The frog gets out of the pot. Ask any biologist — the whole boiling pot thing is a nasty lie. If a frog can get out, it will, and it’s high time we stop spreading anti-amphibian slander about our fellow passengers.
Frogs actually have a serious advantage when it comes to environmental threats — they’re not nearly as swayed by the opinions of other frogs.
There’s a grainy video that’s lodged itself in my head this summer. You might remember it from your school days as well: a group of perfectly sane people filling out paperwork while the room fills with smoke.
It was one of those ingenious experiments from the days before encumbrances like professional ethics and the informed consent of subjects. You arrive for an appointment, you’re given a form to fill out and directed to a waiting room. Sitting there alone, you notice smoke filling the room. You get the hell out of there and raise the alarm.
But imagine you’d been directed to a waiting room where other people are already filling out their forms. After a few minutes, you notice smoke. But the others just continue as if nothing’s wrong. We all imagine we’d sound the alarm. But psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané’s famous experiment in 1968 found that for every 10 people tested, nine of us will continue as long as 20 minutes, filling out the questionnaire, waving smoke from our eyes, coughing and watching for cues from the others.
You can imagine the psychological anguish in the minds of the test subjects (one reason those experiments aren’t allowed anymore). It’s probably a sensation you’re familiar with as you watch society go about life as usual even while temperatures around the world spike off the charts.
Psychologists talk about the bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility or the need for social proof. One of my early mentors had an earthier explanation: “Nobody likes the f#&ing hippies hanging in the trees,” Mike Roselle would say. “But everyone’s waiting for someone else to pull the fire alarm.”
People are pulling the fire alarm almost daily in the U.K. and continental Europe. You might have heard about Just Stop Oil disrupting sporting events like Formula One or Wimbledon and, lately, “slow marching” along the streets of London. The organization’s name alone is a brilliant case study in not overthinking things. The legacy media so rarely mentions fossil fuels, but Just Stop Oil has definitely been disrupting the minds of morning show hosts and newscasters.
“Do all these heat waves around the world make you more or less supportive of Just Stop Oil?” That’s become a running theme on British talk shows. On the one hand, it’s heartening to see the question penetrating the zeitgeist, but in other ways, it misses the point.
Disruptive tactics are never going to be popular, but that’s an entirely different question from whether they’re effective. The Social Change Lab recently went at that question using an intriguing approach, polling experts who have been publishing on relevant topics in sociology and political science.
“We were really struck by the contradiction between what the public and media say about disruptive protests and what academics said,” summarized James Özden, director of the Social Change Lab. “The experts who study social movements not only believe that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but out of all of the factors we asked about, that it is the most important tactical factor for a social movement's success.”
Opinions are almost perfectly inverted between the general public and researchers who study social movements. Almost 70 per cent of researchers say disruptive tactics are effective, while 78 per cent of the U.K. public say disruptive tactics hinder a cause.
Strong disapproval levels evoke all kinds of fascinating historical parallels. The U.S. group Climate Defiance has been disrupting American politics, “swarming” the halls of Congress just this week. The U.S. activists point to Gallup polls from 1966 that found 63 per cent of Americans had an unfavourable opinion of Martin Luther King Jr. By 2011, public opinion had completely reversed, with Americans expressing 94 per cent approval.
The experts converge on disruptive protest being important. Someone’s gotta be pulling the fire alarm. And the researchers have some delightful jargon — they find that what’s particularly effective is “non-normative non-violent action.”
It’s more difficult to judge the effectiveness of specific tactics like throwing soup on the glass coverings of famous paintings. Definitely “non-normative.” But there’s been too little empirical research on the climate outcomes of specific types of protest to be definitive.
Dana Fisher is one of the world’s leading authorities on the topic — she synthesized the current state of knowledge for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report. Fisher memorably called the Van Gogh Sunflowers action “the tomato toss heard around the world.” And she says there’s a strong case for more common non-normative tactics like blocking roads: “There is very little research that shows that people who have actually experienced this type of activism are turned off to the cause.”
“The research that actually does experiments looking at people who have experienced this kind of activism that is disruptive, this type of civil disobedience, in most cases what they find is that either people’s attitudes about the issue don’t change or they get stronger, and they start to worry more about the climate crisis.”
Which is what we’d expect given those creepy videos of smoke-filled room experiments. When people just keep acting normal, so does nearly everyone else. And that cycle feeds pluralistic ignorance — another bit of jargon describing the mistaken belief that you’re alone in your assessment of a situation.
If you’re feeling moved to chuck the questionnaire, bust pluralistic ignorance and get non-normative, then Margaret Klein Salamon has written the book for you. Salamon recently updated Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself With Climate Truth and released a second edition with a foreword by Adam McKay, the writer and producer of Don’t Look Up.
Salamon is a clinical psychologist turned climate activist, and she’s now running the Climate Emergency Fund, wrangling support for non-normative protests like Just Stop Oil. Her book is a self-described self-help book, but it’s tough love. “Its goal is not to make you feel less pain,” Salamon writes. “Its purpose is to make you feel your pain more directly and constructively, to turn it into action that protects humanity and all life.”
In Facing the Climate Emergency, Salamon takes us step by step through the stages she would guide a client in therapy. Beginning with “Face Climate Truth,” then learning to work with fear and painful feelings and on through the process towards joining the movement to “Disrupt Normalcy.”
Salamon, the activist, is upfront about her mission to mobilize readers into disruptive action. But as a therapist and psychologist, she emphasizes the need to deal honestly with the personal impact of climate change. “Inside all of us, a battle rages,” she writes. “It’s the battle between fully facing the truth — emotionally and intellectually — and shrinking from it. We sense we’re in a climate emergency and mass extinction event, but we have a deep-seated psychological instinct to defend against that knowledge.”
Salamon relays her personal journey, intermixed with research studies and the experience of clients and activists to illustrate the skills we can all develop to navigate those deep-seated instincts. And, ultimately, for each of us to find our “highest and best use.”
Disruptive protest is necessary, Salamon argues. But for most people, in most of the world, disruptive protest entails enormous risk. And so, the world’s most secure, fortunate and advantaged have a particular responsibility, she says: “If you have racial or economic privilege, this is a great way to deploy it.”