Can We Use Fear as a Motivator for Change?
I gave a talk in Kingsbridge in Devon on Sunday, the sequel to a screening of The End of Suburbia that my friend Naresh presented last week. I began my talk by asking how many people there had seen the film. 90% of hands went up. “How was it?” I asked. A long silence. “Shocking” said one man. People had had a fairly sleepless week between the film and my talk. I’m sure those of you who have shown the film will be familiar with this reaction. It raises the very important question, which I want to explore in this piece, to what extent should we use fear as a tool to motivate change in people?
It is a question that has been floating around over the last week for me. I gave a talk at Schumacher College last week (I hope to be able to post an mp3 of that soon), which was attended by Satish Kumar, the editor of Resurgence Magazine. After my talk we were chatting, and he said that although he enjoyed the talk, he felt that it was not right to use the fear of peak oil to try and motivate people to change. He said that he had been around since the 1950s, and that then people tried to use fear of nuclear waste to get people to change, in the 60s it was fear of chemical pollution, in the 70s it was the fear of nuclear power, in the 80s nuclear bombs and so on… . All of those positions tried to terrify people into change and none of them really worked.
His view was that we should be helping people towards values of compassion and peacefulness, as a positive step, not because people are scared of the consequences but rather because they can see the benefits of doing so. I replied that I didn’t see that the talk I do as being about scaring people, rather informing them. I find when I give talks that people are already aware that something is acutely wrong with energy, but have heard all kinds of conflicting stories and rumours, what I try to do is to set out the situation as best I can. As I have said before here, I don’t see the disastrous peak oil scenarios as inevitable, rather they act like the Ghost of Christmas Future, showing us how things will be unless we respond and create something better.
My sense is that what Satish was alluding to as ‘fear’ is the moment when the scale of the problem and the challenge REALLY sinks in . A few days after I first showed the End of Suburbia, followed by a talk by Colin Campbell, to my students at Kinsale FEC, someone asked me “what’s wrong with all your students? They looked ill all week”. That moment of really grasping the enormity of the challenge was not a comfortable place, neither for me nor my students. Although often criticised for containing no solutions, I think that is the film’s strength, that it doesn’t leave any room for comfort or easy answers, rather it leaves you in that place.
Although it is uncomfortable, and for some, upsetting, to grasp the scale of the peak oil challenge, I have no problems with taking people there, so long as we can also offer solutions. Most spiritual traditions aim to help people to experience the fact that what we grasp as being ‘reality’ is not such at all. In Buddhism, the tradition I am most familiar with, the realisation of emptiness, that all phenomena do not exist independently but are created from projections in our own minds, which we then label and create attachment to, is one thing to realise intellectually, but it is said that for some people, the moment of actually grasping it can be terrifying, the moment when all that we have always held to be real turns out to have been illusory. Most spiritual traditions talk of the ‘dark night of the soul’ where we have to face up to uncomfortable realities, Jesus too had his 40 days and nights in the wilderness.
My sense is that we cannot shy away from that place of grasing the reality of our situation. To do so would be to promote denial. I don’t see helping people develop an awareness of peak oil as promoting fear. To say we are all doomed, peak oil is inevitable and you can do nothing about it, promotes fear, and then leaves people in a place where they can do nothing, promoting powerlessness and apathy.
Similarly, James Lovelock’s recent talk about climate change, where he said “nothing you can do can have any effect, we are all finished”, promotes fear, and leaves no way forward. It is the same between a religious tradition which says “you WILL go to hell unless you do EXACTLY what we say”, and one which promotes self-discovery and inner awakening, even though that process may involve having to sit with some uncomfortable realisations occasionally. To say “here is a problem, this is the extent of it, but here is what we can do”, strikes me as not promoting fear at all, rather the opposite, offering a way forward through what most people feel on a deep level, to be profoundly uncertain times.
It is interesting to see what the academic literature has to say on it, as part of the paper I am preparing for my Masters, I came across one entitled “Psychological Contributions to Achieving an Ecologically Sustainable Future for Humanity” by Stuart Oskamp, which was published in the Journal of Social Issues, Vol 56, No. 3 in 2000. He writes;
“research studies on appeals to fear have shown that they are most likely to change people’s behaviour under two conditions:
(1) if people are aware of clear steps they can take to protect themselves and
(2) if these steps are conveniently available …
Unfortunately, because of the nature of environmental problems, neither of these conditions is easily met:
- Environmental problems are large, so people feel they can do little on their own
- Environmental problems are long term, so there are no immediate solutions
In other words, with a more immediate challenge like peak oil, which can be presented in such a way (ie. an Energy Descent Plan process) that people become engaged and motivated, to use fear as an initial stimulus is OK. My sense is that we cannot shy away from helping people have what one might call their “End of Suburbia” moment. For some it is harder than others. However, once you have been there and felt that, there is really no way back. In the same way that a true insight into the nature of emptiness, or the non-existence of the ego profoundly alter what we believe to be real, obtaining that insight into the transitory nature of the world that cheap oil has made possible is an essential step. Once we can see that this fragile system only functions because we give it our support, and that, to coin the old phrase, “civilisation is only 3 meals deep”, we emerge blinking into seeing the world around us in a very different way.
What is essential though is that our work as peak oil activists doesn’t stop just at taking people to that place, we have to help them through it, and then work with them to build a new culture on the other side. Helping people through that transition has been at the base of Joanna Macy’s work (I’m doing a course with her this summer which I am very much looking forward to), and also in the ‘Heart of Peak Oil’ workshop that Adam Fenderson and Andrew Walker-Morison wrote about so well on Energy Bulletin the other day. There is an implicit responsibility in spreading the word about peak oil to help people through that place. While I agree with Satish that leaving people in a fearful place with no way out is counterproductive, I feel that the urgency of the situation requires new approaches, and that what is emerging from the peak oil movement is very exciting. Perhaps rather than fear, we can come to see it as facilitating people to gain insight into the ultimate illusory nature of our society to which we have developed so much attachment during our lives? While for some this insight may be fearful, ultimately it can do only good, and we should not shy away from facilitating that.
What do you think?