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Fear and anxiety were great for human survival when we wandered the plains of Africa as hunter gatherers 20,000 years ago.

We needed to be afraid of the world around us - so we'd be ready to RUN or FIGHT when a rustle in the long grass turned out to be a saber tooth tiger.

Fear and anxiety have a place - and back then the body chemistry involved in them was balanced by physical activity. Running away from that tiger (or ganging up and killing it) burned off all the stress chemicals.

The psycho-social impacts were appropriate too - blame and shame kept the tribe together, story-telling cemented social bonds and spread wisdom (as well as juicy gossip).

Fear, anxiety, shame and blame WILL NOT HELP change the 21st century world we live in.

(You just need to look at the groups of smokers outside cancer hospitals to recognize that fear alone is not enough to change human behavior.)

Fear has been the methodology of the communication about climate change. You mix fear with doom and gloom and stir well with shame and guilt and you have apathy.

Paul Hawken, Founder of Project Drawdown https://www.optimistdaily.com/2018/12/solutions-thinking-climate-change/

(If fear REALLY changed human behavior, then 40+ years of warnings about looming, accelerating "environmental collapse" would have generated a whole lot more action.)

Anxiety sucks - and it makes us suck

However scared you are about the future, IF you want to generate action instead of helplessness then don't JUST use fear.

Don't JUST talk about horrible futures and irresponsible governments and the need for policy change.

WHY?

Constant, unrelieved fear - fear without access to immediate personal action creates HELPLESSNESS. It shuts down our brains and primes our bodies to run, fight or hide.

AND when you add shame and blame and guilt to your message it gets even LESS effective.

Think about it....

When someone comes at you with accusations about being "greedy" or "stupid", isn't your first reaction "NO I'M NOT!!!" Regardless of how valid their point is, how likely are you to REALLY listen to what they're trying to tell you?

The recipe for helplessness...

This is what the experts have to say about making a person feel helpless:

Tell them that their problem is:
1) permanent;
2) pervasive; and
3) personal

Dr Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, researcher in Learned Helplessness

Yes, we face massive environmental challenges. Yes they're multiplying and accelerating. Yes, we're late to action.

AND...

We have the technology to solve them.

AND...

Millions of people around the world are busy doing that.

There are scores of viable, scalable solutions that don't need "government policy change" in order to succeed - and the world's entrepreneurs are out there making them happen.

Are you creating action - or helplessness?

Much as it might feel good to complain about the people you think are guilty of inaction, it's worth thinking carefully about what you're saying and how you're saying it...

Is the WAY that you complain complain about a lack of government/ industry/ consumer action actually limiting the potential for that action?

When you loudly demand "national government action" - and especially when you complain about its absence - is this what you're implicitly telling people ?

  1. The environment is collapsing around us.
  2. The only group who can fix "the environment" is national government.
  3. National government is NOT taking the necessary action.
  4. Thirty-plus years of vocal environmental campaigning hasn't achieved action.
  5. They're still not listening.
  6. We have to campaign harder and MAKE them listen.
  7. In the mean time we have to consume less because we're making things worse.

It's a common message - AND IS IT ALSO SPREADING HELPLESSNESS?

Instead?

So if the communication strategies that environmental campaigners have been repeating for 30+ years don't work, what do we do instead? Here are some starters:

  1. Get informed about the solutions - especially the existing, scalable, no-government-required solutions.
  2. Learn how to bust helplessness and spread the word about the solutions.
  3. Understand the CONTEXT that the problem is occurring in.
  4. Shift from shame and blame to holding people accountable for their actions.

Do YOU know the solutions we already have?

If you're serious about solving global warming, ocean plastics or species loss - how much do you know about the solutions?

NOT the problem - but the SOLUTIONS!!!

(REMEMBER: Government policy change ISN'T a solution! It's just one channel - among many - for delivering solutions to the root cause issues.)

If you can't list the top 10 existing, scalable, evidence-based actions to reverse global warming, then how can you effectively "campaign for climate stability"?

So once you've picked your issue - whether it's global warming or ocean plastics - then get informed about the solutions.

(If it's global warming then download the latest Project Drawdown update - NOW!)

How to tackle helplessness

Professor Martin Seligman researched helplessness for years - and also how to overcome it. One of the outputs of years of teamwork (that led to Positive Psychology) came this ABCDE of helplessness-busting:

  • Identify a situation of Adversity
  • Identify the underlying Belief about the Adversity
  • Identify the Consequences (fear, depression, inaction) of holding that belief
  • Learn to Dispute that Belief
  • Learn to evaluate the Energization possible from debating the belief.

If you're a book junkie like me, then Seligman's classic Learned Optimism is a must-have reference. In the mean time, this summary of the ABCDE of helplessness-busting is a useful start.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over

Since (at least) the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, environmental campaigners have been pushing pretty much the same line:

"We've got to tell the people to tell the government to tell business to action on sustainability."

Various respected figures

Despite what they know about who and how smartphones, cars, social media and Internet business were commercialised at scale, they're still massively addicted to "government policy change".

Don't just be a fear-monger

The most powerful anti-smoking campaigns are the ones that start with fear and end with a call to action and immediate contact details for QUIT programs.

We're an Inconvenient Species - so if you MUST use fear, then make sure you finish with immediate, personal, beneficial ACTION.

Immediate constructive actions on climate

For overwhelmed citizens, the movie 2040 is positive and accessible.

For anyone in industry - or with an entrepreneurial bent - the Project Drawdown list of 80 existing, commercial, no-government-required business and community development opportunities. These are all solutions that people can start action on immediately.

There are lots of other solutions, from systems-level design such as The Doughnut Economy and The Circular Economy to detailed product/process design approaches such as Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation.

You can explore further Regenerative Business solutions at Balance3.com.au