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General · 27th October 2011
Ray Grigg
Ever get the feeling that our environmental problems are just too big to solve? Ever cringe when hearing of another "unprecedented weather event", when reading of another species on the verge of extinction, or seeing headlines of another sobering report from climatologists, biologists or toxicologists? Ever feel numbed because the onslaught of gloomy forecasts is overwhelming? Ever suspect that the entire environmental mess could be a fictional concoction designed by conspirators to overthrow the economic system that has brought us prosperity? Welcome to a psychological condition called "well-informed futility syndrome".

"Well-informed futility syndrome" was first identified in 1973 by the American psychologist Gerhart Wiebe who was examining the response of television viewers to the real-time Vietnam war news they were receiving in their own living rooms. The more they saw and learned about the disastrous complexity of the issues, the more paralyzed they felt by a sense of futility.

Denial is futility's close relative. Peter Sandman, an expert on risk communication, describes how we intuitively avoid information that elicits uncomfortable feelings. Because we don't want to confront fear or guilt, we reflexively exercise the mental gymnastics that avoid confrontations with such emotional experiences. So we follow the easy way out when we receive any uncomfortable messages that contain incongruities or inconsistencies. As Sandra Steingraber notes so succinctly in her powerful book, Raising Elijah, if we are told we have a dire environmental problem (such as mass extinctions or melting icecaps) but the proposed solutions seem so trivial (such as buying new light bulbs or recycling office paper) then the discontinuity between the problem and the solution provides the opportunity to conclude that the problem is not so dire. Denial combines with futility, she writes, to create a "retreat into silent paralysis".

Denial, futility and paralysis all combine into a syndrome that results in inaction, a forestalling of plans, initiatives and undertakings that would begin to address the multiple waves of environmental problems coming at us. And the irony is that this inaction only increases the severity of the syndrome – very much like denying the existence of credit card debt only increases the accumulation of interest charges, or getting depressed about feeling depressed only increases the severity of the depression.

The cure for the "well-informed futility syndrome" is action. But not just any action. While conscientiously bringing reusable shopping bags to the grocery store is important and careful recycling helps to solve environmental problems, the cure to futility is in the larger thinking that addresses the root causes. Our environmental problems are the symptoms of something deeper that's amiss. Unless the structural faults are corrected, the problems will continue to bedevil us. We can attempt to rehabilitate a salmon stream but unless we curtail the clearcut logging of watersheds, all efforts are likely to be useless. We can sandbag a rising river but unless we reduce the greenhouse gases that are activating the hydrological cycle, the torrential rains will guarantee future floods. We can search for cures to cancer but unless we reduce the levels of chemical contamination permeating our civilization, our successes will be frustratingly small. We can devise more ingenious ways of drilling for oil but without a decrease in our dependence on it, the social, political, economic and environmental costs will continue to escalate.

An increasing number of people are successfully counteracting the "well informed futility syndrome" by becoming environmentally active – particularly in countries like Canada where the national government is doing so little to alleviate a rising sense of helplessness. Action is the only escape from the grip of paralysis. So people form salmon enhancement societies, naturalists clubs and conservancy organizations. Others become involved in the Georgia Strait Alliance, the Sierra Club, Ecojustice, Common Sense Canadians, CoalWatch, the BC Sustainable Energy Association, and the Living Oceans Society. Support for more activist approaches offered by Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Society remains solid. The list continues to expand as the frustration in a well-informed public continues to build. It even includes the Raging Grannies ‹ some may regard them as entertaining eccentrics but they are invariably mature and experienced women who are repositories of tradition and wisdom. They are merely trying to change behaviour that is ruining our planet's ecology and risking the foundations of our civilization.

Those who are activated to counteract the numbing and paralyzing effects of the "well-informed futility syndrome" are simply responding as best they can to a complex problem that is not being adequately addressed by the agencies and governments representing them. Their actions, however rational or extreme, however practical or bizarre, are their responses to a pervasive feeling of frustration and helplessness to a problem that is not being solved.

As a child, Steingraber recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s when American school children were taught to protect themselves from a nuclear attack by taking cover under a desk. The fear of annihilation by a Russian attack was real and immediate in those Cold War years. When asked about their future lives, all her classmates thought they would die from an atom bomb – except for one optimistic girl whose parents were engaged as peace activists.