“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” -- Winston Churchill, approximately 1944
“Crisis? What crisis?” -- Supertramp album, 1975
I’ll be honest. I was struggling to finish this column. It was actually heading for the digital dustbin when I happened on MediaPost Editor in Chief Joe Mandese’s excellent commentary, "It's Time For A Change, And By That, I Mean A Crisis."
Much as I respect Joe, whose heart and head are definitely in the right place, I think we may have to agree to disagree. He says, “What the ad industry really needs to do is organize a massive global campaign to change the way people think, feel and behave about the climate -- moving from a not-so-alarmist ‘change’ to an ‘our house is on fire’ crisis.”
But exactly how do you make people pay attention to an existential crisis? How do you communicate threat?
The problem may be that we can’t. It may simply not be possible.
That was crystallized in the scariest way possible recently on the U.K.’s GB News channel, where an anchor desperately tried to make light of the meteorologist’s dire predictions of potential fatalities ahead of an unprecedented heat wave in England.
The Basics of Communication
There are typically four parts to any communication model: the sender, the message, the medium and the receiver. Joe’s post said the problem may be in the message -- it hasn’t been urgent enough. I disagree. I think the problem is at the end of the chain, with the receiver. The message is already effective. It’s just not getting through.
In online course on business communications, Lumen Learning lists a number of potential barriers to communication. I’d like to focus on three that were mentioned: filtering, bias and lack of trust.
The first one is the big one, but the last two contribute. And they all lie on the receiving end of the communication model, with the receiver, who just doesn’t want to receive the message.
The problem, most of all, is one of entitlement.
I’m not pointing fingers -- unless I’m pointing at myself. I live a privileged lifestyle. I don’t think I’ve let the message, with all its implications, fully get through to me, because to accept that message is unimaginably depressing and scary. I fully admit I’m filtering, because I feel overwhelmed. Climate change has gone from being an inconvenient truth to something we’re determined to ignore, even if it kills us.
If I count all the people whose lifestyle I have some understanding of, it's aboiut a thousand people. I think an overwhelming majority of them get the massive implications of climate change. Of all those people, I can count on the fingers of one hand (maybe two) those who have truly made substantive changes in their lifestyle to really address climate change. That’s -- at best - .5% to 1% of everyone I know.
I’m not judging. I haven’t made the changes required myself. Not really.
I have done all 10 of the UN’s suggestions of 10 ways you can help fight climate crisis to one extent or another. But I can’t help feeling that even doing all 10 is like peeing on a forest fire. Given the high stakes we’re talking about here, I really don’t feel I’m making a meaningful difference. I haven’t sold either of my two vehicles, I haven’t stopped planning trips that involve air travel, or moved into a more energ- efficient house. I still eat red meat (although not as much as before).
The fact is, when a message is trying to tell us that our inevitable future means we’re going to have less than we have today, we will ignore that message.
I get it. I truly do. I started and stopped this column several times because it depressed the hell out of me. But I am now determined to plow through to the end, so let’s talk about entitlement. We use this word a lot, especially lately. But what does it mean?
It means we believe we have the right to the lifestyle we currently have.
Entitlement is actually the result of a cognitive bias -- or rather, a bundle of cognitive biases that include loss aversion and endowment effect. It’s a mistaken belief -- an illusion. I’m not owed the life I have. I have that life because of a convergence of lucky factors, and it appears my luck may be running out.
There is no arbitrator of privilege that has granted North America the right to be the single biggest consumer of natural resources (per capita) in the world. But we seem prepared to gamble our planet away on this mistaken belief about our own entitlement.
In psychology, there’s something called the Psychological Entitlement Scale. It measures the strength of this cognitive bias. A recent study showed just how strongly this was correlated with our ability to ignore messaging that we didn’t want to hear because we felt it interfered with our “rights.” In this case, the message was about health guidelines during COVID-19. And we all know how that turned out. Even something as ridiculously simple as wearing a face mask whipped up a shitstorm of entitlement.
This is not a problem of messaging. We are not going to be persuaded to do the right thing. We are being asked to give up too much.
Climate change can only be addressed by two things: legislation and a mobilization of the market. We cannot be left with the option of doing nothing -- or too little -- any longer.
We must be forced to be better. We need more massive omnibus bills, like the recent Manchin-Schumer deal, that mobilize industry and incentivize better behavior. I only hope my own Canadian government follows suit soon.
Much as I wish Joe Mandese were right that by turning up the intensity of the messaging, we could persuade consumers to really move the needle on the climate threat, I don’t think this would work. It’s not that we don’t know about climate change. It’s that we can’t let ourselves care, because our entitlement won’t let us.