Old Believers

In America especially, rhetoric around climate change often focuses on one particular demographic: climate change deniers. We’re determined to convince this small subset of radicals that climate change is real; there is the impression that these adamant non-believers are so disproportionately vocal (and in some cases economically powerful, too) that they are the ones really controlling the conversation about climate change.

But we’re also a country that loves extremes. I’m no different, really. I take “belief” in climate change to a fairly extreme level; it’s something I think about daily and worry about hourly. And my fantasies are often as extreme (see also ‘homesteading in wilderness’). This family’s story is actually extreme though: For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From Human Contact, Unaware of World War II. Although their primary beliefs–the motivating force behind their escape into Russian wilderness–were religious, not environmental, these beliefs prompted them to live a life much more reliant on their natural surroundings than on human civilization.

There are other communities who purposefully choose to keep ‘technology’ or civilization at bay; I’m thinking notably of the Amish. But these people–like climate change deniers–make up a relatively small percentage of the population. And they’re less vocal, choosing instead to express their beliefs most radically through their actions. Most people are not this extreme about their lifestyles or their religious beliefs. Or their thoughts on climate change.

Instead, the way people relate to the concept of climate change is more of a spectrum, with most people falling in the middle. Climate change, unlike weather, is not visible or readily apparent in daily life. Although repercussions of climate change are most likely to hit unstable, poorer regions first, it is highly educated, science- or nature-oriented folks who are most keenly attune to the news in climate change research and policy.

I’m coming to the conclusion more and more, though, that without support and interest from the big middle of the climate change belief spectrum, real, definitive action to ameliorate worst-case scenarios will not be possible. Strangely enough, a recent French class further convinced me of this. Tasked with coming up with an environmentally-friendly gesture, invention, or plan to describe to the other half of the class in a mock concours, or development competition, my group’s brainstorming and discussion ground to a halt due to the reluctance of one member to participate.

Now, it just so happens that this group was entirely composed of 18-26 year old female au pairs. Not the picture of diversity, although we each hail from a different country (Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, United States). But in terms of ideological diversity about climate change, the group of four illustrated “the middle” pretty nicely. I really like all these girls, so it’s not a question of getting along with people. We’ve all worked together on other sorts of projects, ones with apparently less-controversial content. But Spain, Brazil, and I could not get Ukraine to participate–in any positive way–in this project, at all. Watching the group interact, I realized each of us represented a different segment of the middle of the spectrum:

The Enthusiast – Not only am I willing to talk about environmental stuff, I’m into it, I’m enthused. I find the topic genuinely exciting. That said, I take a fairly moderate approach to my own life, driving and taking planes, consuming meat, etc. I’m not living in an environment-focused intentional community (though I did, for a day). This is my life’s passion, but I still have a lifestyle that the rest of the ‘middle’ can relate to.

The Willing – Spain is not someone who would identify as An Environmentalist, but she’s more aware of the economic ties to environmentalism than most. Sensing the connection between waste reduction and lowered cost, she’s a willing proponent of waste-reducing environmental efforts. She’s a conscientious citizen who wants to be comfortable, but she’s aware of external realities like cost–not only financial, but also environmental. Environmentalism doesn’t threaten her or cause her concern; it’s something viewed as compatible with other concerns of her life.

The Accepting – Brazil is unenthused about the discussion and the topic, being more concerned with love and music and a lot of other interesting aspects of life. But, at the same time, she (like Spain) is aware of economic realities and comprehends the connections between economics and environmentalism. If something is environmental and saves money, she’s all for it. If it’s convenient, she’ll readily go along with the flow.

The Stonewaller – Not passionate enough about climate change to fall in the denier camp, Ukraine is nevertheless opposed to even talking about environmental concerns as concerns. The outside world is something she feels has nothing to do with her. Easily repulsed by the body, by the wild, she is a strong proponent of sanitization of these elements. Hand sanitizer has a place in her purse; she is a very “clean” person. She’ll grudgingly take public transport if it’s the most convenient option. But she doesn’t see the point–at all–in discussing environmentalism as a goal, and if anything she finds the subject threatening. She connects environmentalist efforts with gross things like compost and uncomfortable things like less heating or air conditioning.

I was really surprised by Ukraine’s total resistance. Frequently, group discussions end up being led and pursued unevenly. There’s often a clear leader and a couple people who also engage in varying levels. That’s one of the hazards of group activities, but it’s normal. Less typical is a group discussion where one member both continually shuts down all other members of the group, including someone who has taken a leadership role, and then proceeds to allow for no positive action. By “positive” I don’t necessarily mean “good” either; I mean “positive” in the sense of forward motion, of something coming into existence.

In a lot of discussions in this particular French class, one or two people in the class won’t feel strongly about the topic and will just sit back a little, drop out of the conversation for a moment. If there are six people in the classroom, typically 3-4 will be heavily engaged in a given discussion, 1-2 will add occasional comments, and 1-2 will remain more or less silent until the next topic or activity. This is a pattern I’ve been observing for months.

This time, one person out of both groups of four — so 1 in 8 — was so resistant that, while Spain and I eagerly came up with three specific ideas related to making heating systems more efficient (and therefore more economical to run–we were inspired by her house’s lack of heating due to her employers’ desire to cut costs), we eventually switched topics, hastily, to the far more neutral motion-sensor lights in bathrooms (because people so frequently leave these lights on all day).

I think it says something that in a language class, with absolutely nothing at stake, this conversation about environmentalism still managed to make one member of the group feel so strongly that she worked hard to shut down her friends and co-group members just to preserve her own sense of these things. To me, this really reinforces the importance of environmentalism; as soon as you begin to see its importance, you begin to see all the connections between “environmentalism” and other kinds of social injustice, other sorts of problems and social ills in the world.

When people resist environmentalism, it’s often from a position of naïveté, but as information on climate change becomes more and more widely available and disseminated, this is a harder and harder position to maintain. So the topic becomes more of a threat. It’s no surprise that governments have a hard time making policy changes when my tiny French discussion group couldn’t even get a good brainstorming session going.

Climate change is an imminent threat, not a far-off abstract possibility. As the passage of time continues, we don’t seem to be making steady or even noticeable progress towards mitigating our current damage or developing adaptation strategies. As someone presently concerned with rhetoric, I’m often most worried about combatting the most extreme deniers. That approach may actually be backfiring, though. Perhaps, instead, it’s the middle that deserves the most attention.

Many people seem only to lack energy and mobilization, not ideological congruence (Spain, Brazil). Others, like Ukraine, have put a wall up in their own minds about the subject, but have not spent energy developing theories to combat it either (as full-extremist deniers have). These people are all reachable and, to varying extents, ready. They also make up a much larger segment of the population–a segment of the population that I am, in fact, part of.

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1 comment
  1. You’re quite right, “…it’s the middle that deserves the most attention.” And while ‘Enthusiasts’ are needed to initially attract attention, it is the “Willing’ who must roll up their sleeves and practically demonstrate both the means and desirability of making the required changes…and in a way that is increasingly attractive to the ‘Accepting.’ As the saying goes: “If girls begin to favor boys who ride horses, watch how quickly the boys begin to trade their wheels for hooves.” (Stonewallers notwithstanding) 😉

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