Psyched out—the mental barriers that prevent us from solving global problems

Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.
Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.

In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.

Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.

The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”

Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.

We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.

I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.

I Imagine, therefore I Am

One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.

As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.

Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries--new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.
Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries–new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.

Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.

These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.

Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.

It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.

While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.
While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.

A message of Optimism on World Oceans Day

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Today is World Oceans Day—a day to recognize the life-giving resources the ocean provides, and a day for all ocean-related organizations to create a united front on social media to bring attention to ocean issues.

In my last post, I discussed my capricious relationship with social media and its ability to both connect us with pressing global issues and to distract us with fluff and humor. Nonetheless, a large portion of my job involves keeping track of and contributing to social media, and I recognize how useful these venues can be for sharing positive stories of change that may even ignite action, whether it be signing a petition or joining an awareness event.

This week, hundreds of organizations are contributing stories and posts to the web-o-sphere via the #OceanOptimism hashtag to spread messages of hope and solutions in the face of daunting environmental challenges. As I’ve written before, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with sadness, even defeatism, when you work in a field like environmental or social justice. There’s even a term for it: compassion fatigue, a condition recognized especially in nursing and disaster response circles where workers are confronted with too much trauma and suffering.

In the ocean conservation realm, a number of people and organizations have attempted to combat such emotional exhaustion by emphasizing solutions rather than simply bombarding the public with the problems we face. It’s all about re-framing, or re-branding as the case may be. One example: Mission Blue, the organization founded by famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle, has identified several ‘hope spots’ around the world’s oceans—regions of remarkable biodiversity that are deserving of special protection.

Map of Hope Spots identified by Mission Blue as key ocean regions deserving of special protection.
Map of Hope Spots identified by Mission Blue as key ocean regions deserving of special protection.

In light of the special attention the oceans are receiving today, I wanted to share some inspiration that has improved my outlook on the future, and hopefully will do so for you as well.

There are many stories of hope and positivity out there from scientists working at the front lines of conservation and management. This Huffpost article, written by Smithsonian National Museum scientist Nancy Knowlton, is a recent example of a newer approach highlighting success stories, like the improvement of fisheries management policy in the U.S., or increases in humpback whale and sea otter populations due to improved protection.

Finding political leaders who have the passion, let alone the capacity, to link human wellbeing with environmental protection is even more difficult than coming up with conservation success stories. Hence the recent news that Mauritius has sworn in its first female president is particularly inspiring—not just because President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is a woman, which is notable enough—but because she is also a biologist. In a TED talk last year, Gurib-Fakim explained the scientific and social relevance of a number of threatened plants, arguing that the protection of nature’s biodiversity is, in effect, the protection of our own health, culture, and future. Now, as her nation’s president, she has the rare opportunity to combine an acute scientific understanding of nature with the political will to protect valuable natural resources.

The island nation of Mauritius lies within the biodiversity hotspot region of the Indian Ocean.
The island nation of Mauritius lies within the biodiversity hotspot region of the Indian Ocean.

It’s true that Muaritius is just one tiny island in a huge world of competing socio-economic and political challenges. But most societal changes start small, and overtime snowball until critical mass is achieved. I’m inspired by Gurib-Fakim’s dedication to her people and homeland. As she stated:

“Climate change is a big concern for us — it can be felt in terms of the seasons, and we’re seeing very strong, violent storms. A strong voice needs to be heard. Sustainable development has everything to do with our identity of being Mauritian and of being a biodiversity hotspot.”

It’s a tricky balance to honestly present the direness of society’s most pressing challenges while simultaneously trying to convince people that we are capable of handling them. Yet that’s the tale of humanity: one of extremes, of contradictions, and of overcoming seemingly impossible struggles. The way we perceive the world all depends on how we choose to frame challenges and solutions. If we choose optimism and positive action, our world will be defined by these constructs.

On this #WorldOceansDay, I for one choose #OceanOptimism.

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In a world of disasters, how do we cultivate hope?

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An oil-filled wave off the coast of Santa Barbara in the wake of this week’s crude oil pipeline burst. (Photo by: Spiritnthesky. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

My home state of California has been hit with two disasters in one week–a raw sewage spill in Monterey Bay, and the more devastating crude oil spill off the Santa Barbara coastline. These two spills are only the latest examples of the thousands of human-caused disasters that plague our shorelines every year (not counting all of the natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes that add to these impacts).

The combined impact of these acts of negligence to our own health and the health of coastal ecosystems, while only partially known at present, are unquestionably negative and potentially long-lasting as has been shown for the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)
Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

I work in a field where these types of environmental disasters are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and in which people are constantly trying to develop strategies to prepare for, respond to, and reduce the impact of such disasters to protect ecosystems and human well-being to the greatest extent possible. When we as environmental scientists, science communicators, and science educators are confronted with almost daily stories of disaster and destruction, how can we cope? How can we support each other and cultivate optimism and positive action in the face of such constant devastation?

A support group might be nice. But in reality, it comes down to each of our own individual mental frameworks–i.e., how we construct our view of the world. In a world filled with natural and human-caused disasters and environmental destruction, we must consciously sow seeds of hope and optimism through individual action (grass-roots, if you will) and awareness, building a strong, bottom-up platform of change in the same way that most social movements have done historically.

I struggle daily with balancing a) my internal rage and feelings of hopelessness as I am barraged with stories of overfishing, deforestation, sea level rise, and a million other dangers and b) my feelings of hope and excitement at the many inspiring stories of species or habitats saved from extinction, or communities banding together to protect their livelihoods and their environment.

This is the reality of a world now dominated by social media. As I scroll through the Twitter feed of the organization I work for, my brain attempts to sift through hundreds of story lines and commentaries within minutes, representing a schizophrenic range of topics from the devastating global consequences of climate change to the adorableness of baby sea otter pups (which typically get exponentially more shares and likes than the ‘serious’ links). Sifting through one’s social media feed is enough to make anyone want to throw their hands up in exhaustion and just accept that ours is a world where cute animal videos reign supreme over issues of dire consequence to our future existence.

But it’s not that simple. Our minds are a microcosm of our external environments. Just as the external world is a balance of life and death, periods of drastic change and destruction interspersed with periods of stability and renewal, our minds can only handle so much bombardment with stories of death and destruction. We need mental ‘breaks’ in which we can enjoy the simple pleasures provided by positive, even humorous anecdotes from family and friends–in fact these breaks may be essential in helping us cope with the more serious issues we are so often confronted with.

Perhaps we need a certain does of silly animal videos to avoid empathy fatigue when we are asked to put mental energy towards serious, potentially overwhelming challenges. Or maybe I’m just creating an excuse for frivolous use of social media to assuage my own guilt at the joy I get out of watching the latest ‘animal odd-couple’ video clip.

Still, I’d like to think that the patterns of positive and negative stories we see in our Twitter and Facebook feeds represent the potential resilience of a global community of humans, as opposed to a self-imposed duality in which we can indulge in light stories at the expense of solving some of the greatest challenges of our time. And there IS evidence that social media campaigns can lead to real-life positive actions by citizens. (Note: I’m not here today to argue whether our growing reliance on social media is overall a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing for social resilience–that’s a whole different topic worthy of reflection).

I guess its all about how we want to construct our realities–its up to each of us to take advantage of our social networks, both in the ‘real’ world as well as the virtual, to make the most of our positions as communicators, or activists, or educators, etc, as the case may be. And if you post a video of a cat playing a keyboard right after you post a story about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet–well, you are human, and its just your mind trying to keep the balance of light and heavy out there in internet land. I forgive you (and by that, I mean I forgive myself).

More importantly, I’ve found through my experiences as a science communicator that positive stories resonate much more strongly with people than negative ones. As a result, I make an effort to highlight as many good news stories (e.g. about new scientific discoveries, or newly designated protected areas/species) as I do stories warning of impending harm or threat. While its important to be aware of the environmental challenges we face, we also need to know that there are solutions, and that each of us can contribute to those solutions in myriad ways.

Do you have thoughts/reactions to the rise of disasters around the world, and how you feel about our responsibilities as individuals or as society to confront and address them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Here’s hoping for a world that evolves towards greater and greater consciousness, sustainability, and compassion.

-Dr. K