Alex Cleator is a writer based in London.
Fingers are most often pointed at the human race for the state of the climate crisis, and for good reason. We use the Earth’s finite resources to heat our homes, to cook our food and to travel to work each morning because this is what we need to do to survive. Yet despite this, we see headline after headline calling our species out for the harm being done to the planet.
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 in November 2017, the New York Times reported 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.”
With all of this blame going around, I decided to reach out to Natalie Bennett, the former UK Green Party leader, and Phil Pearl, a clinical-psychologist and the CEO of Mental Toughness, to break down how all of this blame really affects people, and to assess if the planet is better off as a result.
So should the human race be blamed for climate change?
PP: I think blame’s the wrong word. We don’t blame people, we shame people. Blaming someone for something, you’re trying to illicit 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. 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. 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.
If everyone did all the things that experts say we should do to preserve the Earth’s resources, would that make a difference?
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.
Has the size of our population grown too big to solve this problem?
PP: We do what all the other primates do: we form hierarchies. We’ve always formed hierarchies. We are competitive by nature 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. 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.
What you want to avoid is heavy denigration of people because that gives them no way back to make 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.
What are the real effects of the blaming and shaming?
NB: 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. I was worried she was going to cry because she felt so guilty that she wasn’t recycling her newspapers. It was 500 metres down to the communal bin and she couldn’t carry the papers with a walking stick! I said to her, “It’s not your fault, it’s our fault, collectively, as a society.”.
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 can work. But is in some ways a low blow because its 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. What we 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. Remember: We would never have survived the saber-tooth tigers if human beings were innately selfish.