Bloomsbury, 2014, Hbk, 272pp

ISBN 978-1620401330

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


As the title suggests, this is not a book about climate science. It’s about humans and the weird but inescapable fact that we, as the species whose actions have contributed so heavily to climate change, seem utterly incapable not only of addressing the issue but even of admitting that it exists. Why, for instance, do even intelligent, thoughtful people who understand the science and know how grave the problem is, still fly to Orlando to take their kids to Disneyworld? Why don’t we all join the dots and amend our lifestyles to lower carbon emissions? We—politicians and voters alike—compartmentalise. We deny. We stay silent. We put our heads in the sand. Why?

Many of the answers are to be found in our psychology. Not only do we, as Freud pointed out, use denial as a defence mechanism against unwelcome realities, but evolution has wired our brains to ‘follow the pack’ and to place more importance on things like image, identity and ‘fitting in’ than on thinking for ourselves. For many decades, psychologists have been doing experiments to demonstrate the degree to which group norms are formed and maintained and how hard it is for an individual to go against them.

Even more surprisingly, why do the victims of floods, hurricanes and wildfires seem even less inclined to discuss climate change than the rest of us? Group behavioural norms apply here too, but so do superstitions (‘lightning never strikes the same place twice so we’ll rebuild and we’ll be fine’).

Tragically—and perhaps fatally for our species—it would be hard to find an issue that evoked more of the psychological, emotional, economic and instinctual mechanisms we use to pretend something isn’t happening. They are all in play!

Climate change activist George Marshall spent years researching for this book. I spoke, he says, with the world’s leading experts in psychology, economics, risk assessment, linguistics, cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology, not to mention hundreds of non-experts—ordinary people I have encountered on the way. That included taking himself right into the heart of groups whose ideas and values were poles away from his own, such as members of the Texan Tea Party and Right Wing religious fundamentalists. To his surprise, that is where he learned the most. He discovered that the habits, dynamics and communication patterns of these groups exactly mirrored those of his own peer group of Left-Liberal climate activists. We all create stories and share them, cling to them and bond around them and all that differs between groups is the content of their stories. I am convinced, says Marshall, that the real answers to my questions do not lie in the things that drive us apart so much as the things we all share: our common psychology, our perception of risk, and our deepest instincts to defend our family and tribe. 

Interestingly, he realized that in many ways the Tea Party’s propaganda methods—such as using poignant stories rather than scientific facts—were proving more effective than those of his own green groups. There is a lesson here.

This is a full and comprehensive book by a man who totally knows his subject and yet is delightfully unassuming and has a lovely sense of humour. It is an easy and absorbing read, yet you could easily base a whole semester’s university course just on the information and insights it contains. The minute I finished it, I started at the beginning again. It is a must-read for everyone, not just for activists, but every activist should buy a copy, study it closely, and use it. If anything can break the silent paralysis around climate change, this just might!