Continuing on the topic of the conversation with the American climate change sceptic. It seemed interesting that a person with a broadly similar basic education has a staggeringly different view of the world. This guy was brought up in a similar “western” education system to me, relies on similar systems of reason, logic, deduction, observation as I do. So his cognitive tools and methods are similar. We can discuss, on the same wavelength, about politics, markets, education, the health system, travel, different wines, traffic jams, and so forth. And yet, faced with “evidence about man causing climate change” he responds totally differently.
He will be dismissive about the credibility of the scientists, calls into question their independence. He will point out the irrelevance of mankind’s activities compared to the impact of volcanoes. He will remind me that there have been ice ages before, and we are still here. He will then point to statistics about the construction of Chinese power stations.
Socialisation might be what explains to us this mysterious phenomenon: when two intelligent people with good and similar educations can passionately and fundamentally disagree about something. Socialisation is a bit like one’s personal “paradigm” or view of the world, and once it’s set it is very difficult to change.
It seems to be deeply rooted in the psyche of many Americans (and most of us, for that matter), for example, that their whole life is about achieving Personal Material Nirvana; they have the right to have what they want when they want; and no-one has the right to get in their way. Therefore it’s deeply uncomfortable to them when they are told that their achievement of Personal Material Nirvana (let’s call it PMN) entails messing up the planet so much that they stop everyone else from having their own little PMN. Including their own offspring and descendants.
It’s uncomfortable for them to learn that there are lots of other people out there who might suffer because John Doe gets his PMN. They like globalisation (because it gets them to their PMN cheaper and quicker), but they don’t like the thought of limiting their own PMN because of other people on the globe.
This is a full-frontal challenge to the fundamental assumptions of the American’s raison d’etre. No wonder they don’t like it! Hence the heels-dug-in denial of climate change.
So what do you do? Changing someone’s socialization is either impossible or takes a very, very long time. It will take them years of denial before that final moment of mea culpa, oops it’s my fault, too. Even when they accept that their car is implicated in the death of walruses, it simply means that they have caught up with the rest of us. Time is not on our side.
Moreover, it’s a moot question whether changes in laws are sufficient to change behaviour enough to overcome the counter-pressures of an adverse socialisation. In a democratic regime, socialisation is likely to have significant influence on voting, so any legislation (e.g. car efficiency standards) which goes against the instincts of the socialisation, is likely to be voted down, irrespective of its economic or social logic. Perhaps laws can be introduced by stealth (e.g. EU ETS which managed to take industry by surprise), but a fundamental re-writing of economic rules is unlikely to pass through unnoticed. Perhaps the political class, in a supreme show of bold leadership, can conspire to ensure that no alternative is offered.
Is there an answer to this, to speed up the rapid transition of a nation’s psyche, or do we just pour another whisky and watch the ice melt?
The Achilles heel of the American’s socialization is his gullibility and fragile self-confidence. He may snigger at us for believing in climate change, but we laugh far louder at his readiness to believe any number of stories put about by the advertising industry. He thinks, for example, that Coca Cola is “the real thing”. Under the spell of a Nike advertisement, he “just does it”. One moment he thinks that absurdly baggy trousers are cool, the next he will risk his manhood to squeeze into a pair of extra tight jeans. In fact all the chasubles and baubles piled high around the altar of his PMN are placed there by the advertising industry. His religion and his worldly heaven, is a fantasy woven in programming breaks and on the inside cover of FHM.
The only solution is to play Mr. America at his own game and bombard him with advertising. Fill his sitting room with images of environmental destruction and despair, fill the kitchen with fear for his children’s future, fill his bedroom with guilt at third world poverty (remember, he has a television in every room), hack away at his wafer-thin self-confidence. Then once his socialization has been utterly destroyed, like the bone marrow of a cancer patient, rebuild it with more advertising; beam him images of the Shakers and the Quakers, those goodly simple American folk, who live quietly and modestly from the land and by the skill of their own hands. In frustration and grief he will take a pick-axe to his altar of consumer goods, smash up his SUV, short-circuit the air-conditioning unit, and rip the plug out from his five cubic yard fridge. His luminous pneumatic Nikes will be cast into the dustbin, and, slipping on a pair of old leather sandals, he will lope off in search of a hoe.
A few years of intensive advertising might only cost in the order of ten billion dollars. This would be a very high return investment if you are an insurer and set to pay out trillions of claims on climate change. Or perhaps this is one for the voluntary sector. When Mr. Hank Paulsen of Goldman Sachs is looking for his next major environmental donation, rather than buying up Chilean rainforest, he need look no further than NBC.