Dr. Teresa Whitehurst
April 22, 2005
And on the Eighth Day, Man Destroyed the Earth
Confronting Conservative Apathy to Environmental Destruction
Why do so many conservatives yawn, laugh derisively or change the subject at the first mention of Earth Day? How can they be so apathetic to the same earth that their preachers praise as “God’s creation”? Why don’t all Christians hold the Bush administration accountable for decisions that threaten our water, our air, and life itself? Having listened to countless conservative sermons on the subject, and to evangelicals and fundamentalists (not necessarily the same people), I’ve discovered that their denials of scientific evidence regarding environmental destruction aren’t really believed at a deep level. Instead, this “reactive thinking” has been learned from others.
Reactive thinking is a rehearsed mental security system of sorts, composed of unexamined assumptions and learned replies that defend the individual from complex, unpleasant or frightening realities. Reactive thinking accounts for most of the trouble that environmentalists are running up against, now that the pollution-friendly Bush administration is in control. This applies especially to the conservative Christian Bush supporters who should, being Christian, care that human beings are ruining the world that they believe God created in seven days.
Conservative Christians need clean air and water as much as anyone else (the former is especially difficult to package for the rich), but many have been taught to sneer at even the mention of environmental protection. As political science professor Judith Layzer correctly noted, “There is clearly a backlash against environmental protection in America…The fact that people get distracted from environmental issues shows they really don’t care about them.” Earth Week Kicks Off With Speaker
From Alarm to Apathy: How It Happens
Human beings are designed to react to dangers by immediately scanning their environment for threats and escape routes, then using either the “fight” of “flight” response, and then, once the threat is minimized, avoided or eliminated, reflecting on what caused that particular danger and how to avoid it in the future. But here’s the point: This works only for short-term and/or manageable threats.
If the threat appears to be long-term and/or unmanageable, only the most capable individuals can manage the emotional distress. More anxious individuals will resort to reactive thinking for reassurance and anxiety control. A recent study (PDF) found that conservatives tend to be more anxious and less able tolerate conflicting facts and ambiguity, than are liberals. Greater anxiety makes reactive thinking and outright denial of dangers more likely.
Reactive thinking is what environmental activists and journalists must come to grips with, anticipate, and counteract. It’s essential to understand how and under which conditions it gains a foothold and spreads to others. Three overlapping stages, each lasting several years or even decades, have lead conservative Americans to defend themselves from bad environmental news with reactive apathy and cynicism:
STAGE 1. Serious threats elicit fear. One piece of bad news is the fact that our icecaps are melting and the earth’s climate is going bonkers. Another is the fact that our water is becoming “enriched” with brain-injuring chemicals like mercury, lead, and other toxins. Yet another is the reality that more and more Americans are coming down with asthma, emphysema, lung cancers and other horrors because the nation’s air is becoming saturated with something called “particulates”, tiny little nasties that blow around in the wind, do not respect state boundaries, and lodge in your lungs. These threats make people worried and frightened because they’re beyond our direct control. Anxiety rises.
STAGE 2. People begin to realize that technology/science can’t—and political leaders won’t--take action to protect them from those threats. In the 1940’s and ‘50’s, Americans began to believe that “someday technology will solve all our problems”. If you listen carefully to the arguments of people who routinely resist any regulation or sacrifice that could de-contaminate or preserve the environment, you can still hear echoes of this belief system. Note the ubiquitous “why don’t they just invent…” questions, revealing the assumption that “if technology caused the problem, technology [not regulation, responsible behavior, etc.] can fix it”:
Can’t they just invent a machine to restore the ozone layer? Can’t NASA invent something to repair our wetlands, creeks, rivers, and water supply? Why doesn’t some enterprising doctor devise a new laser or something to simply blast those particulates out of your lungs? If free-market forces can solve all our problems, can’t we just do more deregulation, freeing competition and “letting the market decide” how to restore the ozone layer so that people stop getting all these cataracts and deadly skin cancers?
STAGE 3. Cognitive dissonance results, triggering the need for reassurance the threat is either false or “not that bad”. “There’s a serious threat” and “nothing can/will be done about it” wage war in the human mind, heightening anxiety and feelings of powerlessness. For anti-conservation conservatives, this is an intolerable combination that conflicts with the “Don’t worry, God is in control” mantra they’ve been told is the only Christian response to (apparently) uncontrollable events such as violence, war, illness, death, etc. Their solution is to reframe environmental destruction as something that God wants, since it’s what is happening.
This goes along with the fundamentalist mindset that “what is, is God’s will” (except, that is, when progressives get their way). Furthermore, today’s brand of conservative Christians are hammered with the idea that to question their (Republican) leaders is to sin against God. Persuaded that their leaders have been “granted” authority not by elections, honest or otherwise, but by God—a once-fringe notion based on a verse in Romans that was somehow “forgotten” during the Clinton era but “remembered” once the GOP got their man in the White House—that their leaders are allowing to happen.
As we watch pollution ruining our world while our leaders do nothing to stop it—especially when it’s harming not just a fish we’ve never heard of but our own health—progressives get the blues. Conservatives, by contrast, get anxious and start looking to authority figures for reassurance once it’s clear they can’t (won’t) provide protection.
The Usual Stuff Isn’t Working: Some Ideas for Environmentalists
To counteract this kind of reactive thinking and the apathy it creates, make environmental crises personal—i.e., linked to human needs, desires, and health—and make them now, not in some distant future that the average American doesn’t think about (except when it comes to money). The usual appeals clearly aren’t working. It’s time to change strategy:
-- Forget talking to the public about what global warming, logging or pollution holds for the future; most people can barely figure out how they’ll get through today.
-- Save your breath when tempted to appeal to the protective instincts of Americans (saving the environment for their children and grandchildren), because the right has already reframed the duty to act in a responsible way for future generations as somehow “doing for others what they should do for themselves”.
-- For those who still believe that the majority of Christians care about being “stewards” of the environment, please note that in most conservative churches “steward” = “master” and “stewardship” = “dominion”. I realize that some evangelicals are pinning their hopes on reframing environmental or animal protection as Christian responsibilities, but as a longtime insider in that subculture, I don’t see this working on any but those who already care. And that’s not many.
-- Avoid appeals based on the value of protecting natural elements, resources, or beings for their own sakes; as obvious as it may be to you that “cute”, “innocent” seal pups shouldn’t be bludgeoned to death or that the arctic wilderness shouldn’t be spoiled because it’s “untouched” and “pure”, these words suggest the value of the-thing/animal-itself; rightwingers don’t share those kinds of values. Furthermore, many Americans are too stressed or miserable in their personal lives to care, as revealed in common knee-jerk reactions such as “I couldn’t care less about some damn fish in the everglades…”. This appeal will also offend those who’ve been taught that caring about anything other than people (especially “Americans”) is unChristian and unpatriotic.
Counteracting Conservative Apathy
These are hard realities, but if environmental advocates hope to start having real successes, we must face the facts—which is that “facts” (statistics, alarming news, etc.) cannot sway most Americans, nor penetrate their reactive apathy.
To overcome the reactive thinking that results when anxiety-prone Americans are presented with scary statistics about huge threats to the entire earth, we must speak to a far more tangible, personal fear: that environmental degradations will greatly harm human health and happiness now and in the near future. When the corporate right appeals to average Americans through its mouthpieces at the White House and in Congress to allow more pollution, deregulation, and exploitation because of the supposed economic benefits, we must anticipate this by appealing just as powerfully to a far more tangible, personal benefit: that protecting the environment and its beings from these greedy demands will benefit human health and happiness now and in the near future.
What the environmental movement desperately needs is a communication and marketing makeover. Focus groups can tell us how much information, presented in which frames, work best with most Americans. Marketing must convey risks and benefits to the public that are urgent, personal and current—but not so overwhelming that reactive thinking is triggered.
Study the anti-environmental writings on conservative websites: Note how they seduce worried readers with a friendly tone; use fear to motivate readers towards their goals; and simultaneously use words and imagery to soothe those aroused fears and anxieties, reassuring readers that if they support corporate “freedom” and keep believing that “God is in control”, the problems will disappear and “everything will be alright”.
Environmental advocates with diverse passions and perspectives must come together on this one point: Learn how to walk that thin line required to woo public opinion by simultaneously soothing intolerable anxieties and feelings of powerlessness and making your appeals urgent, personal, and current. Otherwise, we’ll keep watching the earth turn into muck and fragrant breezes into smelly, toxic particulate carriers from one sad Earth Day to the next. We will succeed only when we become as savvy about real (not ideal) psychology and public opinion as the corporate guys have always been.
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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles That Will Transform Your Family (2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One" as seen on her website.