The Climate Psychologist

Think Before You Act(ivism)

An important goal of many therapies is for the patient to develop the capacity to reflect before acting. This may sound easy, but when people are overwhelmed by emotional distress, to act is a natural response. The key, then, is to make emotional distress less overwhelming. Psychologists talk about “Affect Tolerance” which means the ability to tolerate powerful, often painful feelings. If a patient doesn’t have good affect tolerance, they will do things like quit their job because they become angry at their boss, book a vacation because they are sad, or have sex with a stranger because they are lonely. These actions don’t even feel like choices, the person is driven to dispel their painful feeling. In therapy, we work towards separating out the feelings from action. Sometimes, it’s the right thing to do to quit ones’ job, book a vacation, or have sex with someone new, but its always better to think the decision through, first.  There must be a moratorium period for reflection and consideration that goes between the emotion and the action. Often, if one stops, thinks, discusses with others, the action becomes unnecessary, or a different action arises as a better solution.

The importance of delayed action, commonly called “delayed gratification” was captured in the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. It was a simple experiment: give a child a marshmallow, and tell them that you must leave the room. If they wait to eat it until you come back, they can have 2 marshmallows. Then, measure how long the children can bear the pain of waiting. Can they wait? Or must they act now? The results are striking. The length of time a child can wait for gratification is correlated to a wide variety of future outcomes more than a decade later: SAT scores, ability to maintain friendships, and body mass index, to name a few.  (Here is a cute video of children taking this test, struggling not to eat the marshmallows)

Simply put the ability delay action is critical for humans. Without it, we are slaves to our emotions; totally at their whim. The ability to stop, reflect, and take considered action gives us a huge degree of power and control over our destiny.

So how does all this relate to activism and the Human Climate Movement? Quite a bit, I would say.

The reality of climate change is horrifying. When people intellectually and emotionally accept Climate Truth, a formidable psychological achievement on its own, they become acutely emotionally distressed. How could they not? We are careening towards civilizational collapse! So, often, they feel impelled to do something NOW. A protest! A boycott! Something! The question of what to do, how to do it, who to do it with, and so forth—questions of strategy and planning, become secondary to the emotional need to act.

The preference of activists for acting over thinking and reflecting is, of course, enshrined in the name. Activists are  do-ers. They are  do-gooders, and they deserve our gratitude for their efforts. But sometimes a focus on action can come at the expense of thoughtfulness.

In this acute species-wide, planet-wide crisis, we need more than action. We need to think this through. We need to stop and reflect.  The question is: what do we do now? How can we act to optimize humanity’s chances of survival? How do we build a social movement that fundamentally changes the national and international mood and incites drastic, coordinated action? What is the best strategy?

These are the most important question in the world.  We must treat them with the respect, and the patience that they deserve. We have to talk about movement strategy. What are the best plans and how can we combine them and improve them?

This is not a conversation that should occur behind closed doors. It should happen publicly, openly. We must open source Human Climate Movement strategy. I have offered a comprehensive plan for a social movement that is based on psychological, cultural, and historical analysis. It is a “person-to-person, pledge based” approach that utilizes a “Human Climate Pledge App” for smartphones. You can read more about it here.

Though I believe that my proposal offers an important analysis, and the strategy I propose is innovative and has real potential for efficacy, I am not egotistical enough to believe that it should be the last word in Human Climate Movement organizing. Quite the opposite. My hope is that for other scholars, social scientists, activists, and climate writers will improve upon it, refine it, or offer their own strategy proposals, which can be further refined and combined with each other.

This open-source, collaborative conversation is already starting to happen. People are starting to contribute ideas, which I am going to begin publishing very soon. But the conversation needs to grow exponentially. We need to hear from historians, artists, activists, economists, and climate writers. We need to hear from the great minds of our time, and those who have devoted their lives to study or activism. To emerge with the best plan possible we will need to integrate many perspectives.

This is our task at the moment. Not fighting climate change, but deciding how to fight climate change. Call it… thinktivism.

Some will say, “The situation is too dire! We must act now, we don’t have time for a discussion.”

 I would remind them of the saying, “Take your time. Especially when you are in a hurry.” When we rush, we are error prone and often counterproductive. Impulsive activism has no chance of saving civilization from the ravages of climate change.

So here is what to do when you feel the terror of climate change in your gut, when you are seized by despair at what humanity is facing, and you feel impelled to act: try thinktivism! Join the discussion or advocate for the discussion.  Embark on a course of study. Read about the history and theory of social movements, about psychology or religion or politics or anthropology or some other field or and utilize that information for creating and critiquing strategy proposals. Or help promote the conversation. For example, college students can advocate that their institution make saving civilization from climate change its top priority and demand that professors and departments submit proposals for the Human Climate Movement open-sourced strategy discussion. Non-students can promote the conversation in other forums.

Climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. We must act to stop it. But first, we must decide how. First, we must think, together.  I hope you join me.

10 thoughts on “Think Before You Act(ivism)

  1. Richard Pauli

    We might want to aim for a good outcome – one is the RCP 2.6 scenario.

    But one of the more dire climate scenarios – RCP 8.5 assures human extinction.

    it goes by the nickname “business as usual” – So an easy rule to follow is “No business as usual” while pondering what to do next.

  2. iloveazparks

    Agree with Richard…the RCP 2.6 scenario must be to the forefront. But how to communicate the urgency without the usual emotional responses that do not result in action? The experts at Climate Access have much to say about this (the hows and the whats). I am working on a thesis that delves into that very question. Not sure we have much time left to ponder. We must act and our voices must inspire action…at the personal level, the community level, the national level, and the global level. Such a tall order…

    1. Margaret Klein Post author

      A tall order indeed, and action is the only way to an acceptable future. But we have to make sure that our action is smart, coordinated, and responsive to the psychological, technological, and political realities of our time. Check out my strategy plan (available under “movement proposals”), and let me know what you think of a more coordinated approach.

      I am interested in what your thesis argues.

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughts.

      1. Richard Pauli

        I think you might be too careful. The first thing we need to do is stop digging the hole. Almost everything we have done for the past 50 years has had an excessively high carbon impact, just about everything has been incorrect or at least unintentionally polluting.. If we give ourselves permission to stop business-as-usual then we are acting and we can create space to be thoughtful. But just being thoughtful risks inaction – and inaction has been actively promoted for the last few decades. i.e the EPA has had permission to regulate CO2 since 2007, but has been unable to do so. But today so many people reject coal that prices are dropping and federal leases are going unsold.

        We will blunder, somehow we think fracked gas is smarter than coal. Well, it’s not. But just the act of changing energy sources mean that we strengthened our adaptability – even if is a sub-optimal choice.

        there are millions of specific actions to take… and so many are already acting,

        1. Margaret Klein Post author

          I think I should be more clear. In this post I am critiquing the tendency of people in the environmental movement to rely on strategies that are not well thought through, the reflexive use of protests is a prime example. I just don’t think they are strategically effective, not on the scale that the Human Climate Movement needs to accomplish. I am not critiquing all “actions” that work for the climate, such as solar panel research and installations, pushing for public transit, or other sustainability efforts. I think of those actions as “capacity building,” meaning– if a social movement is successful in igniting a crisis response, those skills and resources will be necessary to fight climate change. These actions are needed how.

          Business as usual is a death sentence for humanity. We must stop it. The questions we must pour over is how. Unfortunately, our voices will not spontaneously rise up and make change. We need the most effective possible plan to leverage the power of the Human Climate Movement optimally. That is what I am trying to instigate- a collaborative effort to come up with a plan that gives humanity our best shot at continuation.

  3. Bob Cable

    Thank you for your online clarity/therapy. The video here is a hoot! But it makes its serious point very well. I look forward to your cautions, reflections, and strategies.

  4. Bob Cable

    “Business as usual is a death sentence for humanity.” — This succinct assessment should go viral ! (It will fit nicely on a sign.)

  5. Dave Walczak

    Your work is very thought provoking and a missing link to unlock obstacles that block solutions to the human climate crisis. The social/political issues of dealing with climate change are first and foremost. The video of the kids resisting eating the first marshmallow really helped me past the cognitive dissonance I come to as this subject seems so endless. It takes a child to point out how deeply our resistance to think before we react is ingrained in our psyches. The video also points out that some red heads don’t take advice at all and live for the moment. The intrigue and humor of the video points out how important it is to keep lightness in this fight, because if we are drowned by the heaviness we won’t get much accomplished. So part of the proposed plan will engage thinktivism from many bright minds. Let’s collaborate, do some hard work and have some fun as we do it. Thank you for your groundbreaking work.

  6. Margaret Klein Post author

    David, thank you for your lovely comment. I totally agree that keeping a lightness and laughter and joy in our work is essential. We must model for people, still living in intellectual or emotional denial, that it is possible to live in climate truth and not be overtaken with despair; that it is possible to acknowledge the painful truth of the climate crisis, and still live with pleasure, meaning, and connection!

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