Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book Review: 'Don't Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change' by George Marshall

Review by A Siegel
George Marshall's Don't Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change should be on the must read list for anyone concerned about communicating climate change (and -- as importantly -- who is open to reconsidering much of their thinking about what works and doesn't work).  In 43 short and highly accessible chapters, Marshall lays out how we mentally are not prepared to tackle climate change and, as revealingly, how most climate 'communicators' have failed to understand how their own biases impact how they communicate and undermine their ability to convince others.
For example, Marshall contrasts a highly successful anti-science advertisement with standard environmental approaches.

"Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life." ... it leaves a lasting impression of the wonders of the life ahead for her.  ... It is devious, exasperating, and outright mendacious.  But it is also damned good communication. ... maddeningly good ... texbook example of how to speak directly to the emotional brain. ..."The video is an artful compilation of frames for life, civilization, health, hope, and salvation. And, by contrast, the image of Times Square and the children fading into darkness speaks equally well to metaphors for decay and death -- as it would in every culture in the world.
... the World Wildlife Fund uses the same metaphors at the core of its largest public engagement exercise around climate change, Earth Hour.  Every year it encourages us to turn off our lights ... WWF thinks it is a huge success ... but there is no avoiding the fact that, if one is going to play in the world of symbols, one had better get it right.  However you read it, a universal frame for decline, decay, and death is being promoted on a vast scale around the world as a symbol for climate change.
This was not a hidden issue, after all an anti-science blogger has a post showing North Korea from satellite with the caption "It's always Earth Hour in North Korea". I, however, have always felt vaguely (to strongly) uncomfortable with Earth Hour. Marshall has given me a studied explanation as to why that 'vague' discomfort was right.

As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time and energy worrying about how best to communicate on energy and climate issues, I opened the book with a decent amount of understanding and perspective on the issues. (One test of a book, when you know the field, is who the author cites -- Marshall's work is filled with references to, quotes from, and commentary on a broad range of the 'right' (and, sigh, Right) voices and experts.) In what is perhaps my top compliment to any author, the book is filled with marginalia (written comments in the margins), with many items marked "excellent" or "gem".
For example, a 'gem' from the concluding paragraph:
Climate change is a process, not an event, so it requires that we RECOGNIZE MOMENTS OF PROXIMITY that can demand attention.  These may be moments of political decision-making, collective action, or generated conflict.  ... the Keystone XL pipeline is a legitimate attempt to create a historic moment.  Those critics who argue that the pipline will only ever be a small part of overall U.S. emissions are missing the point.  Their complaint is like saying that the locations of seats at the lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworth's or on the Montgomery buses were trifling examples of racial segregation.  Sometimes the act of CREATING THE SYMBOLIC MOMENT is far more important than its overall relevance.
Those arrested at the White House protesting Keystone XL are, in their own way, Rosa Parks -- challenging a specific element of a much larger societal challenge.
Without question, while the full book merits reading, the last twelve-page chapter (the bolding above is how it appears in the chapter) is a must read.
Marshall's work should make anyone think -- and that thinking will mean disagreement at times.  David Roberts has laid out his disagreement with Marshall as to the potential to engage with the Tea Party. Others have found him providing too much of a strawman re Information Deficit advocates.  I have two critiques to add in.
  • Many times in the book, Marshall talks about people's "belief" in climate change even though he provides, partway through the book, an explanation why he uses the word "conviction" rather than "belief".  Hmmm ... perhaps the editing should have gone back and questioned every use of "belief".
  • Far more importantly, Marshall implicitly accepts what is likely wrong-headed analysis as to the costs-benefits of climate action.  
    Of all the possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss.
     An aggressive program of climate mitigation and adaptation would not just mitigate against "longer-term loss" but would provide significant gains.  
    Conducting fully-burdened cost-benefit analysis shows many ways of "gain" -- from reduced (controlled) energy costs to improved health to improved student achievement to increased worker productivity to ...  
    Tackling climate change seriously is not just about mitigating loss but can -- should -- be about creating gain. And, in many ways, this doesn't even require 'short-term loss'.  For example, investing in energy efficiency -- which contributes to reducing pollution -- is far less expensive than investing in new energy generation capacity.  Working to restore wetlands and natural ways to deal with storm surges is typically cheaper -- with other useful benefits (improved fisheries' productivity) -- than pouring concrete. And ...

Marshall successfully made me think and is forcing me to rethink many things. This is not a book to read and put away -- but one that merits returning to and engaging with intellectually.  Is there a higher compliment that one can give an author?

Other reviews include:
Climate change is emotional, especially when the effects are disastrous and people’s lives are ruined. It is vague, sometimes. For example, bad weather happens and always has happened, so an increase in frequency or severity of bad weather isn’t necessarily qualitatively novel, and can be hard to put one’s finger on. Although the negative effects of climate change are already here, more serious effects are in our future. So, climate change has a component that is mysterious and hard to relate to, because it is in the future. Climate change is global, but spotty on a given day or in a given month. So, you may spend a long period of time between direct bouts with the phenomenon and forget about it or write it off as an “it can’t happen here” sort of thing. Climate change is scary or depressing, or both, so it is one of those things one tends to avoid thinking about. Climate change is complex, and climate change includes variation that is hard to understand.
When we look at how the human mind works, using the tools of anthropology, psychology, or any of your favorite ways to study the human condition, we find that we are better at some things than others. All those things I just said about climate change are things we humans tend to be bad at, find hard to comprehend, evaluate, understand, or explain.
Therefore, climate change has two very important characteristics. 1) It is very important, representing an existential threat that we must deal with; and 2) we are cognitively, emotionally, intellectually, pragmatically, unable to deal with it. Or, one would hope, unable to deal with it easily. Hopefully we will get past that.
Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change comprises 43 short and well-written chapters that explain why  strenuous efforts to spread the word and spur action on climate change have failed. ...
Marshall has obviously thought deeply about how to address different audiences and, for such a difficult subject, he has produced a surprisingly accessible read. That takes a lot of wit, work and wisdom and it proves that at least that he knows how to communicate. We should pay attention.
In the end, Marshall is neither fatalistic nor idealistic about our chances of survival. Yes, he says, we’re wired to ignore climate change. But we’re also wired to do something about it.
And, a recent Marshall OPED.

Don't Even Think About It isn't just for climate communicators -- it is suitable for every library bookshelf and would be a welcome addition to many classrooms (psychology, advertising, English, ...).  Many (most) should find it interesting reading, as it provides a window on our (often lack of thinking) and biases that influence what we pay attention to and why.  Marshall has written a useful addition to the literature that easily merits a few hours of your time.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.