Review of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change

I recently reviewed George Marhall’s book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” for the National Centre for Science Education. The full review can be found here.

Here, I reproduce the passages from the review that go beyond the scope of a conventional commentary on a book. I tried to articulate what I consider to be one way in which Marshall’s conclusions can be carried forward. Those are subjective considerations and are obviously subject to debate and refinement:

Marshall’s final key point is that in order to ensure a future of dignity for our planet and its inhabitants, we must create a narrative around climate change that invokes “sacred values.”  Sacred values are at the core of our culture: Defending our children is one such sacred value. Likewise, America’s national parks are considered sacred—it’s difficult to imagine that Yellowstone would ever be offered for sale.

I agree with Marshall that moral and ethical values must take centre stage in the response to climate change: It is a question of values and morality whether it is permissible to let Pacific island nations sink below the rising seas. It will come as little surprise that much of the literature on the ethics of climate change considers cutting emissions to be morally mandated. For example, philosopher John Nolt has likened climate change to slavery and racism because it involves the domination of future generations. Those future generations are innocent of any harm to us and do not have a say in their fate, but they are nonetheless bearing the harm from our collective actions that we are now in the position to recognize as being morally wrong.

However, although Marshall opens the door to a powerful moral argument, I felt that he only took a brief peak at the opportunities afforded by his “sacred values”, in a chapter with a collection of brief ideas about how we might “dig us out of this hole.” The underlying tenor of those recommendations is infused with appeals to diversity, openness, and—at least tacitly—a concern with avoiding further polarization.

In my view, those recommendations do not exploit the full power that is offered by the “sacred value” narrative: If our values mandate action on climate change, then we must also recognize that the political and economic forces that are arrayed against such action are violating those values. Although Marshall is well aware of the existence of denial, he stops short of recognizing its full pragmatic and moral import. Many of the environmental narratives that Marshall identifies as having failed, such as the iconic polar bear campaign launched by Greenpeace, failed not just of their own accord but also because the forces arrayed against acting on climate change did their best to make them fail.

If we accept a moral case for climate action, on which I wholeheartedly agree with Marshall, then we must also accept a moral case to tackle organized denial and to understand it for what it is—namely, an endeavor that may (intentionally or not) lead to the domination of future generations in a way not altogether dissimilar from slavery.

Marshall’s stimulating book provides a platform to chart any number of possible future actions. Putting aside political pragmatics, I would extend his work by focusing on sharpening—rather than attenuating— the inevitable and unbridgeable moral conflict between acting on climate change and denying its existence.

The most revered American of the 20th century is Martin Luther King, Jr.

King is universally remembered for leading a movement that was based on the “sacred values” of human dignity, liberty, and equality. It is less well known that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a polarizing figure.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—now a highly anthologized masterpiece—in which he responded to his “moderate” critics’ call for patience, King made it quite clear that polarization around his views was not only inevitable but also necessary to achieve his goals. King’s recognition that “justice too long delayed is justice denied” takes on particular meaning in the context of climate change, where delay (of mitigation) is tantamount to denying not just justice but the very livelihood of millions of people who may be displaced by climate change.

Polarization is unfortunate, uncomfortable, and discomforting. But when a U.S. Senator writes a book that refers to climate change as a “hoax” and a “conspiracy”, then that polarizing act does not call for acquiescence or compromise, but for the recognition that polarization may be an inevitable consequence of a conflict between core human values. The nuances of cultural cognition that Marshall so ably reviews may explain polarization but they cannot overcome it by the niceties of “reframing” and “culturally-appropriate” messengers alone.

Australian Professor of Ethics Clive Hamilton recognized this some time ago when he issued a call for environmental radicalism and noted that the future battle over climate change will not be a place for the faint-hearted. It is indeed difficult to conceive of a solution to the climate challenge that will sidestep polarization and—quite probably increasingly ugly—political and ideological battles. Like the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, those battles may require deep courage rather than nuanced cognition about whether polar bears are a good icon for climate “communication.”

Moral and political courage are not without precedent in American politics: Another one of the most revered Americans of the 20th century is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In an address at Madison Square Garden in 1936, President Roosevelt noted that “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me.”

In a highly polarizing gesture Roosevelt famously added: “and I welcome their hatred.”

Perhaps we need to fear the fear of polarization more than polarization itself.