This week I have something new and different for readers. I have a book review of Don’t even think about it: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change by George Marshall. I personally thought that it was a tremendous book, but please comment on the bottom with your thoughts if you have read this book.
George Marshall has conducted a root and branch search for why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. But this is not a doom and gloom real life horror story, he includes useful information at the end for how messages should be reframed in order to solve this problem.
This book is extraordinarily well researched. George took the time to interview Nobel Prize winner Dan Kanehman, who shares a particularly bearish forward view on climate change.
Some of the sections I enjoyed the most were the sections where George interviewed notable climate sceptics. If you never make the effort to reach across the aisle to find out why your opponents believe what they believe, then you are never going to solve the problem. George should receive great credit for the way he conducted this research.
In a nutshell, George Marshall argues that climate change contains none of the clear signals that we require to mobilise our natural threat sensors. This has resulted in it becoming a problem dangerously open to misinterpretation.
About the book
George begins with a really interesting chapter on why disaster victims don’t talk about climate change or link their experiences to this issue. I found the psychology of this fascinating as although the links between climate change and extreme weather are hard to prove, it is still some of the most accessible evidence there is. If the victims of these incidents are not drawn to the subject matter, this does not bode well for the wider population.
Another early chapter on how science becomes infected with social meaning was particularly enlightening. The key takeaways were that rational data can lose out to a compelling story that communicates to people’s core values and that the warning of experts are often inferior to communications that come from people’s friends and family or others that are like them. This is a particular problem in TV debates where a fun, appealing sceptic may be put up against a stand-offish, technocratic scientist who is an expert in their field, but not a spectacular communicator. The public watching is likely to be drawn to the candidate that is most like them.
Further chapters on the bystander effect and the power of social media follow. In an age of pull media, people can construct their own media interface in their image. This creates the sport of echo chamber that those concerned and not concerned about climate change are unlikely to meet within.
Shortly after follows a chapter on climate denial. George meets with Myron Ebell from The Competitive Enterprise Institute. This chapter, although brief, provides great insights into the narratives that climate sceptics use to frame their opponents.
This is followed by a chapter on enemy narratives or rather the lack of enemy narratives in climate change. Climate change lacks an external enemy or motive; it has dispersed responsibility and diffused impacts. News stories work best when there is a clear good guys Vs bad guys divide and climate change doesn’t have this. We are all guilty and we all create carbon emissions. George Marshall’s solution that we therefore have to find narratives based on cooperation and mutual interest is a valid one.
The middle portion of the book records some excellent chapters on the psychology of climate change, a chapter on the risk perception on climate change with reference to Paul Slovic. The work of Paul Slovic who distilled risk down to dread risk and unknown risk was neatly explained by George. There is then a foreboding chapter where George speaks to Dan Kahneman, who is thoroughly pessimistic. Climate change is abstract, distant, invisible and disputed. These are not helpful qualities for mobilising masses of people to solve the problem.
The final third contains a number of interesting chapters on the story of climate change. The chapter on how museums struggle to tell the story of climate change was particularly illuminating in bringing a number of aspects together that I hadn’t thought about. It also references the impact of oil sponsorship of these sorts of high profile exhibitions, which is certainly a problem in the UK as well as the USA. There is an excellent chapter on why the messenger is more important than the message. People are looking for communicators with integrity.
There is a very strong chapter on how climate change became environmentalist and too often associated with stopping things and lacking a positive and optimistic vision. Towards the end there is a great chapter on the ever present climate negotiations. George mentions: “the climate negotiations are always beginning, or setting the stage for the drama to come.” I am glad that I am not the only person who finds these negotiations frustrating.
What follows shortly after is what I considered to be the most valuable chapter and the section which changed the way I now think about climate change. Without really much thinking scientists rushed to regulate the emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. However, why is there not more discussion of regulating the extraction of fossil fuels? This would be an eminently more sensible and hopefully successful strategy.
The book draws to a close with George suggesting some solutions of his own for how climate change can be approached differently. The best ones I picked out include:
- Emphasise that climate change is happening here and now
- Express climate change as an opportunity to restore past loss
- We need a narrative of positive change
- Recognise the role of your own emissions
Overall I thought this offering by George Marshall was pretty spot on, but there are one or two things I think could be improved. There are some very dense factual scenes which are interspliced with some very first person almost gonzo like scenes. I felt that at times the transition between these two worlds was clumsy.
If there could be more pictures, figures or graphs that would be great. My copy also does not look like it was printed on FSC or PEFC paper, which if correct is very disappointing.
What you need to know
I was recommended to read this book by Sir Tim Smit, who was speaking at an event I was attending. I generally steer clear of doom and gloom “eco-worrying” literature as I don’t feel it to be particularly conducive to coming up with ideas for building a better world. George Marshall manages to cover climate change and the way it is covered in the media and the way our brains digest that information in a very accessible way. It ended up being very different from what I anticipated it would be and I was pleased that he ended with a solutions section, because they are needed now more than ever.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in sustainability and the environment. Whether you are a beginner or a subject matter expert, you will get something from reading this book.
Please comment below with any thoughts you have of this review or the book itself.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash