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5 Reasons for Environmentalists to Stop Blaming “Doom & Gloom” Narratives

April 9, 2024

I recently attended the annual Bioneers Conference in California for the fourth time. It’s an intersectional gathering of activists, artists, thought leaders, policy folks, and frontline communities dedicated to social and environmental justice. It’s always a highlight of my year because of the remarkable people I meet there. The keynotes also serve as an interesting barometer of how people are feeling about the state of the world. Following the events of 2023, I was curious what the mood would be like. As the interconnected crises of democracy, society, technology, and climate worsen, how are those working on solutions adapting their own strategies and outlooks?

I’m interested in this question because, in my experience, too much focus on solutions and optimistic frameworks can disconnect us from the gravity and darkness of the crises we are immersed in. As many sages have noted, there is no shadow without light. In other words, light and darkness, hope and fear, are two sides of the same coin. To put it simply, the inspiration for action comes from the felt awareness of how bad things are.

This is why I was surprised to hear Kenny Ausubel, one of the founders of Bioneers, state on the Saturday morning plenary (and I paraphrase) that our communication strategies need to focus more on success stories because research shows that “doom and gloom” narratives do not lead people to action. This statement oversimplifies a highly nuanced reality and ignores the abundance of research on what motivates people to take action in the face of crisis. It confuses critical, honest narratives of our planetary predicament with unfounded, pessimistic outlooks into one stereotype of “doom and gloom”. And more perniciously, it’s a subtle form of manipulation that tells people how they should feel about the world, depriving them of the awareness they need to take action. This simplistic and pedantic narrative is quite common in environmental circles. So without further ado, here are five reasons why we need to stop claiming “doom and gloom” narratives prevent people from taking action.

First, there is significant evidence that gloomy visions can lead people to take action. Major activist movements such as Extinction Rebellion emerged from the recognition that we are currently on the path towards generalized catastrophe. A 2023 study published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that anger was linked to activism seven times more powerfully than hope, and abundant research, such as this 2018 study in Science Communication, finds that fear-based messages have the potential to create the sense of urgency needed for effective action.

Second, optimistic messages can feel good, but they can also create complacency and thus prevent us from making the required sacrifices, political choices, and lifestyle changes. Positive narratives can deprive us of the awareness we need in order to respond appropriately to the severity of our crisis. The Kenyan climate activist Stella Nyambura Mbau makes the interesting connection between optimism and cowardice, writing that “the millions of people being uprooted by climate change do not benefit from the ‘stubborn optimism’ of environmental elites. Instead, they will be better served by the stubborn realism of the experts and activists now brave enough to call for urgent degrowth in rich countries and fair adaptation everywhere.”

Third, the opposition of “success narratives” to “doom and gloom” is a gross oversimplification. A difficult truth can be presented in a positive light; a hopeful story can be told in an offensive manner. It’s not just the content of one’s message that matters; it’s also the way it’s shared, and by whom, and when, and to whom. The fact that a story focuses on solutions or problems, whether optimistic or pessimistic, doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s how we tell our stories that matters. We need the humility to understand that human decision making is complex, adaptable, and not always predictable. “We’re nowhere near having a comprehensive understanding [of decision making],” said Caroline Hickman, a climate psychologist at the University of Bath. “If anybody presents this material confidently as certainties or pretends they’re an expert, ignore them. Run away.”

Fourth, the claim that “doom and gloom” doesn’t lead to action is pedantic and infantilizing. It treats people like consumers of information rather than engaged and ethical citizens. Studies repeatedly show that people around the globe systematically underestimate the willingness of their fellow citizens to act in response to climate. So instead of assuming that constructive actions are only catalyzed by feel-good narratives, we need to recognize that people also act based on what they feel is the right thing to do.

Finally, pushing away gloomy visions is a form of what “doomster philosopher” Jem Bendell calls “moodsplaining” in which we are told how to feel about the world. Kenny Ausubel’s comments on what motivates action were well-intentioned but inadvertently disenfranchised a wide range of valid attitudes. That rhetoric harms the social and political dialogue we need to overcome crises together, and it violates the number one rule of any relationship: honesty. The world is not black or white. It is an infinite tapestry of overlapping hues, and we need dissenting voices that don’t just sing the white-washed way. For a more inclusive and intersectional approach to the solutions space, we need language and communication strategies that reflect that diversity and complexity.

Félix de Rosen

Félix is a California-based author, landscape architect and founder of Studio Polycultura, a design and communication studio focused on nature-based adaptations to ecosystem and social collapse.