Discover more from Climate Psyched
There's no such thing as being neutral
What happens if we stay quiet and try to be neutral in a world that's heading for disaster?
Welcome back to Climate Psyched, the newsletter where we explore all things psychological, behavioral and emotional related to the climate and ecosystem crises.
We’re heading into fall, and September has been warm and very hectic. A few weeks ago I led a yoga retreat for climate engaged people. Initially I wanted to write about the importance of gathering and being together, not just to take action, but also to pause, nurture collective resilience and be amongst climate allies. But it’ll have to wait until a future post, because some recent events in Sweden made it clear that this month’s post and topic needed to be written - not the least for my own sanity. This post will take its starting point in a Swedish context, but I believe that it addresses an issue that is relevant for many countries around the globe.
Thanks for reading Climate Psyched! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
It poses the question of whether it’s possible to be neutral (something that we as psychologists are trained to be!) in a world that’s heading for disaster?
Last week the Swedish government (who are governing with the support of far-right extremist party Sweden Democrats, a party that in recent years have shifted into a more climate denying rhetorics) presented its budget for 2024, and in spite of having insisted that they aim for an ambitious climate politics, the budget means significant cuts to several climate and environmental related areas. Funding for climate adaptation will be heavily cut, in a year where we’ve been almost constantly surrounded by climate disasters. But perhaps most significantly the governments own estimations show that its new climate politics will increase emissions by up to almost 10 million tons CO2. This is of course incompatible with staying in line with the Paris agreement, and reaching our national climate targets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, but infinitely discouraging, the other day news came that the government is considering to scrap the national climate targets all together (although this hasn’t been officially decided yet).
Parallell to the development in the climate politics we’re seeing a development of repressive politics, also fueled by the cooperation with the Sweden Democrats. This shows up in numerous ways, where increased repression against climate activists are more regularly on the political agenda. Other repressive measures that are discussed, not in relation to climate activists, but to tackle ongoing criminal gang conflicts, have in the past week included engaging the military and using surveillance with face recognition.
Increasing emissions, potentially scrapped climate goal and underfunded climate adaptation, at the same time as repressive measures are heavily discussed and enforced.
The climate issue is heavily polarized in many countries, and sometimes we’re told to “not make the climate issue political”. But in the light of what’s going on, is there any true room to be apolitical? Is there even such a thing as neutrality?
People are social beings, which means that we’re prone to tune into the unwritten rules about what’s appreciated, desirable or wanted. These unwritten rules and cues are usually referred to as social norms. Symptomatic for any norm is that when you’re belong to or act within the norm you don’t really need to think about what you’re doing. As an example, heterosexuals rarely feel the need for coming out in their sexuality, since the perceived norm of people’s sexuality is to be straight. It is what’s assumed unless you’re given other information.
Norms are not set in stone, and can change, not the least when enough people start calling for change or start acting for change (this is usually referred to as a social tipping point). Important to remember is that whatever exists within the norm is usually perceived as more neutral than that which exists outside the norm. This is something that becomes apparent if you start breaking norms, which everyone belonging to a minority probably can relate to. People of minority groups can often feel like their mere presence disturbs majority groups.
After many conversations and therapies with climate engaged people I believe that we in some aspects can consider climate engaged peeps as a minority, whose acts and presence are considered non-neutral simply because they’re challenging the current norms. One of the most common things that comes up in these climate conversations in our work is the courage it takes to be socially awkward and constantly feel like you’re ruining the atmosphere just by your climate aware existence, as well as the feeling of isolation and being on the outside of the fossil party business-as-usuals carry on with.
Now, norms describe what’s most common or what’s socially desirable. They are malleable, changeable as we’ve seen with many historic social changes. Norms are however not equal to neutrality. It’s not inherently more neutral to carry on with business as usual than to participate in a disruptive climate action, even though the climate action will be perceived as less neutral since it’s breaking the norm.
Humans are an adaptable species, with the capacity of getting used to many different circumstances. In a fancy word this is called habituation. When we get used to things, people, circumstances we tend to think of them as more normal than we might’ve done at first encounter. We react stronger to sudden to something happening for the first time than we do when it happens for the hundredth time.
In a paper from 2019 a research group in California analyzed over 2 billion social media posts, to try the hypothesis if we are like the frog in slowly boiling water, habituating to a point where we don’t notice disaster until it literally is upon us. In their analyses they saw that people get used to extreme temperatures in terms of not reacting to or talking about it as much. People did however not seem to get used to the physical effects of extreme weather, e.g. heat waves. Physically heat waves are horrible to endure, even when you’re used to them.
Habituation also relates to material circumstances, the media narrative and political paradigms we live in. What we’re used to is not seldom seen as more normal or neutral than that which we’re unused to. Habituation is essential to our ability to adapt, but it can also inhibit our motivation to take action and strive to change. And sometimes getting too used to something can even bring us to believe that it’s impossible to change.
The famous quote “it’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world” in one way alludes to people being so habituated to the current system that’s it’s hard to even imagine how things can be differently. But a current political paradigm, although the norm we’re used to, isn’t necessarily more neutral.
Empirically what we’ve noticed when we’re out working, talking about climate related behavior change and the need for fast and large scale change, is that some behaviors are perceived as neutral (e.g. consumer choices) and others as political (e.g. active citizenship), with the consequence that it feels safer to talk about and encourage consumer choices than collective action and active citizenship.
In a case study from the UK that looked at a large number of energy- and climate policy document, and interviewed people working in and outside those departments wanted to see how people (i.e. humans) were viewed and described. What they found was that human related nouns were much less common than nouns such as system, technology and market. When humans were mentioned they were primarily described as consumers. In the interviews a slightly different picture emerged, showing a wider understanding for people’s important role as active citizens and members of their communities. The interviewees/respondents expressed that the consumer framing of humans should be viewed as an attempt to keep the documents more neutral or apolitical. Being a consumer was seen as more neutral than being a citizen.
But perhaps this has more to do with viewing things through the current political paradigm than any true neutrality. It’s the norm to be a consumer, and breaking away from that norm and becoming an active citizen will be considered non-neutral and political. But there’s of course nothing truly neutral with being primarily a consumer in a world where we’re over-using resources and causing the global temperature to quickly rise while polluting the air people breathe. It’s a myth that we can be neutral in a world where the norm is causing so much suffering and risks.
Writer Elizabeth Cripps talked about parenting and neutrality being a myth in an interview with Gen Dread, saying:
“one thing that became very apparent to me is that it’s very easy, especially if you’re a privileged parent, to say, “well, I’m not going to pre-determine what my child thinks – I want them to be autonomous. I’m going to let them grow up to choose the values that matter to them. I’m not going to brainwash them”. But if we don’t teach them progressive values, anti-racist values, feminist values, then what are they going to pick up from the media, what are they going to pick up from other people, what are they going to pick up from influencers like Andrew Tate? They’re actually going to pick up this incredibly toxic, misogynistic, racist culture, this culture that can potentially include climate denial. So there’s no such thing as being neutral when we raise our children.”
When we frame actions as radical, it’s usually with reference to what happens to be the current norm or status quo - whatever breaks the norm is seen as non-neutral, political or radical. But in light of the vast body of climate research, taking bold action is about the least radical thing we can do, not to mention our best bet at upholding some sort of planetary and societal stability. Becoming passive in an attempt to stay non-political in relation to the current norm is anything but neutral in relation to climate research. When the norm is harmful, staying quiet and passive will contribute to that harm.
As a way of navigating your own actions, and the way you speak about climate and other social issues, try to remind yourself about what you - by trying to be neutral - might be supporting. Are you confusing neutral with the current norm?
The climate transition isn’t just about climate, it’s a social transition that, as fascists tendencies progress, requires a strong anti-fascist foundation. It’s not a coincidence that the lowered ambitions (and increased emissions) in Sweden comes at the same time as other repressive measures are put forward. Climate is, amongst other things, a social justice issue.
Practice being bold. To make the climate transition we need to break the current norms, which might feel awkward, scary and radical. But bold action is only radical in relation to the current norms and paradigm, in relation to what the climate research says it’s about the least radical thing we can do.
What do you think about neutrality, taking bold action and being perceived as political just by taking climate action? Let us know in the comments. If you enjoyed this post, give it a like to make it more visible to others, or feel free to share it with others!
World scientists' warning: The behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot, about the need to adress behavioral drivers of overshoot. And The influence of moral disengagement on responses to climate change that investigates people’s moral considerations in their mitigation and adaptation behaviors.
See you next month!
Thank you for reading Climate Psyched! Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on future posts.