Comfortably Numb to the Climate Crisis 


 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

‘Environmental numbness’ is defined by Dr. Robert Gifford as a human instinct to selectively attend to various different environments. Given that environments contain a plethora of cues and issues that require our attention, we tend to prioritize the immediate and pressing difficulties in our lives over distant, abstract concepts and problems. Similar to an “out of sight, out of mind mentality,” the consistent presence or absence of specific cues or reminders can heavily influence our behaviour. For example, have you ever left your running shoes by the front door to prompt your future self to go for a run, or kept an empty milk carton in the fridge as a reminder to buy a new one? This same principle can be applied to our collective behaviour, which can influence social change. 

This idea of inattentional blindness is evident in many different areas of academic study and everyday life. For instance, in a study published on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers found that 83% of sampled radiologists (asked to perform a familiar lung-nodule detection task) did not see an image of a gorilla inserted in an x-ray. Similarly, a naturalistic study of classroom-student interaction conducted by Dr. Gifford at the University of Victoria revealed a strong tendency for students to blindly accept inconvenient classroom furniture arrangements. Dr Gifford experimented with classroom layouts by arranging desks and chairs in a laboratory to create “tight-squeeze passages.” Rather than suggesting an alternate desk arrangement, students generally accepted the given layout of their classroom (despite its inconvenience) without question. This behaviour occurred more often when students were presented with a consistent, inconvenient desk layout. To find out more about this study, readers can explore Dr Gifford’s findings here

A similar notion of complacency can be observed in individuals’ exposure to media that covers the climate crisis. In a study conducted by Alexandra C. Alhadeff, it was discovered that a sample of middle and high school students experienced negative emotions while watching videos containing environmental degradation stimuli (depictions of harmful climate impacts). Although stronger emotional responses often led to more involvement in community action, this study also found that high school students’ emotional investment did not increase with additional viewings of these videos. After these additional viewings, students were in fact less likely to recycle than those who viewed the videos only once. This suggests that exposing students to additional viewings of negative climate impacts doesn’t increase the likelihood that they will contribute to climate action. 

As a recent example in pop culture, in the film, Don’t Look Up, humans are numb to an impending global disaster. Director, Adam McKay’s metaphor for climate change satirizes our collective inattention and inaction. Although media outlets rarely suppress bad news, this film helps to convey the severity of environmental numbness. 

So then, how can we overcome this inattention and inaction? One possible solution to environmental numbness could be to highlight specific examples of anthropogenic climate change on a local level. Local weather stations and news outlets could include information on the climate crisis alongside reports on damaging wind storms and events. Individuals are far more likely to feel invested in their local environments, so highlighting local climate impacts will help to incite collective action. It is also important for academics and journalists to publish articles with an optimistic tone and examples of low-cost contributions to climate activism. This leaves readers feeling hopeful, rather than helpless or dispirited. It’s vital that the public feels empowered to effect concrete change within their local community. 

In my own life, environmental numbness manifests in my consistent absence from climate activism events (such as strikes, protests, and other gatherings). Although climate justice is a high priority of mine, I tend to dedicate time and energy to other areas of my life and work, as these are more immediately demanding of my attention. Since beginning university, I have decided not to attend several climate strikes in favor of attending to other interests and pastimes (eg: studying, writing, socializing, etc.) To personally combat this obstacle, I plan to tell friends about my intentions of attending climate justice events. If you also find that environmental causes near to your heart are being pushed aside to accommodate everyday tasks, I encourage you to do the same. 

If you are interested in learning more about the climate crisis and environmental numbness, there are many free online resources. For example, readers can visit the website or Instagram account of The Climate Journal Project to find writing prompts that help individuals build resilience against eco-anxiety.