One of the best ways of understanding the threat to Humanity represented by global warming is to pop down to your Oxfam bookshop tomorrow and browse through the Environment / Esoterica section for one of the thousands of titles that have come out in the past 15 years explaining climate change from every possible point of view. For just £1.99 you may alight on the definitive guide to how to save the planet from imminent catastrophe. Or not. This one is in the “not” category, but none the worse for that. (And to tell the truth it wasn’t from Oxfam, but left on the computer I bought secondhand from my daughter, along with 500 other pirated books on history, philosophy and science and about a million photos of her cat.)
It’s called “Why Aren’t We Saving the Planet: A Psychologist’s Perspective” by Geoffrey Beattie. (Routledge 2010)
What makes the book so fascinating is that Geoff started out as “an environmental unbeliever.” Yet, somehow, he seems to have slipped through the media denier dragnet:
He was the resident psychologist on all ten Big Brother series and has also appeared on a number of television programmes for BBC1, Channel 4 and UKTV Style (including Life’s Too Short, Family SOS, Dump Your Mates in Four Days and The Farm of Fussy Eaters).
How this fervent unbeliever became the dedicated researcher into ways of persuading us to reduce our carbon footprints is told, alas, all to briefly. St Paul’s conversion is a Kierkegaardian struggle in comparison. One moment he’s sitting in his office at the University of Manchester, revelling in the extravagant lifestyle of an academic kilowatt addict:
Everybody needs a vista on the world, and this is mine. A bright airy office lit by lamps huddled in every corner of the room, three desk lamps hugging the corners of the desks not covered in paper, six more lamps standing tall and proud with chrome and off-white shades, one with a white paper shade billowing out, giving out a dull glow.. the noise of the computer whirring in the room makes the whole room feel alive. That’s the sound I prefer, the sound of activity and life. I like the glow when students enter the room. It’s like coming in from the dark and the cold, into the light and the warmth. They always say the same thing, “It’s very cosy in here.” “I live here,” I say, “it has to be.”
…and the next he’s writing a book on how to save the planet by lowering the glow. But let him tell the story:
…I love that optimism of university life, it’s all about the future and possibility; anything is possible, any dream, no matter how ridiculous…. And I can see the new recycling bins, all nine of them in a neat row with blue or black tops and a bright orange chute thing on the top, just inviting you to recycle and save the planet. They turned up recently…
I sit and look out of my window and watch one man carefully and tentatively approach the bins. He has come prepared … and he stands there in the grey drizzle placing each item carefully and neatly into the correct box…I just notice his ill-fitting trousers and his haversack, purple and green, the colours and fashion of twenty years ago, maybe more. His pullover looks tired and recycled, probably from an Oxfam shop. He is a living embodiment of one of my cultural stereotypes – the repressed eco-warrior, on his own little pathetic moral crusade to save the planet.. It makes him feel different and unique. I catch him glancing up at my room… and only then do I see the mild look of disapproval when he sees me sitting there… That fleeting look said something about the earth’s limited natural resources, and finite sources of natural energy; it said something about academics who should know better. It said something about me and him and the gap between us, in a vertical rather than horizontal plane; it said something about moral and intellectual superiority. I hate people looking down at me. [Hang on Geoff. You’re up here, with the lights blazing, looking down on him down there in his tired Oxfam shop pullover. Did you never do projection in your psychology course?] I said something under my breath and turned away. For some reason that look of his had made me momentarily angry.
There’s a knock on the door, and a young lady enters. But never fear, this is not a Pachauri-type temperature-record-ripper:
It was one of my recent graduates, Laura Sale, a former student working with me on how the brain sends its complex messages through gestures and speech to other brains during conversation. She came into the room and visibly sighed, looking round slowly and deliberately at each of my lights. “Do you need all of those on?” she asked. I like her directness. She reminds me a bit of my mother… Perhaps that’s why I do it, perhaps I’m celebrating the fact that my life has moved on from those days in the streets of Belfast, perhaps I’m signalling my small stake in consumer culture, gratuitously enjoying my days of material possession…
Laura was still looking at me. There was something in that look that I really didn’t like. “What’s your problem?” I asked her. “Do you actually believe in global warming? Have you not noticed that in Manchester winter lasts from October until May, and that it rains every day? My view is that you should only believe what your senses tell you, and mine are telling me that it’s getting colder around here. Perhaps I should have a ‘Stop global cooling’ sticker on my door. That might do the trick. You could join my movement. It might start small but I’m sure that it would grow.”
She didn’t take the bait and didn’t respond with any anger or any kind of discernible emotion. But that may be temporary, I thought. “Stop global cooling,” I chanted quietly; “Stop global cooling,” I said more loudly in that provocative manner I have that really irritates people. She just smiled in that way that women do at men who aren’t behaving in a totally mature fashion, at men who should know better.
“But say there was something in the whole thing,” she said. “You’re a psychologist, wouldn’t you find it rewarding to try to do something about it?”
“You mean, like the guy with the moth-eaten pullover and the little haversack?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” she said. “What pullover? What haversack?”
“Basically, you want me by the bins down there,” I said, “recycling bits of my very busy life? Checking out who’s watching me, showing that I have all the time in the world and the patience and the moral authority to sort all of the crap of my life into little neat piles and then stick them one by one down that bloody orange chute? And you want me to do that slowly enough so that everyone can see what a great guy I am, and not that selfish bastard that some suspect that I really am?”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” she said. “I want you to use your psychology, everything you know to work out what we would have to do in order to make a difference.”
I made a ppppfffffff sound at her cheek, a sharp expulsion of air, a primitive rejection of the idea that seemed to do the trick, although the basic onomatopoeia here, which could form the basis for the word ‘piffle’, probably helped.
”What would the basic principles be?” she asked. I glanced away, breaking any sort of bond. “Treat it as an intellectual journey if you like. You don’t have to believe in it at the start.” She paused. “But have you ever thought that the reason that you don’t believe in it to start with is because the whole thing is so massive that you might not have the psychology to help you? Perhaps you just feel helpless in the face of great challenges? Perhaps this is a classic case of avoidance behaviour by a psychologist who should know better?”
She knew that I would find this confrontational for highly personal reasons. That week I had been on ITV1 providing expert analyses on then in a TB hospital for Ghosthunting with Girls Aloud. “If you‘re out there why don‘t you fuckin‘ well show yourselves?” Cheryl had screamed into the nothingness with Kimberley perched precariously on her knee. I had said something about the fight or flight response and what happens to the human body and the human brain when it is prevented from fleeing by social or physical constraints, including Yvette Fielding‘s constant, and well-practised, challenges – “You‘re not going to bottle it, are you Cheryl?” – and Kimberley‘s ample bottom. It was not what I had imagined myself doing with my degrees in psychology.
[Look, I’m only transcribing this stuff from a pirated version of what some expert on Girls Aloud said in a haunted house about how he saw the light – all x kilowatts of it, about climate change. I’m as in the dark about Kimberley’s ample bottom as you are.]
I went back to staring out of my window. The problem presented now as an intellectual challenge had everything, even I could see that: social identification and the man with the moth-eaten jumper, risk perception and the fact that I love warm, brightly lit offices and that I’m too busy to think too much about the future, attitudes and behaviour and how to change both, the unconscious mind and conscious reflection, the reasons behind behaviour and the way that we can rationalise our actions, beliefs and knowledge, empathy with others in other parts of the world, cynicism and scepticism about commercial involvement, human perception of the world as a small ecosystem or a giant disconnected macro-system, our emotions and our logic, our feeling that we live in the Garden of Eden or at the very end of days, our belief that evolution is over or that a new cultural evolution has just begun, our innermost thoughts that we can do something or that in the end we can do nothing.
Laura smiled back at me. It was the face of optimism. “Okay,” I said, “let’s think about what psychology might have to offer.” It was a conversational opener, to keep her on board, nothing more. “Where would I start?” She came back that afternoon with the first paper for me to read and placed it neatly on the side of my desk next to one of my lamps so that it wouldn’t be displaced. She also placed it with the words facing me so as to minimise my effort, to cut down my excuses as to why I hadn’t time to read it. That was her little bundle of unconscious messages.
The paper was predictable enough in its content and tone. It was the doomsday scenario paper: I am sure that you can imagine the tone. I read it carefully, but embarrassingly it did nothing for me or rather it didn’t do what the author clearly thought that it was going to do. She came back later and sat over in the corner of my room while I finished reading it, occasionally looking up, as if I could not be trusted to finish the job in hand. The arguments in the paper made some logical sense, as far as I could see, but the problem was that I was no expert in the field and I felt overwhelmed by the insistent, relentless arguments. It might have all been true, every single word of it, but then again none of it might have been true. It was hard to tell.
But the real problem as far as I could see wasn’t the logic or lack of logic or even my ability to discern logic in action, it was in my emotional response to what I was reading. I felt no fear or nowhere near the level of fear that the smug git of an author guessed that I would be feeling. And there was something else. It was as if the article didn’t concern me and my behaviour: it was almost as if the article wasn’t about me or, dare I say it, my planet. It was written for other people, living less busy lives, with time to reflect and find the recycling bins, and time to grade their rubbish into neat piles, with time to walk to busy appointments, instead of running from their cars, and time to browse in supermarkets and make green considered choices instead of running up and down the aisles at five to ten with the assistant with the bad skin shouting that the shop was already closed, and me shouting back that there was at least another three and a half minutes before closing time and what was his problem.
I needed some emotional response to galvanise me into action. Ask me about what time supermarkets close and who makes that decision and I will give you an emotional response, ask me about the convenience of car parking by my department, and why we can’t park just outside, and you will be able to read my visceral response from thirty feet, but ask me about the environment in 2050 or test my galvanic skin response to that iconic image of the polar bear stranded on the raft of ice as it floats away from the polar ice cap and I will give you nothing. Perhaps I don’t have the imagination or perhaps I’m too good at thinking up alternative scenarios. Perhaps I have learned to look on the bright side of life. After all I did run a happiness course on Richard and Judy teaching random members of the public who were a bit miserable to be a bit happier…
“Well, what do you think?” she asked eventually and with more than a hint of expectation. I cleared my throat gently, making time, ready to be vague in my reference, prepared to feign my enthusiasm. I wanted to feel emotional, I wanted to feel fear but I couldn’t. But I did feel something, and that was a curious empty feeling inside, accompanied by this genuine intellectual curiosity about how many other people out there were just like me, sitting at their desks murmuring about the need to save the planet and exclaiming about what a terrible mess we had got ourselves into and really deep down inside feeling virtually nothing. That almost produced just a flicker of anxiety; an anxiety about the fact that I clearly wasn’t getting the message combined with this odd thought as to whether there might actually be something in it. Just that single thought, “what if?” But, I suspected, many people were not really getting the message… The public proclamations were just too on-message for the likes of me: I wanted to know how everyone really felt.
But then I had a strange and unexpected moment. A sort of momentary intense fear of not feeling fear; a fear of something that was absent, like noticing that my clock had stopped ticking; a brief fear of my emotional stillness coupled, I have to say, with this odd desire to know why I was the way I was, and whether I was alone. Was I really this uncaring human being who didn’t give a toss about his children or his environment, including his house overlooking the beautiful moors outside Sheffield? the moors there for hundreds of thousands of years, now with golden brown heather? or his legacy?
I had talked to the ex-Formula 1 driver Eddie Irvine the day before for a BBC documentary about Blair Mayne, the co-founder of the SAS with David Stirling, and the living embodiment of the regiment in the Second World War. Eddie Irvine and I had discussed Mayne’s coolness under fire, his emotional detachment, his apparent lack of guilt after the war about his combat missions in which he had become the most decorated soldier in the British army for his close-quarters killing. Eddie Irvine like Blair Mayne hailed from Newtownards, a stone’s throw from Belfast, and he opened up about his own emotional detachment from aspects of life and the way that images of the Troubles in that small part of Ireland never really troubled him – unless there were children involved. “Mutilated adults just don’t have any real effect on me. And when it comes to Formula 1 I never really cared if I had to manoeuvre another driver into the wall. It just doesn’t affect me. In my view it’s all about evolution and the survival of the fittest.”… So, what if I had that same kind of emotional detachment and it was that something which was missing in me which was leading me to be so uncaring and unthinking about the environment? What if I should have been doing something, but wasn’t? I love our planet; I love the quiet, rugged moors near my home outside Sheffield…
But what if I have too egocentric a view on our world? What if I am too analytic about my own limited experiences? What if my inaction was my own fault, all down to one or two moments that I had experienced in my life etched on my unconscious mind? It was maybe that feeling plus a certain intellectual curiosity, in which I clearly needed to reassure myself that I was conventionally normal, that galvanised me to do something, to test who believed what and whether or not this would ever line up with their actions. Laura might have been the emotional believer, maybe a catalyst (maybe not); I just wanted to understand why people like me, and there must be many, were doing nothing. It was as simple and as complex as that. But I knew that this was going to be a journey. Like any psychologist I spend the vastly greater part of my time in very familiar terrain, but for this journey I was going to have to travel through some very unfamiliar territory. If psychology was going to offer anything here, by way of explanation, I was going to have to rethink many old assumptions, to retrace steps that I had already taken to get to where I now stood, to look again at many old issues afresh, to climb many new mountains, some unpredictable and treacherous.
“So,” I said, with a good deal more enthusiasm, to Laura still standing there, waiting for my response, “I’ll start at the most basic level, with the individual and his or her basic thinking. Hey, I’m a psychologist, where else would I start?”
And we both laughed in the way that people do when they think that they’re communicating openly but know in reality that they have a great deal that they’re not yet ready to share.
In 2008, in a book entitledﾠThe Hot Topic, Gabrielle Walker and David King expressed the following important sentiment:
“It’s easy to believe that global warming is somebody else’s problem – other people will suffer and other people will come up with the solution. However, this is far from the truth. There’s a clue in the name: “global warming” is a truly global problem. None of us is safe from its effects (although some of us have a better chance of adapting to them). We are all part of the problem, and each of us will need to be part of the solution… Every time each of us switches on a light, reaches for something in a supermarket, gets into a car or bus, chooses what clothes to buy or which movie to see, we have all made a difference to the way the economy works. Choices like these have driven the world’s economies ever upwards in the twentieth century. They have also led to spiralling greenhouse gas emissions. Now we will all have to adapt our choices to the new realities of the twenty-first century.”
As a psychologist, I find this argument not just persuasive but attractive. It empowers me and my profession. Of course, I agree that it is “as individuals that we live our lives and make our choices”, but I also believe that there is a good deal of complex psychology underpinning the actual behaviour of making choices, choosing one product rather than another, or, indeed, choosing whether to buy a product at all, and maybe putting it back on the shelf (sometimes the hardest choice of all for many people).
[particularly when the product on offer empowers me and my profession]
One of the less traditional features of this book is the inclusion of me and my own particular predispositions and peculiarities in the analytic equation. [Yes, we had noticed.] Why would I bother to do this? Is it just hopeless vanity or maybe, just maybe, something else? I hope that it is the something else that is driving this.. [So do we.]
So I start with myself and my own consumer choices, with shopping at the most basic and mundane level… Our everyday consumption was killing the planet, we were told… So it was no real surprise that I wanted to start my quest here with the decisions individuals make when they wander around supermarkets, making decisions about what to buy and what not to buy on the basis of the marketing messages laid in front of them, without much conscious reflection… And I carried out my first experiment on myself, of course: each day for a fortnight I studied the contents of my own carrier bags when I got home from my local Tesco Express for evidence of my own environmental sensitivity. It was a strange sort of experiment, hardly double blind, more than a little biased, for I knew what I wanted to find…
Professor Geoffrey Beattie ﾠis Head of School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester. His work on sustainability is carried out in the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the university (founded by Tesco)
In “Acknowledgements” he says:
I would like to thank Tesco for its generous financial support of the new research that forms the basis of this book. The research was carried out under the auspices of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, an institute established with the financial support of Tesco.
And his psychological quest continues thus:
Many people have argued that the retail sector has a crucial role to play in this global fight against climate change (and, of course, it was this and similar arguments that persuaded Tesco to introduce carbon labelling on some of its products and to fund research in this area). As Sir Terry Leahy (Chief Executive of Tesco) commented (2007), “To achieve a mass movement in green consumption we must empower everyone not just the enlightened or the affluent.”
Geoff points out that:
“For example, in three common products (sold in Tesco, UK), already labelled with carbon footprint information, this information has to compete with the information shown in Tables 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3.
Table 7.1ﾠInformation displayed on Tesco‘s low-energy light bulb packaging
Table 7.2ﾠInformation displayed on Tesco‘s freshly squeezed orange juice carton
Table 7.3ﾠInformation displayed on Tesco‘s Non-Bio liquid detergent container
A number of retailers (including Tesco in the UK) are now selling products with carbon footprint information clearly marked on their own-brand products to allow this empowering process to commence.
Geoff’s 300 page dissertation on the way psychology can help save the planet is somewhat pessimistic, given what an egocentric bunch of Yahoos we consumers are, but he has some ideas, outlined in his action plans:
We need to determine whether implicit or explicit attitudes are better predictors of green consumer behaviour in terms of the purchase of low-carbon-footprint products, and we have immediate plans to use online Implicit Association Tests (IATs) and online explicit attitude measures and relate both of these attitudinal measures to Tesco Clubcard data, as a measure of actual consumer behaviour (Tesco will be funding the research)
There’s more though, in the book than you might find in the average leaflet stuffed through your door by your local supermarket. Psychology, for instance:
A few years ago I treated a shopaholic for a television series for the BBC: her name was Carmel and she lived in a bungalow just outside Derry in Northern Ireland. She was like me in many respects, at least in terms of her shopping habits. She had hundreds of items of clothing and maybe a hundred pairs of shoes… As part of the programme we fitted a heart-rate monitor to Carmel to see where the excitement of being a self-confessed shopaholic came from. Carmel could have got the buzz from the power of the credit card, or with the interaction with the sales staff or even by walking down the streets of her native Derry laden with designer bags, all attracting envious glances. But no, the buzz came, and her heart rate peaked, when she got home and tried on her new clothes in front of her family and particularly in front of her beautiful sister, because for a moment all eyes were on Carmel. It was easy for me to predict what the critical moment would be and to understand exactly what her consumption did for her, her ego and her life. It sometimes pays to be a flawed psychologist.
Particularly if you get to place scientific instruments on unhappy young women to find out what secret things their bodies do in the intimacy of their family circle. We hear no more of Carmel and her responsibility for the destruction of the planet, because Geoff is off in pursuit of another of his bugbears – China:
But from the point of view of the planet I cannot go on consuming in this way because the labels on all of these shirts and suits that I buy tell me that many of them are manufactured in China, competing to be the world’s largest emitter of CO2ﾠand the new bogeyman of climate change.
China becomes a bit of an obsession for poor Geoff, but it’s not the fault of the poor Chinese, you understand:
China might have a total annual emission rate of 6,467 megatonnes of CO2, but its per capita emission rate is 5.0 tonnes per person, compared with 7,065 megatonnes for the USA but 24.0 tonnes per person (with the UK at 656 megatonnes and 11.0 tonnes per person).
I need to pass on some of the things I have bought to cut down overall consumption to slow down the pollution from China and other developing countries, but I also need to break the emotional bond between me and my possessions and to separate who I am from what I own, but I knew that this was going to be easier said than done, even when life was conspiring to help me.
So how did life conspire to help Geoff, and where?
In Mauritius the Hotel Maritim had a gym, and every day without fail at roughly the same time I would be there. This is also a big part of being a narcissist. The gym was quite quiet and most days it was just the instructor and me – he was a broad-shouldered Mauritian of Indian descent with a shaved head and a left eye that seemed to be permanently bloodshot, perhaps as a result of the effort he was putting into his bench presses. We would train in parallel and thereby developed a sort of bond, an intimacy that comes from routine and dedicated activity. Each day he would ask me about my runs and often he would remark on the quality of my running shoes. One day I happened to comment that in England I had maybe sixty pairs of running shoes. And from then on he kept asking me when I was leaving and whether I would be leaving in the morning or the afternoon. It was as if he didn’t want to miss my departure, although I couldn’t really understand why. But then he came right out with it and he asked me whether I would give him my running shoes when I left. “They are of much better quality than the ones we get here in Mauritius,” he said. I glanced down at the shoes he was wearing: they were also Nike and I could see that they were much bigger than mine. I pointed this out to him and he explained that the shoes he was wearing were several sizes too big for him but that they had been given to him by a previous guest.
So this was my essential dilemma. I know I need to break my habits of consumption and to do something about my emotional attachment to possessions. I know I need to recycle not just tins and cans but my shirts and suits so that hundreds of other shirts and suits don’t have to be produced in the first place. Giving a pair of trainers away would be a start, a small moral act that would make me feel better about myself and might be the first step in my attempt to break one of my destructive habits, but it was never going to be easy. I sat that night full of self-reproach, raging at my lack of will.
Well I can sympathise, since I’ve sometimes raged, full of self-reproach, at my lack of will myself. But I HAVEN’T GOT 60 FUCKING PAIRS OF USELESS RUNNING SHOES IN MY WARDROBE.
Geoff’s personal anecdotes continue to the bitter end of his mindless ramble. And it’s all to the good, since even a professor of psychology may have occasional moments of lucidity:
That night my friends and I took drugs for the first time, and gabbled away outside the chip shop for hours, hardly noticing the smell of chip fat. It probably wasn’t that much fun, but we all felt different, separate from everyone else, empowered in a curious sort of way. “We’re on the drugs,” we said to anyone who would listen. And it felt great, dangerous and exciting…
But climate change isn’t like drugs, I hear you say. Where’s the glamour in global warming? What’s so attractive about the submergence of the San Francisco Bay by the Pacific Ocean, or the disappearance of the area around Shanghai which is home to forty million people into the sea due to global warming? Well maybe I’m odd, but I grew up on disaster movies. I can see the human challenge in catastrophe. These films showed me what that challenge was. I can see the glamour in the whole thing…
This might all seem a little perverse but there is a point here, namely that one shouldn’t always assume that every individual has the same emotional response to any situation as everyone else, or even the same logical or rational response. When it comes to doing something about climate change we need to think carefully about the psychology underpinning the whole process and reflect that what works for some individuals might not work for everyone. It may be that some people do not understand the logic behind the scientific arguments for climate change (and are too embarrassed to confess this). It may be that some people feel little emotionally about climate change (and are too concerned to confess this). It may be that some people get a slight buzz out of the impending disaster (and are definitely far too sensible to confess this) and what they are relishing is that they, and they alone, will be tested like Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman and they are waiting with anticipation, and with genuine visceral excitement, for things to deteriorate to give them the right sort of filmic backdrop for their heroic recycling and climate-sensitive actions.
It may indeed.
Geoff is no longer a Professorial Research Fellow in the Sustainable Consumption Institute of the University of Manchester, financed by Tesco’s. He was sacked for gross misconduct in November 2012. It was alleged he had failed to account to the university for the resources he had used during this work, particularly the time spent by his research assistants. He is now Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire. It is not known whether he continues to shop at his local Tesco Express.