Scientific Theory or Sinking Ship?

According to a new theory, people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

Many people know about the dangers of global warming, but only few act… On the one hand, human beings get stubbornly comfortable in their habits. On the other, the human species is biologically programmed to act in its own best interests – and its members aren’t very different from common rats on that point.

But this ‘explanation’ for our behaviour, put forward by German psychologist Andreas Ernst, says more about environmentalism than it does humans.

An additional, crucial key to changing behaviour across society, however, is committed political engagement, said Ernst. The European Union could for example “turn the screws” incrementally to increase energy prices and reduce emission tolerance levels, he said. … the human tragedy and economic losses that resulted from Kyrill, the cyclone that formed over Newfoundland and blasted damage and death across Europe in January, and Hurricane Katrina, which levelled New Orleans in 2005, could help raise human consciousness about the huge problems of climate change, Ernst noted.

Ernst’s is a very degraded sense of engagement. It is one in which the public is treated like an animal, disciplined and coerced by tragedy and punishment. It is not one that encourages an understanding of individuals as agents of their own future. People are not asked to commit to a vision of a better society, but forced to behave by the spectre of its collapse due to natural disaster. The choice on offer is not between different ideas about a better future, but between a nightmare future and survival – exactly the same future rats have. In spite of his appeal for political engagement, Ernst undermines fundamental principles of democracy, the process through which consent is tested and achieved by negotiation, debate, and active political engagement. His understanding of politics owes more to Pavlov than to, say, JS Mill. Ernst cannot be wrong any more than the dogs knew better than Pavlov when it should be supper time. It is the minds of the masses that have the shortcomings. This is deep arrogance, not scientific investigation. Any tinpot political theory can justify itself in this way.

In fact, it is true that reducing carbon emissions blamed for global warming depends on changing behaviour across society, but even that conviction seems to be missing, Seidl said. “Most people still don’t have confidence in the ability of collective action to bring about change,” he said.

Ernst and his colleagues have identified that people are disengaged from politics – which is certainly true. But they ought to see environmentalism as a symptom of that phenomenon, not as some way out of it. The alarmist appeals to urgency and the anti-humanism of this movement reflect the poverty of ideas in the political sphere; they are typical of the way in which political leaders justify themselves today. Environmentalism, which appears radical and alternative because it shares some history with the left is in fact no different to the mainstream in this respect. What Ernst and his colleagues don’t seem to have considered is the possibility that people have understood environmentalism, yet, as they have with many other political movements, simply not been moved precisely because it treats them in this way. The widespread public cynicism about politics is more than matched by politicians’ cynicism of, no, contempt for the public, and nowhere is that more true than in the environmental movement. Nobody can argue that the environmental message hasn’t been given enough air time.

Yet environmentalists need to create stories about why they haven’t achieved the success they feel their alarmist narratives should entitle them to. This is sometimes achieved by conspiracy theories about industrial capitalists paying scientists and media companies to misinform. In this case, it is achieved by simply saying that people who do not see things in shades of green lack the brains to properly consider their own interests. But both of these arguments depend heavily on reducing humans to animals, and defining the public as a problem needing to be controlled – we’re either too stupid, or too greedy to take a wider view. By redefining the political problems that environmentalism has in persuading people that it knows what their best interests are as a problem of human nature, theories like this can be used to justify acting without consent, and treating the public like naughty children.

Even more unpleasant is the implication that the good people who take environmental threats seriously are less like rats than the rest of us. The idea is that environmentalism doesn’t just offer to protect people from the climate, but also from themselves – or rather, from the swarming masses. When a select few are capable of understanding the complexities of climate science and the remainder have no more cognitive ability than rodents, the role of government is to modify behaviour, and to manage human nature.

If humans are just like rats – interested only in short-term benefits – then so too must be the environmentalists. Indeed, long-term, considered and contested worldviews tend to frighten environmentalism – after all, they stop us responding to short-term environmental alarmism. As Ernst’s colleague Roman Seidl puts it: ‘Families with small children are especially receptive to the message: “Climate change won’t affect us, but our children and grandchildren.”‘ Such emotional weaponry is not the stuff of careful consideration, it is blackmail. He might as well say ‘if you don’t act now, your baby will die, and you will be responsible’. There is nothing sophisticated or hard to grasp about his message. It has not been absorbed is because the public are far better at filtering out shrill nonsense than environmentalists give them credit for, and they know that being treated like rats is not in their interest.