Our planet has reached an era of crisis, a point at which civilization severely threatens the Earth’s ability to maintain a biosphere conducive to human life. The early warning signs have been about for quite some time, but only recently have the signs been fully understood and appreciated… only now do the majority of people believe that the situation has graduated from “maybe” to “absolutely.”
This has prompted leaders and individuals around the globe to espouse new lifestyles that will bring our planet back to a comfortable equilibrium for human habitation. Habits must change. New lessons must be learned, and old lessons must be un-learned (or, to put it in a generational perspective, your parents’ lessons must be un-learned, and your great-grandparents’ lessons must be re-learned). Our way of life is not sustainable… it’s time to switch to one that works.
But this has led us to a second crisis, a crisis from within. As people are being told about the things they must do to improve the state of the globe—especially those who are most responsible for putting the globe in the state it’s in—those same people are challenging each notion as a matter of course. Simply put, people really don’t like being told what to do, and they especially don’t like being told that they cannot do what they’re already doing.
The situation is similar to that faced by people who want something, but who don’t want the signs of that something to be apparent to them. As an example, American citizens demand electric power, and lobby for more plants to be built when power is scarce. But when officials decide to grant their request by building a plant, a curious thing happens: Anyone living within sight of the proposed location for such a plant does not want it there. “I don’t want to see that nuclear plant in my view. Put it somewhere else. Anywhere where I don’t have to see it… just not here.” The phenomenon has spawned its own catchphrase, complete with a coy acronym: Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY.
Today, the demands of altering the lifestyles of those who are comfortable in their present lives has spawned an effect that deserves its own catchphrase and accompanying acronym: NOML, or Not On My Life. This is actually shortened from Not On My Lifestyle, but in fact, either word applies. It is the effect of people who, upon being told that they must change their lifestyle for any reason, instantly rail against any change to their way of life, however large or small. “I want my life to stay the way it is… I want it to be normal.”
This is not something to condemn people for. In fact, NOML is a natural psychological function. People seek stability… they get their lives working in a way that is familiar and reasonably satisfying, and thereby get used to it as it is. Psychologically, humans aren’t great with change… at least, they are generally loathe to initiate change. Once change sets in, humans generally get used to the change, and it becomes their new “normal,” their new lifestyle. But they are often dragged by their fingernails to get there.
We see this effect today in areas where people are asked to forego one luxury for a more sensible habit. A perfect example is the automobile. The car has been the changer of many a human habit since its invention… and to be sure, not all of them were welcomed at first, either. Traffic signals… speed limits… seat belt laws… all of these things were imposed upon people when they started driving, and make no mistake, each one was bitterly opposed by drivers as a threat to their personal “stability.” But in time, each one was accepted by the majority, and eventually, became part of their “normal”… part of their lifestyle.
Today, people are being told they should leave the car at home, and take public transportation to work. The effect is predictable: Widespread resistance from car drivers who don’t want to abandon their cars, their idea of “normal.” The excuses are varied in subject, and degree of logic, but they all amount to: “I don’t want to change my lifestyle.” Is this unreasonable? As I said, it is psychologically ingrained to respond in this way. However, when contrasted by the people who already take public transportation—their “normal”—and who are perfectly comfortable doing so, it is plain that much of the protests are simple cases of fingernails being dragged on the ground.
The future for the car looks even more drastic. The automobile is overdue for a change in its basic power plant technology, to one that is less polluting. Unfortunately, a change in that power plant will probably result in needed changes in the way we use those cars, forcing us to reconsider how we apply personal vehicles to things like commuting, shopping and vacations. Habits that most of us learned from our parents will have to change, in some ways drastically, and it is not unreasonable to expect a lot more cracked and broken fingernails as they are dragged on the concrete of change.
Other examples of NOML can be found in the modern home, to varying degrees. Americans have demonstrated more resistance than perhaps anyone really expected when they were asked to replace their incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs… after being told how much more efficient they were, you wouldn’t think that the stores would be able to keep them in stock. Instead, the usual excuses of “I don’t like it, ‘cause it’s different” cropped up, and the overall switch to CFLs has still not been fully accomplished in the U.S.. Other countries have seen the same effect, and are implementing (or considering) outright bans on incandescent bulbs, to speed up the transition.
But that was the easy transition, compared to the push to conserve more energy in the home. This push includes replacing appliances with new appliances that use less power, or that use zero power when turned off (many modern appliances use minute amounts of power even when turned off, resulting in what is known as “phantom loads”). It also includes things like turning off power strips when none of the things plugged into the strip are in use (again, to remove “phantom loads”).
And many of us haven’t seen other changes that will be even more difficult to deal with. In many places in America, water shortages have forced regulations on things like lawn watering. As our need to reduce carbon in the atmosphere grows, two popular American appliances are imminently at risk: The gas-powered lawn mower; and the charcoal grill. And as sprawl is seen to be increasingly bad for the environment, the lifestyle of the American suburb itself is threatened. None of these are things the American suburbanite will take lying down… they will fight tooth-and-nail before giving up their mowers, their grills, and their very homes.
Unfortunately—for all of us—many of these things must be curtailed or outright cut off, and soon, or we risk a global warming runaway effect that could render this planet about as hospitable as Venus. But we must do so over the psychological compulsions of NOML. Even those who are committed to doing better, often fall back on NOML in other aspects of their lives: “I’ll change my light bulbs, I’ll even turn off my computer, but I’m not going to stop driving my SUV.” How are we to overcome NOML?
Historically, psychologically, there is one thing, and one thing only, that trumps the desire to avoid change: The threat to survival. When people believe that their lives are in danger, they are willing to risk change to survive. Therefore, appealing to people in terms of their likelihood of survival is perhaps the only way to convince them to act. If leaders want people to change, they must make them understand that their lives—not necessarily their mortal lives, but their comfortable lifestyles—literally hang in the balance. People must be made to understand how unpleasant their lifestyles will be, if they do not make the changes needed to mitigate that unpleasantness.
How do we do that? Here’s a suggestion: In the 1980’s, a television special called “The Day After Tomorrow” aired, depicting an America that experienced a limited nuclear attack. The program centered around a Midwestern city, and the individuals who had to suffer, survive, and in some cases die, following the aftermath of the bombs. It was honestly and accurately presented, nothing overly-dramatized, and its almost documentary realism hit a nerve in the American public. The program was so sobering that then-President Reagan, supported by that shell-shocked public, immediately took steps to limit nuclear arms in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., to make sure such a thing never happened. Today, the possibility of an all-out nuclear exchange is severely lessened, and much of the world breathes easier.
Possibly a similar program is needed now… something that will accurately and realistically depict the lifestyles we will all be forced into if we refuse to take action against pollution and global warming today. Such a program, if properly done and if effective, could be enough to convince individuals and leaders to take the necessary steps to improve our shared global future.
Of course, there’s no reason the program has to be limited to television. A concerted tie-in through the web would garner even more interest and attention, possibly creating a truly global event, with possibly global effect. Such an important global issue should take advantage of the latest in mediums to get its message across, and to make sure that message is spread far and wide.
And how likely are people to be swayed by a simple television program or website? Well, also in the eighties, NBC ran a special program called, appropriately enough, “Special Report.” It was a fictional series of special reports that presented a terrorist incident in Charleston, South Carolina, wherein at the end of a program, a home-made nuclear device was set off by the terrorists, and a significant part of the southeastern coast had to be evacuated. Even though this program was advertised as fictional, featured major actors (including one who was the star of one of the highest-rated shows of the time on that same network, St. Elsewhere) and familiar character-actors, supposedly depicted the events of two days in a 2-hour time slot, and included disclaimers at the beginning and end of every single commercial break, it still managed to panic people nationwide, ala the War of the Worlds broadcast, who were duly convinced that the events had actually taken place. Put simply, the power of television is still as frightening as it has always been.
More recently, “webisodes” presented by “Lonelygirl15,” a girl who appeared to be experiencing severe personal issues, and possibly in danger of her life, were seen by millions worldwide, and a great deal of consternation was experienced before the girl eventually revealed herself to be an actress following a script. Other entities have presented programs, webcast around the planet, that were as good in production as those made by major motion picture studios… or as real as material filmed in realtime by average people. The web has proven itself to be equal to television in its ability to grab people’s attention, pull them into a program, convince them to accept its reality, and even to take action where they deemed it necessary.
And in no other arena may it be more necessary than in relation to our environmental crisis, a global issue that will have long-term consequences for the survivability of the organisms upon this planet.
Of course, there is another recourse that humans often take when faced with such a survivability dilemma: Many of them take the fatalist position, that is, “If it’s going to kill me, let it kill me. If I die before it gets me, it’s someone else’s problem.” Do Or Die—which certainly deserves its own acronym—becomes a defeatist proposition, and the change-averse decide they’d rather give up than fight. It’s worth noting that the majority of these people really don’t believe the threat will kill them, which explains their bravado… once they find themselves under the gun, most of them tend to take a different view. But until that point, they will steadfastly maintain their invulnerability, and embrace DOD as the natural response to NOML.
Unfortunately, once the gun is pointed, and the hammer is cocked, it will be too late to prevent its going off… and the gun is taking aim already. Is it already too late to scare these people straight… to fire off a warning shot that will spur them into believing the threat is immediate, and serious, enough for them to act? Even if we can overcome NOML, can we overcome the DOD fatalism that often accompanies it? Are we condemned due to the psychological inevitability of NOML, or is there a way to rally over NOML and DOD, and to get the needed job done?
Psychology is a powerful natural force… it is instinctual, and difficult to ignore. If it comes down to matters of psychology to decide whether or not we will save this planet, then Earth may already be doomed to suffer the worst effects of global warming, and we may be doomed to the inevitable struggle to survive through it. In fact, instinct could serve to prevent our survival altogether, like lemmings who plunge headlong over a cliff with their brethren.
Or, we could work hard on finding a way to beat instinct, to suppress the fatalism and fear of change, and to triumph over our natural limitations. If we, as a race, are as good as we say we are at overcoming our natural, animal limitations, perhaps we can yet stand proud and demonstrate that we’re better than lemmings, that we can change the course of the world, and ourselves, for the better. As always, it is up to us to prove we are more than just naked Apes mired in the present, and reach for the future. We, and only we, can make sure NOML doesn’t end up carved on our collective tombstones.