THE PANIC BUTTON

A good friend of mine, with whom I share many political sympathies, directed me to this Bill McKibben editorial in the LA Times. Sensationally titled "Civilization's Last Chance", the author talks about the growing and empirically-documented problem of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. I'm unusually conflicted.

I agree with the author's premise without hesitation. I have serious reservations about his tone and method of delivery, though. Using the "Sky is Falling" approach to increase awareness of environmental issues seems ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst. Let's use an analogy, because I love analogies.

You have a friend who is seriously overweight. Concerned, you decide to tell him that losing some weight might be good for his health. You tell him that he is in imminent danger of dropping dead and doing irreversible damage to his body if he doesn't lose 100 pounds right away. That message could have a powerful impact and inspire positive changes. Conversely, it could be overwhelming, creating a feeling of hopelessness and resignation. "I can't lose 100 pounds right away. I guess I'm fucked. Pass the Ho-Hos." Even worse, you could be dismissed as a serial exaggerator, especially if, for example, the person was not inclined to believe that weight affects health in the first place.

McKibben's message will generate responses that fit into three broad categories. First, he could scare a reader into becoming very concerned. This is his goal. Second, he could create a feeling that the problem is as dire, overwhelming, and incomprehensibly large as he suggests. The likely results are apathy and resignation. Third, people who are inclined to believe that climatology and global warming are "junk science" could find all of the keywords they'd need to disregard him as a crank or a tinfoil-hatted cult leader predicting the apocalypse. Hell, just looking at the alarmist title might be enough.

Going back to our overweight friend analogy, let's say you take a different approach. You tell him that it might be good for his health if he cut out soft drinks. Sugar's bad, after all. He finds that living without Coke and Sprite really isn't too awfully hard. Hell, he barely even misses them. And he loses 5 pounds. He feels good about the fact that he lost some weight. So you suggest getting more exercise or maybe cutting out fast food. Since losing a little weight no longer seems impossible, he's willing to give it a try. He keeps building on small victories until, at some point in the near future, he has what could be described as a healthy lifestyle.

I wonder why people like McKibben don't spend more time presenting these problems in a way that doesn't overwhelm readers' feelings that they can do something concrete about it. Not "write your Congressman" or "vote for environmentalists" but actually do something measurable. When he says "The planet is going to die and you have to fix it" there aren't many people who think that's a realistic goal. Maybe, for example, he could write a column about how re-usable canvas grocery bags can save 300-500 plastic (made from oil, of course) or paper bags per shopper every year. Even though suburban America is resistant to anything that asks for a lifestyle change or suggests that profligate consumption is not our birthright, most people will read that and think "Well that's not so fucking hard." I mean, honestly, how hard is it to use a different bag to carry groceries? It isn't. At all. It's so goddamn easy that….people might actually do it.

So we wean ourselves off of plastic grocery bags as a nation. McKibben has a tangible victory. An example toward which to point. "See? We changed something. And it was easy! Now let's try….." Because the problem here is not SUVs or lack of public transit or McMansions. Those are symptoms. The problem is that our entire national mindset is fucked up. We simply do not think about conservation, waste, or efficiency at all. We ask only two questions: What do I want? What is easiest/most convenient for me?

Telling people, as the author does, that they have to run out to buy a $35,000 hybrid tomorrow does nothing to alter that mindset. It's just overwhelming. People will have an excuse to ignore it. We need to start at the bottom of the mountain and get people to put one foot in front of the other, not point at the mountain and say "Get to the top by tomorrow or you're fucked." This isn't about CO2 or the urgency of climate change. It's about tricking people into changing the way they think, to replace their standard modus operandi – doing whatever is most convenient for them as individuals, be it driving everywhere, throwing out 12 plastic Evian bottles per day, or running the furnace at 80 while no one's home – with a new set of questions. Is this efficient? Is this wasteful? It can be done, just not overnight.

8 thoughts on “THE PANIC BUTTON”

  • I've gotten into genuinely vicious fights with (not coincidentally) ex-friends over their environmentalism, not because I argue with their premises (I don't), but because they have no interest in actually being politically effective in communicating those premises to others and achieving genuine, sustained change in collective behavior. On the contrary, they just want to rant and scream about how evil humanity is, how we're killing the planet and all of its cute, anthropormophized fauna, and so on. They refuse to view their beliefs as anything other than an absolute Given, and therefore refuse to make the slightest effort to use (God forbid) patience and rhetoric to persuade others to join them. What this tends to reveal, to my mind, is that such people do not truly care about the environment, as they seem determined (as I point out, and as they scream out their offense in response to same) to engage in a course of behavior designed to offend/alienate the very people they want to enact their will, and thus are causing further damage to environment, as they're reinforcing the behavior they supposedly want to curb. Rather, they are closet misanthropes, who have simply glommed on to an easy way of feeling superior to others, by hitching their wagons to a cause that cannot–because ecology's not, you know, human and therefore independent of thought/deed–challenge or contradict their ideology. In short, they are 'activists' who don't actually want to 'act' so much as 'feel.' Fuck them. (Which is where our arguments tended to devolve to, which is why we're no longer friends. Such is the cost of my devotion to heartless pragmatism.)

  • I pretty much always enjoy this blog, but I have to say that recent posts have been especially excellent. Keep up the good work, Ed.

  • Ed, your argument about alarmist tactics makes a good point, but allow me to say that your analogy could use some work. You've used a number of inaccurate and unfair stereotypes — that fat people all overeat, eat junk, don't excercise, don't know how to be "healthy," and have never heard of "dieting" before — and these not only make you look, well, prejudiced, they also undermine your point. Especially the implicit parallel you draw between a person is "inclined to believe that climatology and global warming are 'junk science'" and a person who does not believe that weight affects health. The former is probably willfully obtuse on that matter; the latter is probably correct. For reference:
    http://kateharding.net/but-dont-you-realize-fat-is-unhealthy/

    Please don't alienate your fat readers. As a member of that group, I assure you that we are not unintelligent, and we do appreciate rational analysis (and comparison!) based on fact rather than bias.

  • Hequit, I'm an overweight person who’s close to Ed irl and while I know he's got a bleeding heart at the core, we go in circles about fat acceptance and other issues of P.C./ inclusive language pretty often– I'm on Kate Harding's BMI Awareness Project and we argued several times at that point on the validity of the BMI scale as a measure of health. I’ll let him respond to you himself but I think he’d agree with the assertion that if he feels he’s struck upon on apt metaphor he’s unlikely to change his mind. Basically I agree with you and I’m interested to see his response.

  • I thought it was implied in the hypothetical that these were things the person in question had not seriously tried. If someone is sedentary and living off Fritos, altering either of those two facts would have a positive impact on the health and weight of most, although not all, people. I don't think it's possible to represent the entire range of possibilities in one hypothetical. I've known people who have tried very hard to lose weight and couldn't do it, and I've also known people who could probably lose weight if they altered their sedentary lifestyle and Twix-based diet. If a weight problem has a medical basis, it would certainly be necessary to rule out the influence of overall lifestyle choices before it could be diagnosed, no?

  • Liz, thanks for your support!

    And Ed, thank you for your response. Making it clear in your example that your hypothetical fat person "has not seriously tried" to lose weight or be healthy — two entirely separate things, of course — is in fact an allusion to, if not an enforcement of, the stereotype that fat people are lazy, ignorant, and "just don't know better." It's difficult to say (convincingly, anyway) that these are attributes you just happened to endow your hypothetical fattie with for the sake of your argument, because these are also the slurs that real-life fat people have to battle every day. To posit as a matter of course a fat person who has never heard that cutting out soda and ho-hos might be beneficial to one's health, has never tried, thought to try, or been urged to try exercise at all, and who is completely unaware of the whole "healthy lifestyle" movement is essentially to use a Straw Fattie, and to add, however inadvertently, to the prejudice one group faces in the course of making your larger point. To be more personal and less abstract: I come to this site every day because I value your opinion and the way you interpret and present information about our country's current situation…and reading this entry was rather like getting a slap in the face when and where I really didn't expect it.

    Oh. and I agree that being sedentary and living off of Fritos isn't a good idea for anyone — it's just not a set of habits that is more frequently indulged in by fat people than by anyone else. As for such a lifestyle's effect upon a person's weight…well, to say the least, that's not as cut-and-dried as is popularly believed. A person's body weight is just not an accurate indicator of their dietary habits or activity level.

    And if a person's high or low weight had a medical basis? Then I would look to their medical history to find a cause, and, if necessary, a solution, not to their lifestyle. If it appeared that weight was having a detrimental medical effect, I would expect a competent doctor to consider all possible causes of said effect, including the patient's medical history, lifestyle, family history, and psychological health.

    To conclude this enormously long comment (sorry!), I'm glad to hear that you do not recall arguing that BMI is a valid measure of anything. If that means you think it isn't a valid measure of anything, I agree with you wholeheartedly! : )

  • I don't consider my experience to be universal, but when I've gotten large in my life (which has happened a few times) it was a direct result of eating garbage and being sedentary. When I stopped eating crap and started going to the gym, I lost weight. I admit that I haven't done a lot of research on the subject, but apparently I am one person for whom it is pretty cut-and-dried.

    I don't think that "fat people" are lazy, stupid, or anything negative by definition. It's not a question of not knowing. I know that everyone knows Ho Hos are bad for you. It's a question of expressing concern to someone in a way that makes the situation seem winnable IF that person is trying to eat healthier and failing.

    I have a very poor relationship with food. Because of a number of medical problems I have, I am on medication that makes me insanely hungry all the time. It's not uncommon for people to take this stuff and gain 200 pounds. So I have a lot of experience knowing what it's like to KNOW that I shouldn't eat something and not being able to stop myself from doing it. When people fall into those patterns, I think external support can be helpful. I already know not to eat crap, but sometimes I eat crap until someone tells me "Your diet sucks. Stop eating crap."

    We seem to be dealing in dueling straw men here. I'm sure I could be schooled all day in the numerous medical (as opposed to diet or lifestyle) causes of obesity, but our national weight problem has a lot to do with diet and lifestyle for many, though not all, people. Every person – "fat" or otherwise – knows that candy, fast food, and Pepsi are unhealthy, yet many feel powerless to change their diet. All of those things are addictive. This is a fact. External support is one way that some people can overcome that.

    I suppose my hypothetical friend might respond "Fuck you, I have _____ and I can't lose weight." In my past experience, "Yeah, I know I should" has been the more common response. Sometimes another person pointing out the obvious seems like an asshole butting in, and sometimes it can be a good motivator.

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