Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Climate fatigue: One more box of books at the garage sale

Climate change education materials simultaneously sparse, overwhelming

Was Bill Nye the Science Guy correct when he said young people are better able and more intellectually inclined to understand and begin working on climate change than parents and grandparents?

He was reacting to Washington, D.C.’s heavy snowfall in 2009-10 and the Glenn Becks of the world posing Al Gore’s book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” next to a snowman, and probably vilifying Obama for being a Muslim, a Commie and a New Guinea native.

Books, books, books. We educators and writers want them to be conduits for educating about climate change, ecological collapse, human pain, and multiple-level problems created by oceans acidifying, ice melting, rain deluging and summers increasing.

Even fictionalized accounts of warmer worlds and a Diaspora-driven future claim space on “climate change-green-sustainability” bookshelves.

Where are we going with edifying people through literature when the 2011 State of the Union address showed a Democratic president with supposed green cred not even mentioning climate, heat, and global warming. In his mid-term, does Obama fear angering nay-sayers?

More than 40 percent of the public believes Obama believes climate change is a naturally occurring global event with no human-driven connections.

I’d say we need “green triage,” stat, because the patient – the American public, the Yankee boardrooms, centrist politicians and the flat-earthers in varying levels of society – is not only deluded, but dangerously heading down a pathway that ends in a earthquake-ripped highway of wrecked plans and an empty future, when generations yet to be born need heavy lifting on climate change measures and carbon-less society initiatives to be done NOW.

What about K-12 public school teachers, 85 percent of whom come from the suburbs and are white? Can they have conversations with increasing numbers of students of color about recycling and why plastic sucks? How do they bring young, poor, lower middle class pupils to shift to a new energy/new green economy, that’s localized and fair to our brothers and sisters?

What about college instructors, facing cuts in renewable energy and building initiatives, de-funding that has sliced through tenured faculty positions and upped the part-time contingent force, and eroded the liberal arts? Can they impart the enormity of the problem to students increasingly less capable of abstract thought?

What about studies which show how the average human brain might not be hard-wired to understand and react to climate change? What books or resources can get students started, engaged? This publishing field, geared to adult books, carries critiques and themes on green living, from apocalyptic dirges to how to make money.

Online newspapers or ‘zines can create standard columns reviewing/critiquing new books, games, videos, documentaries, and even phone apps dealing with “climate change.”

“Green is the new black” is a recent saw created by marketers and mainstream environmental groups. Trading one polluter’s massive dumping of methane into the atmosphere for a forest patch in Borneo is the new formula that needs much parsing to discredit.

Sustainability/green is definitely the new black for education publishers. Going green or anything with global warming – sometimes intersecting with energy, ecology, economics and social equity, or even arts – is awash in an unending tsunami of the next great information thing.

For all those green and climate change-related books, we are a very superficial and superstitious nation of naysayers and uninformed bombast when it comes to understanding the process of cutting down rainforests causing the loss of cloud formation. Try out concepts like the albedo affect and positive feedback loops associated with losing snow, ice poles and glaciers, causing more warming and thermal expansion of the ocean, and you’ll find eyes glazing over.

Bookshelves are festooned with titles dealing with ecological disaster or easy steps to carbon-friendly living. It’s difficult to get people to agree to read some earlier books, like Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature” or Tim Flannery’s “The Weather Makers.”

How do we encourage busy readers to pick up the latest tome on global warming when there’s so much out there? This overload paralyzes people, pushing them toward thinking or decisions against their own and society’s best interests.

“Disaster fatigue” could be tweaked to be, “climate change chagrin/repulsion.”

Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University and the author of “The Art of Choosing,” conducted a jam study in 1995, which showed that so many choices of sweet and flavorful spreads caused many to end up not buying any jam at all. This raised “the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Iyengar said, “but in reality, people might find more choice to actually be debilitating.”

I’ve got favorite sites, clearing houses of books, education materials, and other media on climate change and sustainability, not to mention blogs, journals and web-based sources dealing with the Five Es of sustainability.

Climate change is a multi-layered set of social, scientific, ecological, technical, cultural, legal, emotional and governmental challenges all tied to a modern era of consumption and fossil fuel-burning and deforestation plus positive feedback loops of melting ice, desertification, and ocean expansion.

Herein lies the problem – there’s not just one but dozens of elephants in the room.

The American Psychological Association has researched the interface between psychology and climate change. In 2008-2009 a league of practitioners examined the roles of psychology in understanding and addressing climate change, with the goal of helping get the public to accept and learn about the adaptation and mitigation we can begin to develop and implement.

They looked at wonky stuff around climate change and focused areas of environmental and conservation psychology, plus studies of how humans respond to natural and technological disasters.

This scholarship is being used to encourage environmentally responsible behavior. Unfortunately, the end game is more research on the psychosocial impacts of climate change.

Book purveyors need these tools for marketing their products – how people tend “to discount the likelihood of future and remote events and the role of culture in how people conceive of and respond to risks.”

‘Perception is reality’ seems to be the psychological and political take on human behavior here – humans don’t want to see their role in contributing to climate change, including population growth, land use expansion, energy use, and consumption.

While there will be huge mental and physical health effects of climate change – including guilt, apathy, anxiety, stress – psychologists are looking at coping and adaptation responses.

Books are written about mountaintop removal, or the giant Pacific garbage patch, peak oil/peak everything, and other attendant issues, but publishers and writers are having a harder time getting books out on the socioeconomic disparities of climate change.

Ethical considerations of social justice and species rights aspect of climate change, well, those aren’t bread and butter topics in the bookstore’s green section.

At Down to Earth and especially in this column, we’re planning to look at books, from time to time, and documentaries and some of the more advanced sites, and organizations working on this gambit called climate change education.

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