My first big career steps happened when I was in my 30s. During the next 15 years, I met my husband and became a mother of a wonderful girl. These life-altering changes had me moving away from my activist attitude. Instead I was searching for stability and growth. I experienced having a family and developing my career as super positive; my life kept getting better each year. The climate breakdown, in contrast, had taken a backseat. The very thing that had excited me in my younger years, now felt like a burden looming over me. It became a thought that was scary, depressing and incited anger. I didn’t want to carry this burden while life was so joyful and went into a state of “inaction” towards climate change.
Many psychologists, including Robert Gifford, have spoken about the reasons a person moves into a state of “inaction”. Even when the person is convinced of the seriousness of the issue. Gifford refers to these reasons as “the dragons of inaction”. Below, I expand on three specific dragons that I have fallen victim to with regards to the climate emergency. I reflect on how I could have recognised them and how I could have acted on them.
The Dragon of Conflicting Values, Goals, and Aspirations
It is not unusual that the focus on the pleasures of today conflict with the need to focus on the troubles of tomorrow. The “here&now” benefit often outweighs the future benefit. On top of that, preparing for the future can feel like a sacrifice. In the case of the climate emergency, this sacrifice is not even for my future self but for future generations; a sacrifice for people I do not know.
Looking back, I could have recognised this conflict by realising my vision at the time was short-term focussing on “today”. I saw dealing with tomorrow, including the climate emergency, as a burden. I now realise that that is just one way of seeing it. I could, for example, frame the climate emergency as an opportunity; it could lead to a bright future and healthy world.
What's important to realise with respect to this dragon is: The way a problem is defined determines the possible action. Phrasing/defining a problem in different way makes room to different actions and can help avoid a state of inaction.
The Dragon of Ignorance (not knowing what to do)
Just like many other people, I have changed my behaviour in the last decade in several ways with the hope of limiting my personal damage to the environment. I based these changes on information from various sources, e.g. news or friends. Some of my changes have been succesful, while others seemed to have a negative effect - I was not always doing the right thing.
Ever since climate change has become an important topic, we have become overwhelmed by the amount of relevant information. Besides the amount of information, its truthfulness has become challenging to determine. Different sources give different recommendations on how to fight climate change as an individual. This leaves us with an uncertainty of what is the right way to act. Taking action comes with the risk of doing the wrong thing.
I fell into this trap of inaction. I only finally got out of it once I started talking about the various actions I could take and the effect these would have. Discussions, both on social media and in real life, about flying, eating meat, and energy consumption can take away the uncertainty. It is useful to try things out and share the experiences with others; this will lead to more effective action.
The Dragon of Denial
Denial offers a way out of a problem, as it eliminates the problem in our individual reality. This obviously only works for limited time; until the problem is so big we have no choice but to face it.
Back in the day, when companies first realised that CO2 emissions would lead to a climate breakdown they responded in one of two ways: 1. They deny the facts 2. They accept the facts. Individuals would pick a side and many chose to deny the facts. In a certain way, this can be seen as an act of self-protection. At the time there seemed to be no obvious solution to the emission problem and so there was no obvious action an individual could take. Therefore, accepting the facts and not being able to act can lead to hopelessness and panic. By denying the issue, panic is avoided in the short-term.
Nowadays, the emission problem has many technical and social solutions available. Denying the issue out of self-protection is no longer useful. As a company and a person, I am better off accepting the facts so that I can explore the opportunities this new reality offers.
The dragons I have expanded on above are only three out of many in existence. Some of these may be strongly connected and reinforce eachother like The Dragon of Denial and the Dragon of Ignorance: If I don't know how to solve a problen, I'd rather deny it. Once I no longer deny the problem, what should I do to solve it?
Remember and accept that it’s impossible to avoid all of the dragons. There will be situations in which your subconscious instinct will lead you to a state of inaction. However, we can reflect on our moments of inaction. The key thing to ask ourselves is: Is inaction really to my benefit or am I fooling myself?