The Daily Gamecock

Notre Dame professor discusses pessimism, use of fear to curb climate change

<p>A flyer on the door of Notre Dame professor Roy Scranton's "The Ethics of Climate Pessimism" event. Scranton said using fear in communicating about climate change promotes the most action, but that it should not be overly nihilistic or instill hopelessness.</p>

A flyer on the door of Notre Dame professor Roy Scranton's "The Ethics of Climate Pessimism" event. Scranton said using fear in communicating about climate change promotes the most action, but that it should not be overly nihilistic or instill hopelessness.

An associate professor from Notre Dame said fear is a better tool than education and inspiration to motivate changes in behavior toward curbing climate change.

Roy Scranton is a writer and associate professor of English and director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at Notre Dame. The lecture and discussion were held Friday afternoon as a part of the College of Arts and Sciences Climates Theme Semester.

Scranton opened the lecture by quoting an article by journalist David Wallace-Wells, which discussed the terrors of climate change. Scranton then described the negative reactions to the article due to its pessimist and sometimes sensationalist views. 

"The loudest charge against Wallace-Wells, and the one most often repeated, took aim at what climatologist Michael Mann called his 'doomist' framing, arguing that Wallace-Wells' pessimistic take on climate change would inspire, quote, 'a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness,'" Scranton said. 

Scranton then delved into what he believes are the harms of optimism. He said optimism fosters complacency, minimizes the problems at hand and polarizes activists.

Scranton said climate change is hard to talk about because those who seek to communicate the issues of climate change are not good at it, since they seek to educate and inspire people rather than utilizing fear as a motivational tactic.

"Recent research shows that fear works. Evidence from numerous studies across the disparate fields show that negative messaging like attack ads and scary stories are highly effective for getting people's attention and influencing public behavior," Scranton said. "Most research tends to show that negative messaging works best when it's combined with a message of efficacy."

Scranton said pessimism is not nihilistic or fatalistic and that it is more accurate and resilient than optimism is. He also said pessimism is "compassionate, democratic, inclusive and responsible."

During the discussion portion of the talk, Scranton responded to questions from the audience.

One audience member said nihilism is widespread among young people and some think "everything is broken and terrible already." The audience member asked how to prevent Scranton's style of rational pessimism "from sliding into total nihilistic doomerism." 

Scranton said the best way to prevent this from happening is by addressing the problem at hand and grappling with it. He said ignoring the problem is what fosters apathy and fatalism.

"Just because we are handed problems that have no solutions doesn't mean we're freed from the problem," Scranton said.

Another audience member said Scranton argued really well for using pessimism and fear to help mitigate climate change.

"But I wouldn't mind hearing you talk a little bit about using pessimism, and probably more importantly fear, as a means. Is it okay that we use pessimism and fear to manipulate the ends that we desire?" the audience member said. 

Scranton said when one uses fear as a motivator, it may motivate people, but not for the desired goal — so, one has to make sure they are using fear responsibly and toward the right cause.

"If you're persuaded that fear and negative messaging are effective and accurate, then we need to think hard about how we do that, so that we're working toward the ethical end we want to achieve," Scranton said.

Correction (Nov. 2, 2021, at 7:30 p.m.): Scranton was misquoted as saying "district fields" when he said "disparate fields," "message of advocacy" when he said "message of efficacy," and "we need to be hard about" when he said "we need to think hard about." 


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