This is a thinking out loud piece, mind to paper. These are just my opinions and are unsubstantiated by any research.
There are a dozen metaphors I could use to describe the climate crisis in a digestible, less frightening way than what reality presents. I’ll begin with one of the more comical ones.
Imagine you are an octopus out of water, perched on a hillside, and the ground breaks loose. The shift in earth is quiet at first, a plume of dust kicks up around you and a few pebbles begin their journey downwards. You begin to skirt down from your perch as chunks of dirt fly from beneath you, quickening your descent. Why an octopus you ask? Why, as an octopus you have eight lovely tentacles, each perfectly capable of latching onto a rocky outcrop or a root sticking out of the hillside and hoisting yourself back up to safety (that is, assuming you are a highly-evolved, oxygen breathing octopus).
Yet you fall. Eight tentacles and all, you tumble down the hill, and halfway down you think, “My God, perhaps I should have grabbed onto a root earlier up.” Your chest heaves with anticipation as to what awaits you at the bottom of the hill.
After a few cartwheels down the metaphorical hill, you settle into a more comfortable muddy slide. Boulders slam into the ground around you, branches crash from rattled trees, yet none seem to hit you. Hey! Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. The wind tickles your octopus face and the sun smiles. You begin to forget that this hill will steepen, and your scenic slide will eventually find its tragic end, and your octopus body, eight tentacles and all, will cease to exist.
One out of twelve metaphors down, eleven more to go. How terrible that would be to read! Instead, let us unpack the bizarre analogy above. Our friend, the novel air-breathing octopus, illustrates the two main feelings I’ve witnessed people experience, often in rapid cycle, in response to climate change.
The first response, panic, is not an effective motivator. Panic is all-consuming and, paradoxically, short-lived; it boils up just as quickly as it evaporates. For some, undeniable evidence of the grim future ahead if inaction to counteract climate change persists, is enough to send the brain into short-circuit. For others, those with more delicate heartstrings perhaps, a sickening image of one of the many starving, endangered species limping across the Earth does the trick. Either way, climate change-induced panic is to be expected at one point or another for many.
This is a good thing, right? Right? I think not. Panic is not synonymous with care. The instinctual response of the human brain is to assess the trigger of (PANIC!) and flush out the feeling as soon as possible. It is for this same reason that fight-or-flight is a passing state of being and not a lifestyle. In this flushing out process, as a precautionary measure, the brain sets out roadblocks along neural highways that read: “The Climate Crisis Is Too Heartbreaking and Hopeless to Think About Right Now. Please Turn Around.” Eventually, panic morphs into a protective layer of numbness. A tolerance builds, bit by bit, until climate change seems like a hot discussion topic of a remote hypothesis, rather than a bellowing freight train, desperately blowing its whistle and gaining speed, fast.
The second emotion is more distasteful than panic. It’s apathy. Perhaps apathy and panic exist as two markers on completely separate islands of thought, or perhaps they are stages of the same core problem. Nonetheless, Apathy always has his two buddies by his side, Complacency and Contempt (we’ll get to the latter two in a bit). Together, they form a formidable trio, and an individual representing all three is undoubtedly the most annoying person in the room.
Apathy (towards climate change) emerges from humanity’s most primal instincts: self-preservation coupled with short-term thinking. Assuming that those with an apathetic attitude towards climate change are not outright brain-dead deniers, but rather aware of the issue but wishing to ignore it, I am left to conclude that it must be because climate change doesn’t appear to affect them. At least not yet. Devoting time and concern to a problem that, at most times in our lives, appears intangible and quite honestly, scary, can feel like a pointless activity. An even more pointless activity: begging people to care about their own future.
It is important to distinguish the different levels of justification allotted to those with an apathetic attitude towards climate change. I must assume the first group is slim in numbers as it is those who have absolutely no knowledge of climate change and are therefore exempt from judgement (it can be a little difficult to care about something you haven’t heard of). Individuals living in extreme poverty, destitute of healthcare, education, and an escape from the cycle, are also exempt from judgement. This is because I believe there to be an intrinsic relationship between privilege and the responsibility to fight climate change. That is not to say that I don’t hope impoverished people care and act within their communities, but rather, I understand if they do not.
As I promised earlier, let us briefly check in with Complacency and Contempt. Complacency isn’t as bad as its counterparts, as at least some attempt at activism is implied. Complacency is a car that has sat outdoors all winter without being driven and now requires a few extra kicks to get it going when spring arrives. Complacency, for all its shortcomings, is malleable; Contempt is not. Those who are contemptuous of climate change, either in disbelief of its growing place in reality, or scornful of the inconveniences imposed upon their lifestyles when asked to fight it, are in my mind, unshakeable.
Creating an effective movement against climate change requires accommodating the presumable emotional responses. People must be aware of what lies ahead without slipping into panic and sinking into a pool of apathy. I believe that there is a three-part recipe to achieve this delicacy.
Old-Fashioned Nurturing Climate Change Activism Recipe (Perfect Every Time!)
3 tablespoons of consistent exposure
1 cup of tying it back to the individual
3/4 cup of providing a clear target
The first step to cultivating genuine activism within a group is to offer consistent exposure to the problem. This is the most precarious ingredient of this recipe, as adding a little bit too much fear-mongering can send the audience into a panic, and repeating the same overused rhetoric (cue: [insert animal here] are dying! Reduce-Reuse-Recycle! The ice caps are melting!) might bore them to death before global warming gets the chance. The true activator of this ingredient is to always tie the issue back to the individual. As pessimistic as it may sound, it’s difficult for most people to sustain care for an issue that does not affect them in the present moment. By consistently following up a presented problem with either a solution they may participate in or an implication to their livelihoods, an audience becomes far more stabilized against spiraling into panic or apathy. Crack two eggs and whisk them until light and foamy. The final touch of spice is to provide the group with a focused target. In addition to connecting the issue back to the individual, a clear target of where their agency can be directed ensures that vulnerable emotion does not morph into a sense of hopelessness.
As of now, humanity remains a living oxygen-breathing octopus, not one (ironically) drowning under rising water. To expand the analogy even further, each tentacle can be assumed to represent one billion people that currently inhabit the earth. The chance to latch onto a hanging branch or a rocky outcrop still presents itself, but soon, our own metaphorical hill will steepen, and that opportunity will be diminished. Let us act as a unified, dignified even, octopus, one that is intelligent enough to not slide comfortably to their death, but rather uses all eight tentacles to hoist ourselves up and over this hill.