“We are Doomed”
The tweet came yesterday from a celebrity I follow. And you know what? I didn’t even bother to look to find out in which particular way we were doomed. That’s probably because my social media feeds are filled by daily predictions of doom. The end being nigh has ceased to be news. It’s become routine. That is sad. But more than that, it’s dangerous.
This is why Joe Mandese and I have agreed to disagree about the role media can play in messaging around climate change, or – for that matter – any of the existential threats now facing us. Alarmist messaging could be the problem, not the solution.
Mandese ended his post with this: “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 here’s the thing. Cranking up the crisis intensity on our messaging might have the opposite effect. It may paralyze us.
Something called “doom scrolling” is now very much a thing. And if you’re looking for Doomsday scenarios, the best place to start is the Subreddit r/collapse thread.
In a 30 second glimpse during the writing of this column, I discovered that democracy is dying, America is on the brink of civil war, Russia is turning off the tap on European oil supplies, we are being greenwashed into complacency, the Amazon Rainforest may never recover from its current environmental destruction and the “Doomsday” glacier is melting faster than expected. That was all above-the-fold. I didn’t even have to scroll for this buffet of all-you-can eat disaster. These were just the appetizers.
There is a reason why social media feeds are full of doom. We are hardwired to pay close attention to threats. This makes apocalyptic prophesying very profitable for social media platforms. As British academic Julia Bell said in her 2020 book, Radical Attention, “Behind the screen are impassive algorithms designed to ensure that the most outrageous information gets to our attention first. Because when we are enraged, we are engaged, and the longer we are engaged the more money the platform can make from us.”
But just what does a daily diet of doom do for our mental health? Does constantly making us aware of the impending end of our species goad us into action? Does it actually accomplish anything?
Not so much. In fact, it can do the opposite.
Mental health professionals are now treating a host of new climate change related conditions, including eco-grief, eco-anxiety and eco-depression. But, perhaps most alarmingly, they are now encountering something called eco-paralysis.
In an October 2020 Time.com piece on doom scrolling, psychologist Patrick Kennedy-Williams, who specializes in treating climate-related anxieties, was quoted, “There’s something inherently disenfranchising about someone’s ability to act on something if they’re exposed to it via social media, because it’s inherently global. There are not necessarily ways that they can interact with the issue.”
So, cranking up the intensity of the messaging on existential threats such as climate change may have the opposite effect, by scaring us into doing nothing. This is because of something called Yerkes-Dodson Law.
This “law”, discovered by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, isn’t so much a law as a psychological model. It’s a typical bell curve. On the front end, we find that our performance in responding to a situation increases along with our attention and interest in that situation. But the line does not go straight up. At some point, it peaks and then goes downhill. Intent gives way to anxiety. The more anxious we become, the more our performance is impaired.
When we fret about the future, we are actually grieving the loss of our present. In this process, we must make our way through the 5 stages of grief introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 through her work with terminally ill patients. The stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
One would think that triggering awareness would help accelerate us through the stages. But there are a few key differences. In dealing with a diagnosis of terminal illness, typically there is one hammer-blow event when you become aware of the situation. From there, dealing with it begins. And – even when it begins – it’s not a linear journey. As anyone who has ever grieved will tell you, what stage you’re in depends on which day I’m talking to you. You can slip from acceptance to anger in a heartbeat.
With climate change, awareness doesn’t come just once. The messaging never ends. It’s a constant cycle of crisis, trapping us in a loop that cycles between denial, depression and despair.
An excellent post on Climateandmind.org on climate grief talks about this cycle and how we get trapped within it. Some of us get stuck in a stage and never move on. Even climate scientist and activist Susanne Moser admits to being trapped in something she calls "functional denial:"
“It’s that simultaneity of being fully aware and conscious and not denying the gravity of what we’re creating (with Climate Change), and also having to get up in the morning and provide for my family and fulfill my obligations in my work.”
It’s exactly this sense of frustration I voiced in my previous post. But the answer is not making me more aware. Like Moser, I’m fully aware of the gravity of the various threats we’re facing. It’s not attention I lack, it’s agency.
I think the time to hope for a more intense form of messaging to prod the deniers into acceptance is long past. If they haven’t changed their minds yet, they ain’t goin’ to!
I also believe the messaging we need won’t come through social media. There’s just too much froth and too much profit in that froth.
What we need -- from media platforms we trust -- is a frank appraisal of the worst-case scenario of our future. We need to accept that and move on to deal with what is to come. We need to encourage resilience and adaptability. We need hope that while what is to come is most certainly going to be catastrophic, it doesn’t have to be apocalyptic.
We need to know we can survive and start thinking about what that survival might look like.