Climate Inaction Isn't the Same as Not Caring

Tangible sacrifices people are willing to make aren't always the most impactful steps they could take.

Two people collecting trash on a beach

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

I recently received a press release for a "study" I’d prefer not to link to. (It did not smack of peer-reviewed research.) It essentially argued that a significant percentage of millennials admit to pretending to care about the environment more than they actually do. The rest of the press release focused on the fact that folks struggle with adopting significant lifestyle changes. 

The whole thing smelled fishy to me. Too often, we conflate action with caring. And we also tend to focus a majority of our attention on the visible, tangible "sacrifices" people are willing to make—even if and when those aren’t the most impactful steps they could take

I was thinking about this when I came across an essay by Tim Anderson, entitled "Why people don’t care about global warming." Citing the work of Dr. Renée Lertzman, Anderson suggests we too often talk about apathy, when what we are really witnessing is something else entirely: 

“The key result of her research is that so-called apathy is largely a defense mechanism against underlying anxieties and a sense of powerlessness against the inevitable. It turns out that when faced with environmental catastrophe, whether local or global, people tend to cope with their anxieties by pretending not to care.”

Diving deeper into Lertzman’s work, Anderson argues our challenge is no longer to simply convince people the climate crisis is real. It’s not even the task of giving people practical things they can or should be doing about it. Instead, it’s to help people engage their creativity and find meaning in the actions they take: 

Anderson writes: “Lertzmann suggests that people need to find a 'home' for their concerns and desire to help. Public awareness campaigns often seek to instruct people as to what they ought and ought not to be doing but don’t really 'think outside the box' in terms of finding that home. Environmental protection isn’t a black and white activity with a list of things that help and a list of things that don’t.”

These themes are familiar from researching my upcoming book on climate hypocrisy. Our culture—and our movement—tend to spend far too much time creating long lists of steps that each of us should take as individuals. Or it spends far too much time arguing whether this or that step is the "right" thing to be prioritizing. Instead, we need to be creating wide-ranging, broad, and meaningful opportunities for people to engage constructively with the crisis in different ways—and to do so as an act of mass mobilization with millions and millions of others. 

Sure, we can tell people that the concrete on their driveway is contributing to floods. Alternatively, we can build a movement in which neighbors come together to rip up pavement and build community instead

Sure, we can continue to educate people about the carbon footprint of every single flight they take. Alternatively, we can mobilize all concerned citizens—non-flyers, reluctant flyers, and frequent flyers too—to find specific, systemic points of leverage that reduce our collective reliance on air travel.

And sure, we can continue to tell everyone that they really should be vegan. Or we can start to hold conversations about how all of us—regardless of our current diet—can help society navigate a path toward a more plant-centric culture of eating

In each of these examples, you can see that we’re not giving up or rejecting those who are able or willing to choose the "greenest" possible behavior (e.g. going vegan or flight-free). We are, however, trying to create common ground with folks who may not be willing or even interested in taking a step that far. Instead of asking what’s the single "best" thing that all of us can do—we’re asking what’s the specific, most powerful, and most meaningful thing that you, specifically, can do. 

In my experience, adopting this mindset doesn’t just provide more entry points for action. It also creates more pathways for deepening and broadening our engagement. Each of us has different skills, interests, passions, and powers that can be deployed in this fight for our lives. Let’s make sure that we have opportunities to use them. 

Next time you meet someone who doesn’t appear to care, save some room for the possibility that they just haven’t found a way to meaningfully put that caring into action.