Is the key to fixing the climate in our heads?

Is the key to fixing the climate in our heads?

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Cayce Clifford

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What can human psychology teach us about the crisis facing our environment, and how to deal with it? Everything, says Per Espen Stoknes.

Per Espen Stokes is mourning the Patagonian toothfish. 

He’s never seen one in real life, but he knows it’s big, grey and threatened by overfishing. “It’s on the other side of the planet, one to two thousand metres down in the ocean, and still there we wreak destruction,” says Stoknes with a sigh.

It’s not the first time he has felt this way about the loss of nature, and it won’t be the last. The Norwegian psychologist, economist and author has spent his career trying to get his head around why we treat the planet the way we do, and how we can do better. His 2015 book What we think about when we try not to think about global warming was followed by a hit TED Talk on overcoming “apocalypse fatigue” about the climate. His more recent writings, including 2021’s Tomorrow’s Economy and contributions to 2022’s Earth For All, propose ways to redesign our world in light of the climate and nature crises.

When 5 reaches Stoknes, he’s embarking on a sabbatical during which he plans to immerse himself in nature for who-knows-how-long, and let the experience guide his next project. It’s a good moment to take a step back, because Stoknes feels like his message about how to talk more constructively about the climate crisis is finally starting to stick. “Over the last two or three years… there’s been a surge, a wave, a real turning,” he says. When we hear about climate today, compared to a few years ago, for instance, it’s less likely to be illustrated with images of raging fires or desperate polar bears, and more likely to focus on how we can help. In the business world too, it’s getting harder for leaders to duck the difficult questions, he believes.

Knowledge is not enough

Stoknes’ interweaving of nature, psychology and economics goes back a long way. His childhood on the snowy west coast of Norway left  “footprints in my soul”, he says. As a student of psychology he became intrigued by the philosopher Arne Næss’ ideas about the connections between all living things, and how it might shed new light on the mysteries of the human subconscious. But when he began practising as a clinical psychologist, Stoknes quickly tired of trying to “repair” people who were, as he saw it, victims of an exploitative economic system. Instead he decided to analyse the system itself, and ended up completing a PhD in economics. Poking at the fallacies and flawed thinking that sit at the heart of our understanding of economies, has been a key thread in Stoknes’ work.

“Just knowing that the climate is in crisis, and what the solutions are, is only a starting point”

Another thread is his exploration of the psychology of climate action (and inaction), which goes back to 2009 and the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen. Stoknes was there on the streets shouting “What do we want? Action! When do we want it? Now!… And of course there was no action.” Once he got over his disappointment, he began to wonder: “Why is it that in contrast to pandemics, in contrast to earthquakes, in contrast to wars, we don’t really take the climate threat seriously?”

The human mind is our species’ defining advantage. But if its response to an existential threat like climate change is apathy, despair and denial, then it could turn out to be our defining weakness. A key mistake on the part of scientists, Stoknes says, has been to see the mind as a “bucket” that simply needs to be filled with facts in order to change behaviour. “Being a psychologist I’ve seen over and over again how that doesn’t work,” he says. “Just knowing that the climate is in crisis and knowing what the solutions are, is only a starting point for a process of change. It’s not sufficient to get us there.”

The rise of ‘brain-friendly’ communication

Stoknes advocates more “brain-friendly” approaches to communication, taking the psychological quirks of the human mind and working with them, not against them: like our bias toward the status quo, our obsession with stories, our incorrigibly social nature, our susceptibility to being “nudged” into better decisions, and our need to see the effects of our actions. “All these things are well known in psychology,” he says. “Unfortunately, neither energy engineers, environmentalists nor climate scientists are trained in that tradition.” 

But a new generation of communicators are raising the game. Most effective of all, Stoknes believes, is Greta Thunberg, who he calls a “genius”, and whose new anthology The Climate Book includes an essay by Stoknes on overcoming climate apathy. Thunberg is an interesting case study for Stoknes’ approach, since their styles – he with his books and talks geared at a business audience, she with her cardboard placards and stern-faced pleas to “listen to the science” – seem miles apart.

In fact, Thunberg writes about Stoknes in her own section of The Climate Book, saying that her trademark reliance on facts and moral imperatives “wasn’t supposed to work” according to his advice on communicating climate. That’s not quite how Stoknes himself sees it (he insists he has been an avid admirer since the start).

It’s not that facts don’t work, he clarifies. It’s that for most audiences, facts alone don’t work. “In addition to facts, you need to give most folks a sense of efficacy, both self-efficacy and collective efficacy. And the best way to do that is to mix those facts and balance them with at least three times as much attention to the opportunities and solutions where you can actually do something. This inspires concrete actions that last and grow, when supported with positive feedback.”

For the most part, Thunberg does this brilliantly, he says. She doesn’t sugarcoat her message about the threats we face, but she also shows in practice the actions young people can take to change things: demonstrating every Friday, making noise in the middle of towns, joining the public conversation and voting.  

The other key element of her success, Stoknes believes, comes down to who she is. “For the last 30 years… the climate researchers spoke about their kids and their grandchildren… And then suddenly these imagined children, this future generation, is here. It’s her.”

Don’t fight it, feel it

If we’ve made progress on how we think and how we talk about the state of the planet, then the next challenge is perhaps the toughest one: how we feel about it.

One of the things Stoknes has in common with Thunberg – among many others – is experience of depression about the environment. For those who are dealing with despair or anxiety about the natural world, his advice as a psychologist (and as someone who has been there) is to resist the temptation to try to fix it, but simply to “hold it”. “Accept it. Say hello to it.” Similarly if someone in your life has those feelings, be there to listen, but don’t feel the need to do much more. “You need to be with people who are patient enough to sit with that, hold it and accept it, and don’t judge it in any way.”

We have to realise we can’t just blast away sadness and fear with positive vibes, Stoknes says. “It’s more like how nature deals with waste and rotting… The autumn leaves, falling down into the soil, getting cold, the bacteria eat it, the fungi start to mulch it, and eventually after going through a winter of the soul, you get a spring and a new vitality arising, from those exact same nutrients that were in all that bad stuff that feels decaying and rotten and looks ugly.”

In this way, difficult feelings about nature are not only normal and human, he says, but are “a core part of the work we have to do”. Indeed, they can be the path to renewed action. So if you feel sad for the Patagonian toothfish, or some other natural wonder whose future hangs in the balance, don’t fight it, feel it. Share it.

“When I let those feelings flow through me, I feel sad, I can cry. I need to just get out, sit in nature, slowly get back to myself. And then somehow I feel more alive, and I try again,” Stoknes says.

“That’s how the soul works.”

Dig deeper

Read Tomorrow’s Economy

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Watch Stoknes’ TED Talk on overcoming apocalypse fatigue

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Read The Climate Book

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