The need for political leadership

The last week has again been dominated by the consultation on Dorset Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Strategy and Action Plan. One of the recurring themes at the many online events that I’ve attended has been the need for as many residents as possible to be consulted, and, as a corollary, the need for there to be a bottom-up approach. This includes doing outreach, for example visiting residents in pubs and community centres, to canvas their views. Whilst such actions may achieve a great deal and be well worth doing in a very general sense, in regards to the CEE I’m not convinced – and for a number of reasons.

I fear that there may exist something similar to the 20/60/20 distribution phenomenon that I have heard used to describe, for many types of job, the ease at which people can convert to working from home. Basically 20% can do it easily, 60% can do it with some effort and adaptation, and 20% find it next to impossible. In terms of our CEE, I suspect that something like 20% of the population are fully onboard with the science together with the necessary social and economic changes, 60% accept the science (without fully understanding it) but feel very uncomfortable about the necessary changes, whilst 20% will find a reason for not accepting either the science or the necessary changes. It’s this 60% group that we need to engage with and get onboard. There are, though, a couple of phenomena described by the sociologist Anthony Giddens that make their engagement a challenge.

One is the following paradox: That if the “dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day to day life” most people will do nothing concrete to prevent those dangers becoming tangible, immediate, or visible. However, waiting until they are will be too late. This is related to an inherent human trait – future discounting. In evolutionary terms, we have only ever had need to deal with ‘in your face’ dangers, and the less immediate they are the less important they feel. The other, related phenomenon, is what Giddens terms ‘ontological security’; the “confidence or trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be, including the basic parameters of self and social identity.” What this means is that people quite naturally resist making changes to their social world, however necessary these changes may seem rationally, if they in anyway require changes their sense of self – of who they are and what they do. This just feels too uncomfortable. On the other hand, some people (many of those in the first 20%) actually acquire a positive sense of self identity through the adoption of the necessary life style changes.

Another reason why I am not convinced by a comprehensive public consultation on our CEE is that I really do not think that people are as rational as we would like to believe they are. For a really good explanation of this I recommend the reading of the first part of Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Just going out and talking to people will neither reveal a previously unexpressed support for the actions necessary to halt runaway climate and ecological disaster, nor will it be an opportunity to persuade people about these actions. The vast majority of us, if not all of us, are primarily moved by our emotions. These emotions drive us towards certain interests, areas of study, or campaigns that we want to be associated with. We then support our positions using reason and rational arguments. But these reasons are post hoc. To get others onboard we need to find ways of engaging them emotionally – as the advertising industry has been doing for years.

No, we just do not have the time for a bottom-up approach to our CEE. We need a top-down strategy. We need political leadership. In much the same way that national government introduced the compulsory wearing of car seat belts and a ban on smoking in public, we need the necessary legislation to radically cut our national carbon footprint and for the government to then ‘sell’ it to population…even if these actions make the government grossly unpopular in the short term. In the longer term people will be thankful and will wonder what all the fuss was about, they will wonder how we could ever have contemplated risking our future existence by not acting the way we did.

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