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Denial and the lizard brain
Our fixation on freedom has been weaponized against us.
Most of the work I'm doing, and most of what I post about here, is at the interface of environmental and public health issues and society and culture.
Although the science is clear on climate change, sea level rise, and contamination in water, we have a hard time making progress on implementing solutions. Why is it that seemingly reasonable solutions run into a buzzsaw of objections? Here are a couple of examples from projects I’m working on.
In my back yard
My drinking water comes from a small community water system serving about 170 homes. Our wells are at the bottom of a sloping, 10 acre field. 10 years ago, not long after I moved here, a for sale sign went up on the corner of that field advertising 48 lots for sale. There is no sewer here; homes are on septic systems. The prospect of 48 septic systems just uphill from our rather shallow drinking water wells was not appealing. A visiting public health official suggested we consider moving our wells.
There's no way to accept a threat to the water system from sea level rise without accepting the threat to our own properties.
There additional complications. We have two water systems in the neighborhood, the result of a family feud decades ago. Around half the community is built along a sand spit just above sea level. Rising tides and increasing storms have eroded the beach and exposed properties to flooding. The recent storms caused flooding in several homes and threatened our wells.
We were able to secure a grant to hire an engineer to study consolidation of the two water systems into a new location out of harm's way. The engineer's report is due next year. Persuading the community to accept a recommendation to consolidate and move may be second uphill battle. There's no way to accept a threat to the water system from sea level rise without accepting the threat to our own properties. We're concerned that some community members may prefer to stick their heads in what little is left of the beach sand rather than accept the reality that their homes may not be there be 2050.
Initial feedback was that people were upset. Upset at the impact to their property values of being near a cleanup site.
Later this week I'm running community meetings for people affected by PFAS ("Forever Chemicals") in their drinking water. The Department of Ecology has started an investigation into the possible source. To make sure everyone who might be affected, including private well owners, was reached, postcards were sent to all within a half-mile radius. Initial feedback was that people were upset. Upset at the impact to their property values of being near a cleanup site.
This is another community facing multiple threats. Like my own community, parts of it are vulnerable to sea level rise, and their wells are a risk from sea water intrusion. We've worked hard on identifying a potential solution, in this case joining a neighboring water system, finding sources of funding for more testing, and pulling together a team of experts to address the community. We're nevertheless concerned that faced with the choice of accepting the problems and embracing a solution or denying the problem and rejecting the solution that they may choose the latter course.
The lizard brain
Why do people reject what seem to us obvious solutions? Part of it is a natural human tendency to go into denial and shutdown when faced with issues over which we feel we have no control. Worse, we may identify the proposed solution as a threat to our freedom and react angrily against it in a phenomenon called reactance.
Jack W. Brehm introduced the idea of reactance in his 1966 book, A Theory of Psychological Reactance. He argued that people have a natural tendency to resist perceived threats to their freedom and autonomy. They hate being told what to do, even if it’s for their own good.
This is our amygdala, sometimes called the lizard brain, at work. It overrides our logical prefrontal cortex and causes us to focus on a manageable short-term threat, displacing the far more serious long-term threat. We have no control over it. Unfortunately for us, others do.
They have done this by taking advantage of our fixation on personal freedom and property rights to portray solutions to societal problems as threats so that our lizard brain reacts.
In highly individualistic societies, including most Western countries, but especially the United States, politicians, corporations, and others have weaponized our lizard brains against us. They have done this by taking advantage of our fixation on personal freedom and property rights to portray solutions to societal problems as threats to liberty so that our lizard brain reacts. This is how we surrender wetland protections to personal property rights; sacrifice schoolchildren to gun rights; “other” people and take away their rights, forgetting that those are our rights too. Masks, vaccines, gas stoves, I could go on. Seat belts, unleaded gas, and cigarette restrictions wouldn’t stand a chance today.
One of the most egregious examples of this kind of manipulation is BP's personal carbon footprint. They made fixing climate change our problem and our personal choice, confident that we'd choose our "freedom." And of course, we did.
So, what's to be done? Many of us who do environmental work feel drawn to it. We see these problems sometimes years ahead and can't understand why others don't. We are willing to make sacrifices to try to solve them and are tempted to view those who won't as selfish.
The skill set that helps us recognize these problems can also help us recognize the denial and reactance in others.
But these people are not acting out of ignorance or malice. There's a whole industry working to keep them in a permanent state of outrage and fear.
The skill set that helps us recognize environmental problems can also help us recognize the denial and reactance in others. We can take steps to offer solution paths with small, achievable, non-threatening first steps that offer people some agency and choice. Solutions have to involve the community.
It’s also important to keep celebrating and supporting public institutions - libraries, schools, transportation, water systems - that allow us a role other than consumer. That these are under attack is a measure of the threat they pose to those who would control us.
Well, it sounds good anyway. I’ll be trying it out later this week. I’ll be back next week to let you know how it went. Wish me luck!
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