Chewing Bubble Gum will not save us from disaster

By Anthony Hughes

Is it me or is our existence on the planet actually looking particularly precarious at the moment? For those worried about the state of the world’s climate, the news out of COP26 has been disappointingly lukewarm. Back in 2017, Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute as part of the Global Priorities Project 2017 released a report on Existential Risk. In the report the authors set out what they believed were the biggest risks to our existence, these included nuclear war, extreme climate change and geoengineering, engineered pandemics, artificial intelligence and global totalitarianism. Worryingly prophetic since two out of the five are already in full swing (pandemic and climate change) and according to the media we appear to be cruising towards the other three at high speed.

Certainly the current cocktail of depressing news in recent weeks and months should be enough send most of us into a state of panic or deep depression. The looming threat of global war with China over Taiwan, the climate crisis, Brexit, the global pandemic or the energy crisis to name but a few. If they are too mundane for your tastes there are even reports that the earth’s magnetic field might flip around which could send us back to the dark ages.

I have spoken to a number of people recently who say they avoid the news altogether these days – “too depressing” they say. I have to admit that the climate crisis in particular seems to have crept into my own consciousness in recent years to the point where it has now become an unwelcome daily anxiety alongside my other more mundane worries. I am not alone in this ‘eco-anxiety’, a large study by Humboldt State University has shown that people all over the world, particularly under the age of 25, are deeply troubled by state of the environment and the political inertia on the subject.

The post 9/11 24hr news cycle and social media means that ‘breaking news’ is not only constantly pumped into our collective consciousnesses but also everything is labelled as a ‘serious crisis’ by default. The ability of news to distort people’s view of the world is well documented because of something that psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the ‘availability heuristic’. Also known as availability bias, this is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled. As a result, people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.*

From a media perspective it doesn’t actually matter where you consume your news, whether its Fox News, the Guardian or YouTube, existential threats seem to be the new normal and the more bombastic the better (they just have a slightly different flavour depending on your source). As politics in the western world becomes more partisan and polarised, so too has the media to some extent, certainly it has become more negative. After all, fear, as many an aspiring dictator has shown, is a great motivator of your base and it also sells papers or clicks. Prior to Gary Jones’ appointment as Editor, the Daily Express’ stock in trade was fuelling ‘migrant crises’ fears on its front pages**. The point is that whether or not the world really is getting worse (or there is actually a ‘migrant crisis’) is somewhat moot, the nature of news will interact with our cognition to make us think that it is.

In Adam Curtis’ terrifyingly bleak 2016 documentary ‘Hypernormalisation’ about the ‘post-truth’ world we now inhabit, he charts the fall of the Soviet Union. In it he describes how people in the Soviet Union knew the system was crumbling around them and that the people in control were lying to them and didn’t really have any control, but no-one cared or wanted to do anything about it because they were ‘hypernormalised’ to the system they inhabited because they couldn’t envisage another. Are we becoming ‘hypernormalised’ to the permanent state of crisis? Where the climate is concerned, personally I suspect something more akin to the ‘boiling frog’ syndrome is going on.   

Whatever the case, Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant ‘Sunscreen’ has something approaching an answer: “Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.” We are right be concerned about the climate crisis as it threatens our very existence, but worrying about it will not solve anything…rather like vague, non-binding CO2 reduction targets.

* Esgate, Anthony; Groome, David (2005). An Introduction to Applied Cognitive Psychology and Phung, Albert. “Behavioral Finance: Key Concept- Overreaction and Availability Bias”.

** Gary Jones on taking over Daily Express: ‘It was anti-immigrant. I couldn’t sleep’ | Daily Express | The Guardian