Don’t Not Panic – mixed messaging is detrimental to climate change action

If you try to keep up with the latest in climate change news, you might feel a bit like I do right now: a deer in headlights.

Earlier this week, David Wallace-Wells published an opinion piece about climate change in the New York Times titled ‘Time to Panic’. He argues that based on current scientific understanding and predictions, it is completely appropriate—and even imperative—for society to be in freak-out mode over climate change. This, in turn, should motivate us toward desperate action.

Soon after, Eric Holthaus wrote a short response article in Grist titled ‘Why you shouldn’t panic’. His main argument is, “if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.”

So, what to do when confronted with scenarios of extreme storms, loss of entire coastlines, and millions of climate refugees? Panic? Or stay calm and collected?

To panic or not to panic—that is the question

Mixed messaging has plagued the climate change movement for decades. Although the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change has steadily strengthened and future predictions all point to escalating negative impacts, how to communicate this to the public has remained a source of contention.

Messaging has wavered between extreme doom-and-gloom, à la Wallace-Wells’ nightmarish “post warming world”, and the more optimistic “but there’s still hope!” approach that many scientists and conservationists support.

Wallace-Wells’ reasoning for pressing the panic button is pretty simple: “What creates more sense of urgency than fear?” he argues.

There’s research to back this up. A study that looked at the connection between emotion and behavior change found that fear and guilt were stronger motivational factors than hope.

“Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection,” explain the study’s authors.

Fear is a biological response to perceived threat. When we feel threatened, our body releases hormones that sharpen functions that should help us survive (eyesight), while shutting down ‘inessential’ functions (digestion). This survival mechanism can indeed provide us almost super-human (albeit momentary) powers to overcome imminent dangers—like pulling people out of burning buildings or lifting yourself up over a cliff edge.

But living with constant fear can have serious health consequences, ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease. When you’re faced with fear on a daily basis, your body can lose its ability to process emotions and make clear decisions.

As Holthaus says, “your brain literally can’t perceive reality accurately in that state of heightened anxiety. Just ask anyone who has ever had a panic attack. It isn’t fun. Fear shouldn’t be what we strive for.”

I’ve had several panic attacks throughout my life, and I agree; they aren’t fun. Your heart races, your chest tightens, you gulp for breaths, and your mind dabbles with the worst thoughts. You definitely aren’t at your most rational during a panic attack. But what these panic attacks did do was make me realize the very real connection between my mental and physiological health. And they made me act to prevent having more panic attacks in the future.

Taking medication, developing a practice of meditation and yoga, and setting realistic goals all helped me reduce my panic attacks. This doesn’t mean I’ll never have a panic attack again, but it helps me take control of the situation and regulate my behavioral response, rather than feeling paralyzed.

In the same way, I can see how using our fear of climate change impacts to motivate action could help us reduce our climate anxiety and regain a sense of ‘control’ over our collective future. It may not prevent all the impacts of climate change, but it could help us cope and adapt. And when it comes down to it, I think Wallace-Wells and Holthaus actually agree on this—if they could just get beyond their need to differentiate themselves and make people choose sides based on semantics.

Wallace-Wells says, “By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly.” A clearly defined threat incites action—when humans are confronted with catastrophe, whether earthquakes or war, we time and again work together to rebuild communities and societies.

Holthaus says, meanwhile, “It’s courage, not fear, that will bring about the long overdue world we all need.” This is not counter to Wallace-Wells’ argument. It’s just the necessary response. When faced with life-threatening fear, we must conjure courage in order to act and overcome the threat. After all—without fear, where does courage come from?

Conquering Fear

But how we manifest that courage matters, too. For Wallace-Wells, our focus on consumer culture and individual actions—like buying an electric car or forgoing air travel—is a cop-out, a distraction from the much more necessary collective actions and policies that must be coordinated across regions, states, and nations.

“That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.”

Holthaus’s article focuses on grassroots movements rather than government policies, and he references a recent essay by Mary Annaïse Heglar to drive home the lessons we can learn from the civil rights movement and the existential threat African Americans have felt for centuries. But even the quote he chooses to display from this essay belies the connection between fear, courage, and action.

“Nothing scares me more than climate change,” Heglar writes, “but I made up my mind to face it head-on—because of my debt to future generations and to previous generations.”

This sentiment echoes the tone taken by Greta Thurnberg, the 16 year old Swedish student who’s made waves by chiding world leaders’ inaction on climate change and has led a global student strike to unite the voices of her generation:

‘Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.’

To me, this is the biggest challenge we must address to act on climate change. We must perceive the threat as an emergency, one we don’t have the luxury to ignore. Not an emergency that we can’t do anything about—because we can. Once a house is on fire we can still put it out, keep it from damaging the entire property, and spreading to other properties. We can save the people and animals in that house. We can choose to re-build or not, and use different materials and develop strategies to reduce the risk of fire.

We can and should do this more comprehensively, at all scales, for climate change impacts.

In the end, I think David Wallace-Wells and Eric Holthaus are actually on the same team, with the same message—if they could only recognize it. We must turn our fear into action rather than paralysis, and demand the same of our leaders and governments.

As Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

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Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Finding Strength in Nature

When you close your eyes and think of some creature in nature that embodies ‘strength’, what do you see?

I see a solitary oak tree, towering and ancient with countless gnarled branches, in the middle of a soft green meadow. This oak stands tall and proud, but bows respectfully to the sun whose rays filter through its dancing leaves. I in turn bow before this tree as to a wise elder, a seer of past and future; a monument to time.

If I was borne of a culture that had totems, a culture whose roots were as ancient as this timeless tree, I would like to think that my totem would be the mighty oak. Its outstretched branches pull the heavens toward earth, trapping spirits in its fortress trunk wrinkled with the memories of long-forgotten souls. Its roots, the tendril-anchors wrapped in life and death, are stabilizers ever changing and seeking. Its life-giving veins pulse with invisible strength, silent equanimity.

Ah, if only I could know what it is to be an oak tree. To shelter fluttering feathered creatures and nourish furry chattering beasts. To be singular but never lonely. To be energized by warm glowing energy and the outflow of animal breaths. Are trees the embodiment of enlightened souls? The Buddha reached his nirvana beneath the solemn watch of a sacred fig tree. But the Buddha was still only a man. Trees are something different still, regal in their mystery.

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Why am I drawn to the feet of a towering oak? Perhaps because I grew up surrounded by these oaks, played amongst their roots and shadows, and used their acorns in childhood games. They are familiar, a link to my past and perhaps a beckoning of my future.

Although I can never fully know the oak, I feel kin to it. My tendency to silently observe the world from the sidelines, allows me to imagine what it would be like to be a tree. A human-tree anyway, as that is all I know. I enjoy giving to others, but I am often limited in my ability to reach out to them—they must come to me. But if they do, I will do what I can to nurture. Maybe I am more like a paper-bark tree, my fragile outer layers constantly peeling to reveal new layers underneath. But I still aspire to know the sturdy oak, as if it holds the key to my Self. Maybe it is itself the key. The oak is, after all, my symbol of strength.

What about you? What do you draw strength from?

National Geographic Finds a Cash Cow in the Dairy Industry

A troubling Facebook post popped onto my feed the other day:

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It’s a National Geographic post sponsored by Land O’Lakes, a large American agribusiness and food company.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Arguably, news media and private businesses have always been in bed together. ‘Sponsored’ or ‘branded’ content, more recently called ‘native advertising’, is certainly not a new thing. But in today’s era of endless streams of online media, the line between organic content and sponsored messages is more blurred than ever. And when an entity like National Geographic—perceived by many as a trusted source for stories about nature, science, and exploration—starts sharing content sponsored by corporate special interests it begins to violate that trust.

Dairy’s Modern Life

If you click on the post link, you’re taken to a 360-camera tour of a dairy farm (at least, three very short video segments of one particular farm). You can click on various icons throughout the page to read short (very short) blurbs about the milking process. While this visual story-telling approach is in itself interesting, the sponsored content is obviously tailored to give an impression that dairy farms are clean, friendly, and innocuous environments. Some small, ethically minded dairy farms may indeed fit this description, at least to the extent possible when the intensive use of living creatures is involved.

But the typical modern American dairy farm does not fit this description in the least. Most of America’s milk is produced in largescale facilities where dairy cows are separated from their calves soon after giving birth and continually injected with hormones to keep them producing milk. They spend most of their time indoors or in crowded pens, are fed unnatural feed (lots of soy, corn, and canola instead of grass), and are sent to slaughter after approximately 4 years (the natural lifespan of a cow is 15-20 years or more). In addition, large dairy facilities can lead to local air and water quality issues due to excess manure and other waste. Then there’s the many allegations and documentation of brutal animal abuse in industrial dairies over the years (like this one, or this, and here’s another).

None of this is mentioned in the NatGeo post, of course. They only provide a few short sentences praising how well the cows are cared for (including how comfortable they are), how well they are fed (without explaining their feed is not what cows evolved to digest), and how streamlined the process is. #ThanksLandOLakes.

My point is not to point fingers at any particular dairy farmer. But the industry as a whole is problematic on many levels, and this is no secret. US Dairy sales are in decline, and the industry is scrambling to compete with the plethora of alternative ‘milks’ now on the market. Why couldn’t NatGeo discuss this challenge, and point to some of the innovative dairy farmers that are adopting meaningful sustainability and animal rights standards? My guess is because that wasn’t what Land O’Lakes paid for.

Can’t Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes

Ironically, NatGeo’s sponsored post seems to have backfired, at least initially. Roughly 95% of post comments were from angry or disappointed readers who couldn’t believe NatGeo would publish corporate agribusiness propaganda. Here’s just a spattering of typical responses:

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A few commenters did express support for farmers, but not a single comment last I checked supported either Land O’Lakes or the fact that this was sponsored content. Seeing this strong negative response, I have to wonder: what were NatGeo marketers thinking when they posted such controversial sponsored content? Do they just not care as long as they get funding from sponsors? Or do any clicks and comments, regardless of the reason or type of response, count as a win for NatGeo analytics? Did they just really misjudge how their target audience would respond?

I don’t have an answer to these questions. Perhaps some of you, savvy readers, know more about this than I do and have hypotheses or insights? The frustrating thing is that most large companies never seem to respond to commenters, either to answer their questions or challenge their negative responses, so we may never know what the NatGeo folks behind the magic curtain actually intended with this campaign. I’ve seen the same sort of audience backlash to posts from companies like Starbucks as well as media outlets like NowThis, and the same silence in response. Do these companies ever have to do damage control in the wake of such incidents?

There is no Santa Claus

After I saw this post, I actually ‘unliked’ the NatGeo page. I did so with a tinge of regret, thinking of the future wildlife and nature stories I’d miss. But it felt like the only thing I could do to show my disappointment in a company, a ‘brand’, I had put my trust in since childhood.

When the Murdoch Fox media empire bought out National Geographic’s magazine and TV network a few years back, NatGeo was transformed into a for-profit company. While this may have helped save an entity facing slacking magazine sales and a changing cable TV landscape, the reality is that the acquisition forever changed the ethics and culture of the company (side note: The National Geographic Society is itself still a non-profit entity; but the NatGeo magazine, TV channel, and other media are now owned by Fox).

Realizing that National Geographic is just another company with a bottom line was as sucky as learning that Santa Claus isn’t real. Maybe I was just naïve. But I don’t think I’m alone in my disillusionment. Many wildlife scientists, writers, videographers and photographers have dreamt for much of their lives of working for National Geographic—myself included. It was the ultimate goal, the standard with which we compared all other jobs—the equivalent for scientists of getting a paper published in Science or Nature.

Transparency: It Does a Body (and a Company) Good

It seems only natural that seeing corporate-sponsored content would leave a bitter taste in many of our mouths. I don’t think that National Geographic is evil because of its affiliations, or that the Society doesn’t serve a good purpose by providing stories about the planet and its wonders, and funding great scientific research around the world. No company, organization, or person can ever be completely ethically pure. To complicate things, ethics are an ever-evolving subject that are often very specific to the time and place within which they are embedded. However, certain ethical boundaries are fairly obvious based on public reaction when they are crossed.

NatGeo’s sponsored post certainly seemed to cross one such boundary, resulting in public backlash and perhaps even some very real (however small) consequences in the form of lost viewers and subscribers. While the growth of ‘native content’ is disconcerting, I find comfort in the fact that viewers aren’t so easily fooled. Nor are they afraid to raise their voices in protest when they feel integrity has been compromised or truths distorted. I can only hope that continued pushback by wary audiences will help guide corporate ethics toward greater transparency and responsibility.

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What do YOU think about organizations sharing sponsored content? What examples have you seen that have made you raise an eyebrow? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

DAIRY (1)
A few bits of information about the dairy industry that National Geographic did not include in its 360 video exploration of a dairy farm.