Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie (2010)
Chapter 1. Motivations implicit and explicit
Motivations implicit and explicit
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, lighting the dead misshapen twigs emerging triumphantly out of a chrome bin. They look as if, even in death, they are stretching out for life by the window in this warm cocoon of an office. There is an old-fashioned clock on one wall, which ticks loudly; it looks old, like something from the fifties, chipped and white and blue, the colour of old-fashioned crockery, but it is a modern copy, a cheap copy already with flaking paint, which somehow manages to make the sound of the original. It is loud and regular in its beat, marking out time, but you can only really hear it when you listen carefully, and you notice how tinny it is. It is a modern, bright office, without the normal strip lights, efficacious and efficient; 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.’
I look down onto a tree-lined street through the main university campus. I can see a large part of my world, the optimism of the future, students hurrying by, their coats pulled tight against a cold windy Manchester autumn, grey in early October and they still all look happy. I love that optimism of university life, it’s all about the future and possibility; anything is possible, any dream, no matter how ridiculous. I can see the offices opposite; it’s an administrative block, human shapes, people I don’t recognize, working at set tables, administrators in greyish suits, occasionally moving to check some figures at another table, and then moving back to their first positions. The message they send is stability and continuity, that great university machine working endlessly into the future, the hub of learning. In the afternoon I can see the school kids taking a shortcut to Oxford Road, past my famous building where Rutherford split the atom and then later the very first computer in the world was assembled, the building where Baby was born. 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; they line the side of the building like sentries, just standing there watching you, on guard.
I sit and look out of my window and watch one man carefully and tentatively approach the bins. He has come prepared, everything has been sorted well in advance and he stands there in the grey drizzle placing each item carefully and neatly into the correct box. The students hurry past, hardly noticing him; 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. Quite alone in his efforts, my suspicion is that’s what he likes most. It makes him feel different and unique. I catch him glancing up at my room: what attracted him to look up I’m not sure, perhaps it was the brightness on this grey afternoon. He looks up not in a challenging way, but in a vacant sort of way; at first, he is just drawn to the light, and then and only then do I see the mild look of disapproval when he sees me sitting there. It’s sometimes dangerous to read too much into a fleeting facial expression, but sometimes it’s hard not to. 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. I always have. It never provokes change, just a hardening of attitudes, and a host of ready-made rationalisations. I said something under my breath and turned away. For some reason that look of his had made me momentarily angry.
There was a knock on the door. 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, who would come out with the first thing that was in her head, regardless of the situation. She too had a thing about lights and heat, but for an entirely different reason. Then it was all economic in the grey days of working-class Belfast of the Troubles. ‘Turn those bloody lights off,’ she would say, ‘not a bit of wonder our bills are so big. I’m a widowed woman, we can’t afford to put two bars of the electric fire on, or those bloody lights. Get them turned off.’ 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. I had heard Steve Jones, the geneticist, on the radio, saying that we lived at the very end of evolution and that when anyone asked him what the Garden of Eden was like, he told them to imagine the present. I love the present, I’m embedded in it; I’m part of the action, not like the resentful and superior man with the haversack.
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 Girls Aloud in a haunted house, 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.
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. Perhaps, like these slightly miserable people (after the course, that is), I have learned to prime my positive memories; perhaps like them I have learned to see and remember the best bits in any situation. Perhaps, like them, when confronted with the image of the polar bear on the raft of ice I have taught myself to remember immediately that polar bears are dangerous, unpredictable predators, and perhaps like them I think that a stranded polar bear is a safe polar bear, and that its pristine white coat is filthy close up, its fur matted with blackened seal blood and the grey debris of melted ice and gravel, and that the bear only looks cute from a safe distance, preferably a quarter of a mile or more and that little in this image is how it first appears.
‘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. Every politician, and journalist and good citizen was lining up on the deck to display their green credentials and publicly announce their fears and anxieties and I was just sitting there at the back of the poop deck doing nothing while the ship went down, or jolted and rocked on its normal crossing. 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.’ He thought nothing of Mayne’s lack of guilt or remorse or his emotional detachment from the events unfolding around him. 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, and my runs of nine or ten miles through them with dusk approaching on cold midwinter afternoons, alone, mud-splattered, icy fingers, but with my heart pounding, looking out on a primitive landscape that seems to take on my noisy pulse, as if I had projected it somewhere else. The moors feel alive and fiercely robust, in fine health, fit and well for millennia, and there is me in the middle of it all, just the visitor, just temporary, just passing through. I am allowed temporarily to view its great rugged beauty. I never doubt where the power lies in all of this: perhaps that’s why I don’t run around trying to save the planet. I love mountain ranges far away; I love snow without footprints, unsullied and pure, and trails that wind to infinity that hint of adventure and maybe spiritual enlightenment at the base of the clouds. I love the feeling of history and permanence. But I have an image in my head of nature more potent than some wild polar bear with filthy legs and blackened paws, and that is an image from Nanda Devi in the Himalayas, a picture taken way above the snow line. White peaks touching the sky above the goddess of joy. And there in the foreground a suntanned face with white goggle marks around the eyes and a fresh growth of beard, a westerner smiling for the camera, like a tourist above the world, pale skin touched by the sun, reddened in parts, an unmistakable joy in his face, touched by the goddess of joy, that unmistakable smile, the eyes crinkled into life, the sign of a human being testing himself in the wilderness, in tune with life, in tune with nature, in tune with himself. This image is my brother and I have another image of him as well, an image of him wrapped in something green and filthy, the kind of thing that climbers would have to hand, that they might dump at the end of the day’s climbing, or at the end of an ill-planned expedition, and I can see the rough contours of his body through the grimy, green tarpaulin, his face and body covered, just lumps and bumps visible on the stretched plastic, as he was laid to rest a day after the photograph, under some filthy stones with his name scratched on a rock like a warning to fellow travellers in this remote and dangerous region, like Coleridge’s Mongol king.
I would build that dome in air
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Beware, beware, that’s what that pile of stones said, about someone who never had any illusions, those bright, flashing eyes closed for ever, and that was my emotional legacy. A legacy of loss, a legacy of recognising that everything human is temporary and transient, and it is only kings and politicians, for quite different reasons, who seem to think otherwise; and a realisation that everything you hold dear will pass, no matter how much you want it to stay for ever. Perhaps there is the danger that I am emotionally blunted by life, and the small unpredictable events that have shaped me, and perhaps I am emotionally disempowered by this whole cumulative experience. And perhaps I have a feeling, deep down and buried inside, that nature is a dangerous and unpredictable force and much stronger than we can imagine, and that, when it comes down to it, it can bloody well look after itself without the help of you and me.
I have another radiant image of my brother in mountains, but it is a curious image because he is not physically present in the scene; rather it is an image of an object glistening by a river, like a totem, something that represented him. Once he invited my girlfriend and me to Chamonix for a summer of climbing in the Alps but when we got there eventually, after many mishaps, he had gone. He was too easily bored to wait for us. He had gone somewhere else to climb; his fellow climbers said that they knew he had gone but they just didn’t know where he had gone to. We had no tent and no money and I spent the first day wandering aimlessly around the town and the surrounding fields for somewhere dry to sleep with a seventeen-year-old who was terrified of any spider that scuttled, any daddy-long-legs that flapped, or anything with or without legs that could crawl up her body at night. It was never going to be easy to find sanctuary there. But I tried and eventually I found a beautiful bubbling Alpine stream that jostled its way under an ancient moss-covered bridge. The view of the still snow-covered Alps in the background was spectacular, the water was pure, a bridge afforded shelter from the wind and any rain. I was ecstatic. My girlfriend had big doleful grey eyes that looked out from under a black fringe. She sat on the dry grass in her flimsy summer dress and started to sob gently into her hands. She said that she never wanted to go anywhere with me, ever again. She made me promise to start sweeping the river bank for spiders (like the bomb squad from our native Belfast, I had to secure the area inch by inch). Every time I found a spider, like a magician, I made it disappear. She was sobbing so much, with the tears blinding her eyes, she was easily fooled by my sleight of hand, as the small black spider balls were flipped to the floor. I worked my way from where we sat to right under the bridge and there it was on its own as if it had been arranged deliberately and carefully, like an iconic work of art in an exhibition, full of symbolic significance. It was a tin of Heinz baked beans, the metal at the top still shiny, with a ragged top, hastily and hungrily opened. This was the sign that I had been looking for. Others had slept there, English climbers (you just knew that they would be climbers): it would be a safe place to stay.
Some might try to criticise climbers, who are allowed to get so close to the mesmerizing beauty of nature, for soiling the environment in this way. But I had no such feeling of revulsion. I needed a sign and that was it. We slept there that night and the grey-eyed girl felt secure because others had been there before. The next morning there was no sign of the tin can: the stream had probably pulled it into its journey. Months later when my brother and I finally met I discovered, by accident, that it was he who had enjoyed the beans on his first night in Chamonix and rather than pitch a tent he had decided to rough it for one night. He loved the mountains but, like many climbers, he left debris behind: he knew that the mountains could take care of themselves, that nature always triumphs. The debris of human life is always swallowed up.
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.