Are human beings to blame for global warming?
By Alex Cleator
As a race, we are blamed and shamed into feeling guilty about the state of our climate crisis. We use Earth’s finite resources to heat our homes, cook our food and travel to work because this is what we need to do to live. We bare the brunt of the blame as headlines call us out on our impact. In 2013, Science News reported that “Scientists are now 95 to 100 percent certain that humans are cranking up the global thermostat.” Following the Trump administration’s change in position on global warming, due to his disbelief in climate science, the New York Times covered the issue in November 2017, claiming that “there is ‘no convincing alternative explanation’ that anything other than humans – the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy – are to blame.”
Although I can’t dispute the scientific evidence to back these claims, I can’t help but think that there is more to those accusations, that there’s more than our generation and the generations before us to blame. Yes, we as a race operate the plants and destroy the forests and leave the lights on sometimes, but does that mean that we are all, as a collective, to be blamed for the ruin of our planet? We are ashamed about the impact that we cause but are we to be blamed for every politically motivated oil sponsorship? Every plastic packaging that makes our food last longer and cheaper? Every landfill that feeds our oceans with rubbish, destroying ecosystems and habitats?
We could listen to the allegations and be the ones to take control, regardless of how we are treated, but do we have the capability as humans, individuals and as a race to take this on? Do we realise what will happen if we don’t? Do we want to acknowledge that we could live in a world with no greenery, wildlife or resources? I’ve spoken to coaching psychologist Phil Pearl and former U.K Green party leader Natalie Bennett about how we are dealing with these accusations, in order to find out if we have the power in us to take charge and make a change.
Should the human race be blamed for climate change?
Phil Pearl: I think blame’s the wrong word. We don’t blame people, we shame people. Blaming someone for something, you’re trying to illicite some sort of emotional response, so what you’re going to get is a kick-back which is going to be anger – “it’s not me, it’s not my fault, it was the other guy”, and there’s a fair comment in that.
What you’re basically doing is shaming people, and that’s the way we run at the moment. If you shame someone, then you’ve embarrassed them in front of their peers or in front of other people and what you’re looking for is an emotional response and to get a behavioural response from that.
How do you know someone’s emotions? You know it from their action tendencies, from what they do. If someone is really shamed, then in personal life, they’d hide away and deal with it that way or they’ll make amends. What we’re trying to do is make people make amends with shame.
The other emotion you’re going for is guilt. If people feel guilty because they haven’t been recycling or whatever else then they can deal with that in a positive way and make amends.
Blaming is a bad strategy. Shaming, in today’s society, is the way to go.
What are the real effects of blaming and shaming?
Natalie Bennett: This lovely lady came to the door, walking very slowly with a stick and she saw me and the green rosette. She said, “Oh recycling!” and she actually had tears in her eyes and I was worried she was going to cry because she felt so guilty because she wasn’t recycling her newspapers because it was 500 metres down to the communal bin and walking with a stick, she couldn’t carry papers! I said to her, “it’s not your fault, it’s our fault, collectively, as a society.”
NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Are governments making the changes that we want to see?
PP: A government is going to do whatever is going to win them votes, call me cynical here, so, if popular opinion says ‘we don’t want this thing anymore’ then the governments acts. These sorts of things are bottom up. It’s also where you’ve got huge corporations … that have massive market share, it’s [important] how they adapt to change.
Blame is a shifted game, it’s not us, it’s you! That doesn’t work because if you blame me, I’ll just blame someone else so I can just shift that on or I can spin it back and say ‘why are you blaming me? What are you doing?’
How do individuals deal with blame and shame vs. communities?
PP: There’s an individual choice but if you get one group blaming another that just escalates … and not necessarily solving anything, you’re just keeping conflict there. If you can shame people in a nice way or make them feel guilty in a nice way then that’s a different sort of thing.
Some people assume that climate change is not a problem that can be solved on their own. What is it in our brains that discourages us to make critical changes by ourselves even with so much pressure?
PP: In my mind, it’s a philosophy- to ‘know thyself’- and it’s back to the problem of blame. We can blame everyone else, but do we like to look at ourselves? No. That’s far too fucking nasty. People need to ask the basic philosophical question: who am I and how should I live? What tends to change people a lot is when you have … contact with nature seeing animal behaviours that we’ve never seen before, that’s what will trigger people.
Even when we look at who we are, often we fail to look at what we are. And what we are is a slightly evolved primate. If we really wanted to learn, we could just look at the other primates because actually, they’re not creating the mass destruction; we are. We’re meant to be so bloody clever but maybe if you were standing on the moon and looking at Earth and looking for an intelligent species, it probably wouldn’t be us. You’d just think ‘these fuckers are just killing each other! Idiots!’
Has the size of our population grown too big to try to solve this problem?
PP: We do what all the other primates do: we form hierarchies. We’ve always formed hierarchies. We are by nature competitive and that’s evolution. If we can overcome those basic things, that it’s better to get on than to shoot each other, then we stand a chance. That’s what’s within us. It’s that competitive nature. Existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre says our basic default is conflict … most of our wars are about resources; resources of love, oil, money, food, land, and that’s the conflict.
When the conflict is over economies, then if you look at China at the moment, they’re kicking up a lot of population, and so is India because their economies are growing. What people say doesn’t matter. What people do is what matters … If you’re blaming someone and making them angry, what are they going to do? They’re going to look around for allies and look to attack back, but if it’s more of a shaming thing, then people don’t like to be shamed.
[Shame] isn’t as bad as blaming and denigrating people. What you want to avoid is heavy denigration of people because that gives them no way back to make an amends. Once you’re blaming, you’re looking at punishing. Punishing people is not a great way to get people to change. Blame is punishment.
Pearl then mentions that “you can punish corporations to change”, and therefore, blame is not only implied, but warranted. Are we, therefore, shamed into making amends by guilting the large corporations and policy makers to do the right thing?
NB: We only have one planet [and] we have to go back to ‘one-planet living’. Even if you live ‘perfectly as an individual’, it makes minimal difference. What we need is system change, not change in individual behaviour. There’s no point in saying to people, ‘you shouldn’t use your car’ if public transport doesn’t exist, is incredibly unaffordable, and unreliable.
If every individual did all the things that experts say one should do to preserve the Earth’s resources, would that make a difference? Or are we waiting for a cultural shift to take place before this is possible?
NB: I applaud people that are doing what they can but what I would urge everyone that is doing that to reserve at least some of their time into trying to change the system … Start a campaign, and I’m not talking party politics here but politics in the broader sense … Anyone that’s thinking about these issues, put some of your effort into that system change, at whatever level!
It doesn’t mean that you’ve personally got to fix climate change. It might mean that if your kids school’s are using plastic knives and forks, get your child to start a campaign to change it. It doesn’t have to be enormous. Every little bit can help but it’s that system change that’s really helping.
With such an enormous challenge at hand, can guilt work?
PP: If you want to get change out of people, you have to go for the emotions which works but is in some ways a low blow because it’s cohesion rather than enticement. We’re going to hit you with taxes or we’re going to name and shame.
NB: It comes from the bottom up but what we also need is a transformation of our politics … If we get people together working collaboratively and cooperatively, we can do something about it. I believe in human nature. We would never have survived the saber-tooth tigers if human beings were innately selfish.
Over 1,000 transition town initiatives are taking place across 40 countries, and programmes like the U.S. Climate Reality Project, are working with communities to change state politics to more effectively tackle the climate crisis. Now that shame is the incentive for movement and action, it’s a tactic that has been proven to work. We are certainly still mere primates on Earth, but hopefully, with a little push, we can evolve even further as a species who can save our home.