Inconvenient truths: the psychology of coronavirus and the climate crisis

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The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has been widely recognized as the biggest challenge we have faced since the Second World War. It’s had the effect of transforming every aspect of ordinary human life and undermining the sense of security that those of us living in global North usually take for granted.

But unlike the threat of war, where the danger comes from an external and identifiable enemy, the danger now comes from our ordinary day-to-day lives. Suddenly, most of the things we usually spend our time doing – going to work, going to the gym, seeing friends and family – are off-limits and any human contact becomes a potential vector for spreading the virus. The asymptomatic transmitability of Covid-19 means that there are no social interactions that escape potential culpability.

The effect is unsettling. Seeing friends and family have become dangerous and even morally dubious activities, and yet they lack any of the usual signals that would mark them as such. While we’re fully aware of the importance of collective social distancing, the temptation to make an exception, to see someone ‘just this once’, is strong, while the consequences of our actions would be indirect and difficult to apprehend.

Emotions vs rationality

Indeed, there are strong psychological reasons why social distancing is proving difficult for some to follow, even in the face of the global consensus on its effectiveness. When it comes to responding to risks, our behaviour is more strongly determined by our emotions than our rationality. So even if on an intellectual level you understand the danger posed by social interactions, meeting a friend when neither of you are ill does not feel like a dangerous activity. We respond to threats that are immediate, personal, and visible – and the current dangers involved in seeing a loved one do not fulfil these criteria. Many of the people you are putting at risk through continued social interactions are likely unknown and unknowable to you, and their illnesses and deaths will be temporally and spatially distant from the seemingly innocuous human contact which played a part in bringing the virus to them.

Further, the anxiety caused by perceived existential threats can provoke people to attempt to bolster their sense of identity by clinging more strongly to their existing cultural beliefs. Because such beliefs are predominantly constituted and reinforced by our social and professional relations, the desire to engage in normal activities may be much stronger than usual, as people attempt to grapple with the anxiety provoked by the growing pandemic and its effect on the global economy.

In short, it’s easy to feel scared of the virus itself, or to worry about the loss of income it is triggering, but it’s very difficult to feel scared of the thing that is actually causing the problem: human contact. Our brains are simply not wired to do so. This is why governmentally-enforced lockdowns have been absolutely necessary to compel people to give up their individual and social freedoms in the interest of saving lives. The anti-libertarian tenor of such measures has not gone unnoticed, but their larger benefit shows us that the temporary surrender of individual freedoms are worthwhile.

Resisting change

Like the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis also has the effect of transforming many of our day-to-day activities from benign to noxious. The very things which are causing the climate crisis – like air travel, meat and dairy consumption, and fast fashion – do not feel dangerous in themselves. On the contrary, they not only provide short-term enjoyment, but also play a big part in the construction of people’s sense of identity. In a culture that values economic growth above all else, things like increased air travel and conspicuous consumption are markers of ‘success’, not the environmental scourges we now know them to be. And in the face of the threat to civilization posed by climate catastrophe, people may feel even more strongly compelled to protect their worldview and sense of identity by engaging in the activities that are directly implicated in causing the problem. People may know about and even feel scared of the future effects of global heating, but it’s much more difficult to feel scared of our day-to-day activities – the vast majority of which are still powered by fossil fuels, and are therefore part of the problem.

Covid-19 has caused a massive switch in governmental priorities and human behaviour within a matter of weeks, while the climate crisis has failed to produce this level of action over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s three decades of work. So what can the pandemic response teach us about what’s needed to fight global heating?

“A colossal test”

It may be uncomfortable to do so, but we must recognize that an effective response will involve similar infringements on some of our personal freedoms in the interest of a stable and healthy future for our children and grandchildren. Luckily, it will not require us to forgo social gatherings or human contact: indeed, we can, and I hope will, enjoy these even more post-pandemic. Combating global heating will, however, require us to radically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, animal agriculture, and consumerism at a societal level. Given the lack of felt danger in these activities, restrictions will need to come, as they have in recent weeks, from governments.

António Guterres, the UN secretary general, recently commented with regards to the coronavirus pandemic that:

Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. We face a colossal test which demands decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, for all.

His words apply equally to the climate crisis. No doubt there would be strong resistances to governmentally-mandated restrictions on fossil fuels, but, as now, we would be sacrificing small freedoms of the present in the interest of a happier, healthier, and safer future.

Featured image via Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia, Inovações e Co/Flickr and Issy Bailey/Unsplash

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