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Greta Thunberg and the Psychology of Fear Greta Thunberg and the Psychology of Fear
by George Cassidy Payne
2019-12-19 10:23:48
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According to most climate scientists, emissions would need to start falling next year by 7.6% annually and continue at that rate for a decade in order for the world to have any chance of hitting the widely accepted targets for stopping global warming. 

The world is nowhere near that goal. It looks almost certain that we will reach the 1.5-celsius mark-exposing 350 million additional people to catastrophes such as drought and floods, and "push roughly 120 million people into extreme poverty by 2030." The ensuing chaotic destruction of our global social and economic systems has been well described by scientists and artists alike.

gre01_400These facts being what they are, Greta Thunberg is right. It's an emergency. Preparing for climate catastrophes and curbing global warming should be the world's most urgent task. In light of the clear and present danger, her adamant stance is appropriate, realistic, and vitally important. Yet it is not penetrating the way people know it should-despite prestigious honors from reputable magazines. Why is that?

The answer to that question is not an easy one, but there is a theory in psychology that posits humans are hardwired to fear natural phenomena such as animal predators and storms, and regular events such as nightfall and illness because for millions of years, our ancestors faced these fears and learned to adapt to them.

On the other hand, terms such as global warming, climate change, climate crisis, or climate emergency, are relatively new and have little to do with the most substantial phases of our human development. In fact, it is mind-bending to consider just how recent global warming and climate crisis are when surveying the vast history of human fear. On this point, psychologist Martin Seligman's theory of prepared learning is particularly helpful. Seligman suggests that "we have developed a fear system that is "prepared"-sensitive to certain situations due to the effect of evolution. In the modern world, "traffic and electrical accidents are major killers, but for the majority of the history of primates...hazards such as snakes and spiders have been a far greater risk." He goes on to contend that "individual primates who more easily learned to fear the biggest threats were those more likely to survive and pass on their gene-meaning over time, that we have evolved a genetically based, fear-learning system." 

If Seligman is right, that is bad news for the movement Greta Thunberg is championing, It means that the fear we should fear most, i.e., climate change, is not a fear that is hardwired into our species; it is certainly not one that we are equipped by evolution to take as seriously as this intrepid young activist expects and demands.


George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer, social worker, adjunct instructor of philosophy, and parent of two. He lives and works in Rochester, NY

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