Sick, smashed, systemic and confusing — what's really doing damage

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In order to save the planet, we need to change the way we think (Image via Pixabay)

When it comes to taking action against climate change, we need to start thinking in terms of direct causation, writes Simon Black.

THERE ARE TWO TYPES of serious issues you can face in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s an environmental issue, an economic, or a political one.

The problem is that while we are quick to recognise the first type and to move into action we often miss the magnitude and urgency of the second.

This is a huge problem.

Over the Christmas break, I did a lot of media appearances to talk about Japan’s announcement they were pulling out of the IWC and would resume commercial whaling more than 30 years after it was banned. I’ve written about what I said here if you’re interested.

The reaction was striking.

Most people I spoke with were very upset about it. Friends who know I work for Greenpeace got in touch with me to ask what they could do about it. When I was at parties or social gatherings, outraged strangers brought it up with me.

They told me about the pictures they had seen. They wanted to know what the world could do, what they could do, what we would be doing.

But I noticed that there was one thing I could say to make the conversation falter:

If you go back to the bad old days of commercial whaling, the main thing a whale had to worry about was being killed by a harpoon. Now, whales are washing up on beaches starved to death because their stomachs are so full of plastic they can't eat, there are impacts of global warming like ocean acidification, inreased impact of commercial fishing and shipping. All of these are also a huge threat to whales.

The reaction was interesting.

I could watch the familiar parts of the conversation stick in people’s minds: the harpoon fleets and whalers. But when I started talking about a stretched and damaged system, a lot of the time it seemed to slide off or be rejected by people’s minds without sticking at all.

Worse, if I spoke about global warming, people would sometimes get angry — with me.

This was supposed to be about the whales.

This is the problem with talking about something that is caused directly by an action, as opposed to something that is indirectly, or “systemically caused”.

Linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff writes:

Punching someone in the nose is direct causation. Throwing a rock through a window is direct causation.


[However a] ... systemic cause may be one of a number of multiple causes. It may require some special conditions. It may be indirect, working through a network of more direct causes. It may be probabilistic, occurring with a significantly high probability. It may require a feedback mechanism.

But it is still the cause.

This is a massive problem for us to wrap our heads around.

Human beings tend to think in terms of direct causation and our brains are hardwired to respond to immediate threats, while at the same time missing, or underestimating, long-term problems.

Or, as Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology, points out, when it comes to threats:

“Our brain is essentially a get-out-of-the-way machine.”

Perversely, rather than climate change happening too quickly, Gilbert says actually it’s “not happening nearly quickly enough to get our attention”.

But that doesn’t mean systemic causation is completely alien to us.

Lung cancer is recognised as a consequence of smoking and drunk driving is understood to cause car accidents. So the idea can be understood.

It’s just that people find it harder to follow, more confusing and less urgent than direct causation.

It requires more thought and effort to understand the cause and solutions of these problems in a world that is already rushing and overloading us.

The more you look for it the more you will see it.

In Australia, the Murray-Darling river system is facing a myriad of issues, including over-allocation of water for crop irrigation, water salinity, erosion, blue-green algal blooms, severe drought, temperature fluctuations and “unlawful” actions by the authority in completely ignoring the impact of climate change. All of which have contributed to events that saw more than a million fish die.

In recent years, the Great Barrier Reef is under assault from temperatures increased by global warming, which has led to catastrophic bleaching events. But there is also the issue of sediment runoff from agriculture, crown of thorns starfish outbreaks and coastal development.

This led scientists Terry Hughes, Jon Day, Bob Pressey and Jon Brodie to point out, as far back as 2014, that any plans to save the Reef would fail unless they addressed “the cumulative effects of many combined impacts”:

“...by not including actions and targets to restore the values of the Reef, limit dredging, bad sea dumping and address climate change, the future of the Great Barrier Reef is still at risk.”

In Australia, there is the Change the Rules campaign which is aimed at not one workplace or employer, but rather at changing conditions that have seen workers battle low real-wage growth, which sees less of a share of the growing GDP flow back to employees and rising inequality.

When things are pushed to breaking point and beyond, they inevitably break. In the environment, this means that ecosystems stripped of their resiliency will become brittle.

So brittle, in fact, that “normal” cyclical events that previously have only been damaging are now devastating.

This is happening and will continue to happen more often.

It is more important now than it has ever been before to understand and to spread this concept.

We live in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world. The natural world in many areas is stretched and overloaded to breaking point.

We need a way to talk about these impacts. Systemic causation is one way.

There are many analogies. You can talk to your friends about breaking points, about a system being sick, or about things being out of balance.

But it is important to try. This is the way the world works.

When you help others understand and talk about this, you help them begin to see the true problem and bring us closer to a true solution.

Simon Black is the senior media campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific. You can follow Simon on Twitter @mrsimblaa.

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