ABC News senior reporter Bill Blakemore recently wrote an excellent article on climate change, climate change denial, and the outrage at the media’s failure to accurately cover climate change by climate scientists.
The name of this amazing piece of journalism? The Elephant We’re All Inside.
Mr. Blakemore uses this extremely appropriate metaphor to characterize the problem of climate change and why it has been so difficult for the media to deal with. He notes the media’s declining coverage of the climate change problem even as it has grown far, far worse. He notes the fact that the media has irresponsibly given far greater coverage to climate change deniers than they have deserved. And he notes that the media has made the problem worse by failing to send the proper signal to the public. In effect, putting the public to sleep when a time of action is required.
He saliently points out that global warming journalism from the mainstream media may as well be labeled ‘junk’ for its complete failure to accurately portray the crisis. But Mr. Blakemore also notes that the capacity of human journalism to deal with the problem is also hampered by the problem’s immense size. Blakemore wonders if the failure of journalism on the issue of global warming is due to the fact that the problem may well be too large for traditional journalism to manage.
This problem is something that is typical of human beings. If we suffer from sensory overload, the tendency is to hyper-focus. To deal with only one problem or one element of a problem. There is just a limit to how much a human being can process in a crisis situation. We have been wired to simplify in crisis situations. To rely on emotion and on swift response. But when the size of the crisis is overwhelmingly huge, when it is out of our context, it makes it much more difficult to manage.
Our typical responses to these dangers are fight, flight, or freeze.
And we can well see this range of responses coming from human beings.
Flight. We can see this in the climate change deniers. Their action is a full speed denial of the problem. In essence, they are running away from it in panic. It is too big. Too unreal. Too scary. Flight, for them is the best response. Perhaps, they believe, if they get away from the sources of ‘negative’ information they can live out their lives happily? Flight can look like fighting. But it really isn’t. In the case of the larger oil companies and the degree of misinformation they’ve disseminated, the flight response they’ve invoked is of the level of a mass stampede. And in the stampede, human animals are fighting as hard as they can to get away from the danger. The trampling, flailing, and great thrust of bodies that results can very well look like a fight. But it isn’t. It’s just a stampede incited by fear.
Freeze. We can see the freeze response in people failing to respond at all to the problem of global warming. We can see the freeze response in the current lack of coverage and, more importantly, the current lack of validation of the immense scope of the global warming problem by mainstream media sources. We can also see freeze in our friends and family. In those who are not responding in any way to the issue of global warming. Their responses are simply stuck. When confronted with the problem of global warming, they freeze and simply wish the problem away. Freeze can also be a giving-up response. If a situation seems too terrible to respond to. Too vast to confront, then an individual may become depressed and fail to put up a fight or try to run away. We can see this in those who are telling us that the problem is too great to overcome. That it’s too late. That we can’t effectively respond.
Fight. Here we come to those who are trying to elicit a confrontation with the global warming monster. They are those of us who are calling for policy action. They are the climate scientists who are working to raise awareness of these issues. They are the politicians who risked their careers to pursue public information campaigns. They are the non-profits who have worked so hard. They are the individuals calling for both response and mitigation. They are those who are doing their best to, not only raise the alarm, but to elicit an effective response.
So here are the responses. The ones we are seeing even now.
But before we end it is important to think about the scope of the problem and how urgent the need for our response to be to fight. Not to flee. Not to freeze.
Mr. Blakemore has really hit on something in his ‘Inside the Elephant’ metaphor. Global warming is a huge problem. It is GLOBAL. The size of our world. The size of Earth. While we were resting, the global warming monster arose and came to devour the Earth. To devour us. And now we are inside the belly of the monster.
We cannot live on in the monster’s belly. We must get out. To freeze would be to have the forces in the monster’s belly break us slowing apart. And there is no flight. Once you are in the belly of the monster, the only way out is to fight.
Historical records and myths give us some hope for fighting our way out of the belly of a monster. One particular account was that of a sailor swallowed by some large shark or predatory whale. The sailor, having fallen overboard, was devoured by this large sea creature. And finding himself in the creature’s stomach, he was left with very few options for response. Considering his terrible position — he would likely suffocate and be digested — it is difficult to overstate the urgency of his situation. In an amazing show of composure and mental resolve, this sailor did not give in to fear. He did not freeze. He did not flail about in a panic-filled struggle to flee. Instead, he maintained the presence of mind to pull out his pocket knife and poke away at the sea creature’s stomach. Eventually, this irritation caused the beast to vomit him up, at which point he was able to swim away, free from the danger.
We would do well to remember this sailor as we confront the trouble of global warming. We should let our words, our computers, our news sources, our votes, our phones, our non profits, our alternative energy sources, our tools for population restraint, and our social networks be our pocket knives. We should aim our jabs at the oil, gas, and coal companies who are keeping us in the belly of the beast. And we should keep poking away until the beast spits us out.
As for the other responses? We cannot flee, as we are already in the belly of the beast and if we freeze, events will rapidly overtake us. The time for appropriate response is now. And that response is to fight.