Using fear to create rapid change?

Fear is stronger than optimism in creating rapid social change, argued three debaters at ‘The Great Debate’ at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne on 15 February 2013.

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Flyer from Beyond Zero Emissions – playing on fear

We are more than six billion people on the planet. In a generation or two, we could be close to nine billion people, they say. But now what about global warming? With about that four degrees temperature raise, which scientists predict will create chaos and destruction from extreme weather resulting in floods, devastating droughts, fresh water shortage, bush fires, rising sea levels, which again will result in famine, exodus, conflicts, wars, and human tragedy?

It has even been stated that by the end of this century the planet will be in such a state that it no longer can sustain the livelihood of all of us. Scientists have estimated there will only be room for around one billion survivors on the planet by the end of the century.

My children and grandchildren could well be among those six out of seven who won’t make it. So could yours.
A third of all bird species will have disappeared as well.
Already in 20 years, half of the coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, will have disappeared.

What about it?

What would happen if media, artists, film-makers and scientists helped each other visualising the kind of future we currently are creating for our children with our lack of interesting in creating a carbon neutral civilisation?

Scientists say this a planetary emergency. Yet, there is no global consensus on what to do about it. There is action, here and there, but not enough action. Not united.

We know from history that fear is something which can unite us. Could fear be that rocket booster that gets us into actively doing something?

Do you fear for your children?

Source: Yarra Climate Action Now

“You will have all kinds of unrest and revolutions, with the export of angry and hungry people to the industrialized countries.”
Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, to Bloomberg News on 15 February 2013:
Climate Change’s Links to Conflict Draws UN Attention

Some organisations are already taking the next step. Like which registers climate damages and secures proofs thereof as a first step on the way to compensation: “In the future, several hundred million people will lose their property due to climate change. Many of them will even lose their livelihoods. These people deserve and need compensation.”

What I am suggesting here is that using fear for a positive purpose, using it consciously and strategically, could become a driver for that rapid change in our behaviour-patterns we need to see at a global scale. The way we make our choices as consumers. The way our short-sighted politicians must stop protecting, even supporting, their friends in the fossil-fuel-based industry.

Could good old-fashioned FEAR be that driver we need to create a global movement and a trend, which could make both the commercial producers of goods and the politicians who make our laws see the need to follow?

Stop smoking campaigners have many years of experience in the field, and they have done lots of research into what works best: scary images of the consequences of smoking, or highlighting all the good things that will happen to you and your children if you stop. They say: the only thing that really has a measurable long-term effect on the population is… campaigns of fear.

In the case of carbon emissions, trying to appeal to common sense has not done the trick. Nobody – at least not very many, and certainly not enough – is really listening. As things stand, it’s just too hard to make some real changes. We’ve all got enough to worry about as it is, don’t we? And what I do won’t have any significance anyway. Even if a whole country found a way to become carbon-neutral, what will it help when there are other countries that don’t?


These were some of my thoughts after having attended the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne yesterday. I learned from the six speakers of ‘The Great Debate’ in ‘The Green House’ that FEAR is undeniably the quickest way forward to create behavioural change: Use fear as the tool, and use it exorbitantly. Simply because it works.

True, history shows us that using fear to create awareness has once and again shown its effectiveness. I remember seeing fear turned into votes which again were turned in political power that transformed a country. This was in Denmark, back in 2001. A few months after the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, a wide-spread fear in the Danish population over what kind of terrorism and ‘guerilla war’ would potentially spread from the local Muslim immigrant community and an anger over the so-called “open borders”-policy of the government of the time, was translated into a one-liner slogan and a political agenda with strong anti-immigrant-retorics, and the landslide-election of November 2001 turned that otherwise small and insignificant political party into a powerful player in the parliament overnight.

My grandparents saw it as well. I’ve listened to them talk about how fear turned into politics – fear that eventually had the power to create devastating political changes that eventually transformed a whole continent back then, when my grandparents were young, in the early 1930ies. I’m talking about the fear and anger of the Jews and the Romas that made Hitler able to gain so many followers in Germany.

Apparently, in Australia, already as we speak, here in early 2013, a whole new ‘industry’ is blossoming up within the the sector of psychiatrists who treat victims of flooding and forest-fires from a new kind of Global Warming Traumatic Stress Syndrome: Fear of what the future holds for us. Fear of the total destruction from the uncontrollable forces of extreme weather combined with armageddon, the new holocaust, when fresh water resources get scarce.

But, hm… there is a but. Studies have shown, Tanya Ha told us at ‘The Great Debate’, that the less we care about our neighbours, the more we fear those strangers around us, and the more anti-social we become… the less do we also care about those things we all share and have in common – such as the air we breathe, and our public spaces. The less we will be motivated to engage and care about the environment.

Consequently, Tanya Ha stressed the importance of blending fear with compassion in order to avoid simply cultivating apathy and hopelessness.

In an article in the Danish newspaper Information (4 January 2013: Klimakampen skal vindes på håb – ‘The climate battle can only be won by promoting hope’), Denmark’s Minister of Environment Martin Lidegaard was quoted as saying:

“Doomsday prophecies about the climate are not strong enough to create political motivation, regardless of how realistic they are. We need to be able to believe in the alternative and the way which leads to it, and both must appear at least as compelling as the lives we live today. Therefore, the primary task is not to tell ourselves and each other what we are not allowed to do. The task is to describe what we can actually do together and do it in such a convincing manner that the change seems logical and irresistible.”

Peter Madden from Forum for the Future has been quoted as saying, in agreement:
“Our main narrative is fundamentally overwhelmingly negative – apocalyptic, doom and gloom. It’s anti-growth. But it stops us being listened to, and acts as a barrier to the majority of people. We have not painted particularly inspiring pictures of how sustainable living can be better for people,” he noted.

Maybe the overwhelming majority in the audience in Melbourne, 145 voters, who ticked the box for ‘Both fear and optimism is needed in order to create rapid social change’ had a point, after all.

My problem is that people out there don’t seem to want to involve themselves in the global carbon emission problem. In small scale, I sense it on my Facebook wall: when I post something private, I sometimes get 20 reactions from friends – when I post something important and action-oriented about the global warming, I get… silence. In a somewhat larger scale, we saw it in Washington when ‘Forward on Climate’, “the largest ever” US-demonstration to create awareness about the climate problems, gathered around 35,000 people (organisers say 50,000) on a cold Sunday in February. “Even 40,000 is chump numbers for a DC rally”, someone wrote in a comment. And its true. Over a million people show up to great their new president, but when we are to signal a wish for changes on climate policy, something which has to do with the future of humanity, not even five per cent of that can get themselves out of there comfortable couches.

I think there is a problem with waking people up, and that FEAR used strategically is the only thing that could make a difference with that.

What do you think?