TAPAS.network | 25 July 2022 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

The Boiling Point. What’s missing if it isn’t the experience?

Peter Stonham

ARE PERSONAL EXPERIENCES, and demonstrable signals that something untoward is happening, a better way to change thinking and behaviour than hearing the wisdom of experts and the warnings of doomsayers? Or is it possible to even miss the implications of those too? 

It’s surely worth asking in the light of last week’s unprecedented extreme temperatures in the UK, and even worse in other countries, and the continuing impacts of fossil-fuel supply shortages and massive price rises.

And also bearing in mind the 20th anniversary of the sending of a letter by 28 transport professors to the then Transport Secretary warning him of the structural flaws in policy at the time - and repeated similar and increasingly strident assertions by the sector’s leading thinkers ever since that radical change is needed in the nation’s transport objectives and priorities.

If those have been warnings from the experts, ‘A warning from the Earth’ was one of the newspaper headlines about the 40 degree temperature records.

But who is listening to either?

Any remaining shortcomings in the required response of transport policies and individual travel behaviours can surely not be simply the result of a lack of insight, awareness and understanding - or the absence of suitable modelling and forecasting of what a ‘do nothing’ or ‘do insufficient’ approach will painfully mean.

So is it wilful disregard? A dependence on hope over expectation? The placing of heads in sand? Or, to coin a phrase, a belief in fairy tales and ‘fantasy thinking’, that is preventing an acceptance of the true challenges of climate change, global warming, and an evident mismatch of the lifestyles people want (and expect) and what they can sustainably and realistically have?

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Psychological research has demonstrated a dangerous ability of 21st century human beings to normalise the situations they have experienced, and not realise how significantly things have changed.

It seems pretty clear that we like our behaviour as it is, thank you very much, so could someone else please arrange for a painless fix to the consequences?

If the shock of last week’s experience didn’t demonstrate that the world is getting dangerously hot, there are plenty of other examples of the material changes taking place on the planet. Storms have been violent, floods have been destructive, and fires ferocious.

Psychological research has demonstrated a dangerous ability of 21st century human beings to normalise the situations they have experienced, and not realise how significantly things have changed.

There’s a famous analogy for this phenomenon. It’s called the boiling frog effect – the notion that a frog immersed in gradually heating water will fail to notice the creeping change in its circumstances, and not seek to escape, even as it’s literally being boiled alive.

It is a useful metaphor for the way in which humans are sailing unfazed into a dire-looking future of irreversible climate change and its implications for the ability of the Earth to provide an acceptable habitat for human life as we have come to know it. Not to mention the other risks to our existence from disease, conflict, and the side effects of ill-judged and over-confident interventions by our species in the natural environment that supports us.

People seem to be getting used to changes they’d prefer not to acknowledge and, instead demanding immediate action on other matters, which of course are often concerning, but of a different order of significance and long-term consequence.

Just listen to news bulletins and observe social media to see that things like travel delays and missing or imperfect products and services are regularly treated as first priorities. Not to mention those expected standards of living that have come to be seen as a base for achieving yet more material wealth, rather than as an amazing achievement and privilege in their own right that we might need to row back on a bit in the cause of something even more fundamental.

Remember that boiling frog. Even those 28 professors only 20 years ago were missing quite a bit of the plot in not principally stressing the problems of climate change and the need for decarbonisation, but more concerned about the capacity and congestion problems and direct externalities of the road transport system. They have been on a learning journey too, since then, as Professor Glenn Lyons acknowledges in his reflections article in this LTT issue.

University professors might not these days be the principal reference point for agenda setting and leadership on key matters of societal importance anyway. That falls more to celebrity experts and communicators like Sir David Attenborough, and disruptive upstarts like Greta Thunberg, whose own profile and messaging cannot be denied, but the impact of which is still very limited in prompting real change.

And then there’s the distracting trivia and superficiality of social media always on hand to get in the way.

The other concept that seems to be relevant here is that familiarity breeds contempt. And that temperatures and weather conditions initially considered remarkable become accepted as effectively normal with repeated exposure over time.

It is perhaps possible that human cognition might still turn out to be more effective than that supposed of the frogs. For example, if the physical conditions produced by the rising temperatures eventually take the world past painful physiological or biological thresholds that we simply cannot ignore. Though it may all, by then, of course, be too late to reverse the real risk of extinction.

In the meantime, it seems, lifestyles must still come before life preservation. 

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT850, 25 July 2022.

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