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Danger! Danger!

Does fear really motivate change?

Worse-case scenarios can make an impression, but fear alone is not enough to move us forward. Think about it. Has even one doom and gloom story about climate change truly motivated you to do something? Many people aren’t motivated until it affects them personally. By then it may be too late. So what should the motivational approach be?

Increasing numbers of people around the world are indeed worried about climate change, believing that it is getting worse. And that it could be the cause of disasters that will affect their lives, homes, and countries. (Pew Research, 2018) The media amplifies these stories in an echo chamber with the expectation that it will motivate change.

How much traction will ‘worry’ get you?

Erma Bombeck describes worry as “like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere”. Dr. Elin Kelsey, author of Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We think is Critical to Solving the Climate Crisis, says that worrying about disaster scenarios keeps you in “a hopeless status quo.” So we’re telling ourselves stories that sound familiar.

--There’s nothing I can do – feeling helpless.

--The issues are too big – I feel overwhelmed.

--Let those billionaires figure it out, they have money. – I have to feed my family.

--I have better things to do than recycle bottles.

--Somebody else should do it.

--The government should do something – I’m angry that nothing gets done.

The effect of the doom and gloom narrative

Dystopian visions of a planet burned, polluted, drought-ridden, and filled with suffering species – a scared-straight version of climate disaster - may get your attention for a short period of time, but so far have not proven to be successful in garnering enough people’s collective attention and motivation to participate in making the necessary changes.

A research paper on fear appeals, written for the National Library of Medicine, explains that intuitively we might think fear will motivate people to change their behavior, but that is only true in a rare number of cases. Fear is not a motivator for “complex, emotion-laden, societal-level issues” like climate change.

Increasing hope, resilience, and confidence in effective action is more successful. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication says “ Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement and fatalism.”

You can dare to choose HOPE

Actively choosing to be hopeful – and to do the work of seeking out and amplifying solutions - is challenging. But it’s also essential because there is an enormous difference and shift that hope can bring. Hope changes your perspective and presents you with more possibilities. It gives rise to inspiration to seek out solutions and to build communities with like-minded people.

It is what drove Dr. Kelsey to write her book, HOPE MATTERS Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis. Amplifying solutions is what drove me to create Environmental Voices Rising and the podcast Women at the Mic.

We can challenge this tired narrative of climate disaster because people begin to turn off or become immune to that message. It’s up to us to change the messaging, and we absolutely can. We have a choice.

I encourage you to read Dr. Kelsey’s book and listen to my interview with her – “We are not sunk, Translating hope into action” on the podcast Women at the Mic. Both will change your perspective and give you hope. We are part of a growing trend toward environmental solution-oriented journalism. Join us.

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