16 February 2013

Fear, optimism and activism: What drives change?

It's  a fair bet that my Brightsiding series in 2012 was responsible for the topic at this year's Melbourne Sustainability Festival Great Debate held last Friday: "Fear is stronger than optimism in creating rapid social change".
      So six of us lined up, not in teams, but with clear instructions to take one side or the other and not fence-sit (more of this later). The participants were Bob Brown, Jon Dee, Fiona Sharkie, David Spratt, Guy Pearse and Tanya Ha, and the debate host was ABC TV's Bernie Hobbs.
      Given the brightsiding that still dominates the poor performance of the government and many of the big environment groups on climate action, I felt obliged to bend the stick in the opposite direction, even though the question was poorly framed. Ten minutes is hardly time to canvas the meaning of life, so this was my contribution:
Yesterday, 14 February, was the tenth anniversary of the biggest ever protest rally in Melbourne. Bob Brown will remember it well: he was was one of the speakers.
      A quarter of million Victorians stopped the city to say:  “Don’t launch war on Iraq, it will be hell.”
      As an organiser for that event, I understood that people came because they were defiantly angry, upset, fearful for the tens and hundreds of thousand of people who would die in a war for oil.
     And they were right.
     We all hope for peace. But anti-war rallies happen when killing is at hand.
     At another time of war, one of the world’s great optimists was Neville Chamberlin, the British prime minister in the late 1930s. Faced with a militarised Germany, Chamberlin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1938  and announced optimistically that he had secured "peace for our time".
     “Madness”, said opposition leader Winston Churchill, who urged the country to prepare for war at all speed, and became the  nation’s leader. Churchill was no blind optimist: he assessed the situation bluntly and without false optimism — to call it like it was, and then lead the country to fight and win.
     The Churchill lesson is that fear and courage together can make us safer.
     As human beings we want to avoid harm. Refusing to drive with a drunk driver is prompted by rational fear.
     This is built into our DNA: the fight or flight response. Danger triggers fear, which helps us respond. Without that fear-response, we would not survive.
    Fear is the starting point, but it is not enough. All the studies on health and safety promotion —  smoking, obesity, drink driving, HIV, workplace safety —  show the same thing:
  1. Be honest about the problem, don’t hold back, tell it like it is. (The government’s new graphic cigarette packaging, is a result of decades of careful research on what works.)
  2. Then show there is a better alternative, the benefits of changing behaviour,
  3. Finally show there is an efficacious path: “you can do it” actions that the person or society is empowered to take to move from fear to success.
This process also applies to the threat of climate change, which demands large-scale, fast action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
    So how did the Labor government and the big climate groups try to convince people of the worth of the planned carbon tax two years ago?
     The health promotion lesson was completely forgotten. The impacts of climate change on people lives now and in the future didn’t get a mention.
    Instead they ran campaigns about “clean energy futures” and “saying yes”.  It was all happy-clappy, win-win. It was all about selling “good news” and not mentioning “bad news”.
    This approach, based on “positive psychology” is the stuff of motivational speakers, of many personal development courses, of personality and religious cults, and of most politics today. It is an unrelenting false positiveness disconnected from reality.
     And what happened with the happy-clappy “Clean energy futures” campaign?  Public support fell, because the government tried sell the answer without elaborating the problem.
      This is modern marketing — reality avoidance, glib hope, spin.
    On the other hand when people learn what climate change entails — record extreme fires, heat waves, floods and storms — public support for climate action goes up, because people then understand how living on a hotter planet will feel.
     And that is a starting point for community organising and engagement.
     Over four decades of community activism, I have no doubt that engagement starts with anger, moral outrage, fear, a sense of injustice… combined with a  belief that we achieve change.
    The biggest community movement in Australia today — against coal seam gas — is motivated by anger and fear of water tables being poisoned, agricultural lands being lost, family lives destroyed. These people are hopping mad.
     We do not fight because we are happy. We fight because we have taken off the blinkers of false optimism and we see what is really going on. We fight not knowing whether we will win, but knowing the power of solidarity and collective action.
      The scientists tell us that global failure to control greenhouse gas emissions means the world is heading to be 4 to 6 degrees Celsius hotter by century’s end. Much of the planet will be unliveable, and the carrying capacity of the planet will likely be under a billion people, one-seventh of today’s population.
     A 4-to-6-degrees-hotter future is incompatible with an organised global community. This is scary stuff.
     Fear can immobilise us when the problems seem too big. That’s why it is important to understand what modern psychology teaches us.
     We each have a limited capacity for tolerating difficult emotions: fear, grief, pessimism and anxiety.  Pushed too far, we are unable to cope and feelings run out of control. That’s why  climate change is a difficult subject for many people.
     But security, support and understanding can help us better deal with a wider range of such emotions.
     Working in groups, community solidarity and identifying with strong courageous leadership can all expand this capacity. In doing so we can feel emotionally safer when the going gets tough.
      The bravest thing we can do right now is to be brutally honest in our assessment of the situation, and then find the collective power to change it. That’s the Churchill lesson.
      The other choice is bright-siding, the belief that you can control your outlook with relentless positive thinking and a sunny disposition, and by refusing to consider negative outcomes. In requires deliberate self-deception.
     As Barbara Ehrenreich observes of the United States, believing the country impervious to a 9/11-style attack, or New Orleans to inundation, and incapable of failure in Iraq or a Wall Street crash, can exist because there was no inclination to imagine the worst, as well as the best.
     In the end, bright-siding strips away critical analysis. As Ehrenreich concludes, enforced optimism obstructs the progressive agenda, producing an enforced stupidity.
    In other words, optimism is conservative, while realism is progressive. 
So how did this go down? Fiona Sharkie (CEO of Quit Victoria) said that fear-based campaigns had been very effective in her organisation's work.  Likewise academic and author Guy Pearse was sober and forthright in describing the failure of political parties and many environment and climate groups to get to grips with the real size and urgency of the climate challenge.
    John Dee said neither was a particular driver and Tanya Ha, in the end, was close to sitting on the fence.  Bob Brown acknowledged the role of legitimate fear as a driver of social activism and said it was more than justified given what is happening to the planet, and concuded that fear then needed to drive "intelligent optimism".
     Of course activism requires both, but it would have hardly have been a debate if we had all said that! After the six speakers, the audience was invited to vote, and were given three choices (plus "other" which produced many personal takes on proceedings!). Of the three tick-a-box options, "optimism" scored 10 votes, "fear" scored 45 and "both fear and optimism" won with 145. That "both" won was to be expected.
     What was good was that, in contradistinction to the brightsiding that pervades so much of climate advocacy and public policy discussion, the healthy role of legimate fear as a reasonable response to global warming got a healthy airing, and most of the audience was able to acknowledge than emotion.