Several of my interests involve elements of fear: climbing, whitewater canoeing, and green politics. The sources of fear in adventure sport are obvious – fear of things going wrong, injury, or even just losing face by “bottling” running a rapid or making a climbing move. Perhaps the fear in politics is less obvious, but it’s there – the fear of not being able to tackle climate change in time or the fear of having to watch my children grow up in an increasingly unequal society set against the fear of making a fool of myself standing up and espousing a “minority” viewpoint.
In both adventure sports and politics hope is balanced against fear. I wouldn’t climb or paddle if there was no hope of a successful outcome. Similarly if there is no hope of politics bring change then the sane option is to shy away from the challenge. There are not a few people who have spent time staring into the darker recesses of a world in need of change only to lose hope and move on feeling that we’re all “going to hell in a hand cart” and there is no point in carrying on campaigning. The environmental movement is particularly prone to succumbing to the feeling that we’re all doomed.
There’s no doubt that in many ways we are sitting on a knife edge in our relationship with our environment, facing climate change, peak output of key resources, increased consumption and a growing global population. We can use the fear that generates to galvanise action to change what we value and take action to protect what is really important or we can let the fear paralyse us like rabbits in the headlights and let momentum continue to carry us in our current direction of travel towards the abyss. How we react depends on how we handle the fear and how we communicate the risks to others. On whether we chose fight or flight.
I have worked as a scientist on climate change issues for many years. In my professional opinion climate change is real, caused by humans and likely to be extremely damaging to our wellbeing if we do nothing about it. It’s something which I find genuinely scary if I stare at it too long (much more so than paddling over a big water fall). It’s also a slow killer sneaking up and tightening the noose about our necks before we realize what is happened. It’s vital that we tackle it, but shouting out a warning that we’re about to die is likely to cause either paralysis or panic. We need to find a clear, calm message which gets society moving in the right direction: step in the right direction to ensure a bright future. We have to give a message with some hope.
Hope is something which seems to be an inherent part of human nature. It’s something I feel each spring as I clear the build-up of moss and dead grass from the flower beds in my garden and find the crocuses and daffodils putting out shoots into the still-cold sunshine. It’s there when I plant bulbs in the autumn which will come up the next spring. It’s certainly there when people plant trees which they know will not mature in their lifetime or watch their children taking their first.
However bad things get there will always be some people who do not give up hope even when it seems illogical to carry on believing that things can get better. This can be a powerful and infectious thing and something we need to tap into.
So what stories can we tell which show that there is some hope of changing things for the better, whether this is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, removing nuclear weapons or addressing the inequalities in our society which leave so many people feeling that they have no power to make things change?
Firstly we need to be very clear that we can change things. Concentrating on telling people that power is concentrated in a very few hands can make the feeling of powerlessness even more potent. But we are starting to get ways around the this. We are fortunate that in the developed world there is access to education for all. It may not be an education which particularly encourages questioning of the system, but it does mean that literacy rates are high and that is a good starting point. We also have mass access to means of non-written communication such as film and music. The web allows people around the world to contact each other for free and share information and knowledge without the censorship of newspaper editors. We can also go out and talk to people around us.
Secondly we have a product to sell which people want to buy: hope! But we need to develop a good sales strategy. People have become wary of the “miracle cure”, the “washes whiter, lasts longer and all at a low, low price” product. They know it’s got to be too good to be true. So we need to make realistic claims, not try to sell utopias. The changes we can make here in Scotland will not instantly bring world peace, perfect health, the eradication of poverty and free clean energy for all, but empowering ordinary people to get their voices heard about what matters to them will give hope which I believe will give people who are currently disengaged and disillusioned with our system of government the courage to stand up and make things happen on issues which matter to them, setting up the momentum for real, positive change.
It will be a big task to spin these messages against the vested interests selling us the story that ever more consumption will make us happier; that we are a better society if we only look after our own and disregard others, and that there will be no consequences if we recklessly exploit our natural resources, but the power of numbers and the technology we have mean it can be done and it’s a challenge I’m up for!