We had a very interesting weekend. Our “Christmas” with family down in Nebraska was scheduled for this weekend, but Mother Nature wasn’t going to make it easy on us. We were in a winter storm warning Friday, but managed to make it out-of-town and head south before the worst of the snow hit. We had to deal with freezing rain in Nebraska, though, which was followed by bitterly cold temperatures. It wasn’t quite as bad down while we were down in Lincoln, but back home in Brandon we hit -24 below Sunday morning, the coldest we’ve been for several years. To further reinforce the “winter” theme of the weekend, when we arrived back home, we found our furnace had conked out at some point, and it was 48 degrees in the house!
An interesting and memorable weekend due to the weather, something which scientists say is likely to have a strong impact on my feelings about climate change! In a recent study, scientists found that an individual is much more likely to “believe” in climate change if they live in a location that’s experienced a lot of record high temperatures, and are more likely to discount climate change if the weather is cold and they’ve experienced low temperatures. It’s not exactly earth-shattering research, not when supposedly well-educated and informed politicians themselves are often guilty of looking out the window and declaring climate change to be a hoax whenever a wintry event occurs. To me it highlights a bigger picture story however…the importance of “me” and the biologic difficulties with altruistic behavior.
I saw a meme on Facebook today that focused on empathy and Republicans. It provided several examples of noted Republicans who were strongly against issues such as LGBT rights, stem cell research, and gun control measures…until a son or daughter of theirs came out as LGBT, until one of their loved ones became desperately sick, until one of their family was a victim of gun violence. I’m incredibly cynical about any Facebook post. It doesn’t matter whether some meme or story leans towards liberal or conservative views, many (most?) of them are pure fiction. I don’t know how true some of the claims were in the meme I saw today (for example, one part of it stating Nancy Reagan was against stem cell research, until her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), but the general point of the meme certainly hit home today (a crappy day where a misogynistic, narcissistic, childish, PIG of a man was supported by the Electoral College). People are VERY good at ignoring an issue unless it affects them personally.
It’s not just Facebook posts that I’m cynical about…I admit I’m as cynical as any person you’re ever likely to meet. Ironically, in a blog post where I’m focusing on the role of “self” and a person’s own experiences in dictating your personal beliefs, it’s my own personal experiences that are a major reason I’m such a cynic. I’ve been on this planet for just north of 50 years now, 50 years of personally witnessing the selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy among my fellow human beings. At the small scale…the interpersonal relationships and interactions that occur among people on a daily basis…human beings generally DO seem somewhat empathetic, even kind and caring. Most of the time when dealing with another human being one-on-one, there’s at least a thin veneer or respect that’s usually present, with “manners” and social customs dictating little gestures such as saying “hi”, holding a door open, helping someone up when they’ve fallen, etc.
That all goes to hell at larger scales, when we’re not dealing directly with another human being, but instead are acting in some “aggregate” mode. Politics is a great example. Let’s say Joe Redneck is in line at a grocery store, and the clerk is someone he thinks may be LGBT. In the vast majority of cases, even Joe Redneck is generally going to be civil. Face-to-face-, one-on-one, we’re simply much more likely to be civil, to be empathetic and kind. What happens though when Joe Redneck votes on LGBT-related issues? What happens in a group setting, when Joe Redneck is surrounded by others in the Redneck clan? That civility is much more likely to disappear.
Empathy and caring for others is even much more likely to be forgotten when there’s some personal impact on an individual, no matter how minor that impact may actually be. Expanding health care coverage for other Americans? WHOA…how’s that going to affect MY taxes or MY health care costs?!? Climate change?!?! WHOA…why should I worry about someone 50 years from now, when a climate policy has even the slightest potential of harming economic growth NOW?!?! Increasing funding for schools? WHOA…if I have to pay more in property taxes then I won’t be able to get that new cell phone!! The relative impact is often grossly exaggerated in cases such as this, with people unwilling to make the tiniest of sacrifice even if the payoff for others promises to be substantial.
Am I reading too much into this study on people’s attitudes towards climate change? I don’t think so. As I’ve stated out here many times…we’re animals. We’re driven by the same biologic needs as any other animal on the planet. What’s first and foremost on our minds is nearly always going to be our own personal well-being and happiness. Americans in particular seem to be extremely efficient in rationalizing the world around them to fit a personal worldview that is first and foremost focused on personal prosperity and happiness. We all live in our own personal bubbles, rationalizing the world around us in such a way that minimizes guilt, minimizes any feeling of responsibility for others, and maximizes our own personal happiness and well-being.
Yes, all of this, from a story about people’s attitudes towards climate change! Even on a cold, wintry hell of a weekend, as a scientist and as an empathetic human being who DOES worry about his child, who DOES worry about the future…it’s very easy to see past the frost on the window and know we still face a world where climate change is a daunting issue. It’s very easy to see, if one can just look past your own personal life and bubble, and try to empathize with the bigger world around you. As this study hints at…that’s a step most people just are unwilling to take.