perceive nor solve the problem.
3. I can speak from considerable experience on this point, having served for twelve years as Executive Director of New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG), an organization which pursued intensive enforcement of clean water laws for over twenty years and developed many of the innovations now in general use. By the mid-1990ʼs, NJPIRGʼs clean water enforcement campaigning fielded 50 “streamwalkers” in 5 local offices, had filed nearly 200 citizen suits, winning every case and imposing multi-million penalties, passed the nationʼs toughest clean water and toxics use reduction laws, and maintained a constant watchdogging over state and federal enforcement - in a state where most major dischargers are highly visible and where public pressure to crack down on water pollution was, and is intense. Despite what probably the most intensive enforcement effort in any US state, major dischargers in New Jersey continued to violate their permits in large numbers.
4. Festinger writes that “two elements are in dissonant relation if, considering these two alone, the obverse of one element would follow from the other.” (L. Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, 1962).
5. Bright Lines: An Alternative Strategy for US Environmentalists, Grist Magazine, 2007.