Sophie Cunningham: Still Shocking (video)

(Click to watch video.)

(Click to watch video.)

Sophie Cunningham, noted writer and departing editor of Meanjin, delivered our Lunchbox/Soapbox last week on the topic of climate change and what seems to be a general paralysis in response to it. You can watch the full video or listen to the podcast.

Here’s an edited extract of Sophie’s presentation.

At about the time I was giving this talk – ‘Still Shocking’ - last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was announcing details of the government’s new carbon tax. The passionately expressed opposition to this is very relevant, I think, to the points I went on to make.

I first started thinking about the subject of change and how we deal with it when I was listening to the news coverage of Cyclone Yasi as a ‘200 year’ storm. The term is not exactly inaccurate - it is a way of saying there is a 0.5% chance that a storm of that severity that will occur. But the implication is that storms that large will only occur every 200 years when the confluence of extreme weather events recently suggests otherwise. In 1970, Alvin Toffler published Future Shock. It was - and I quote - “a book about what happens to people when they are overwhelmed by change. It is about the ways in which we adapt - or fail to adapt - to the future.” He called this failure to adapt an ‘illness’: future shock.

The thing about change is that none of us can avoid it.

One of the things I want to consider is the ways in which our personal reluctance to accept things, the very human nature of our responses, can become a dangerous thing. This is most explicitly the case when it comes to the work of climate change deniers. Deniers specialise in eliding the difference between weather and climate: short-term ebbs and flows versus long-term trends

Yes, it’s rained a lot lately, but this doesn’t changes the fact that most of the scientific community has forecast higher average temperatures and an increasing number of extreme weather events. This is a crucial point to make: the scientific community is in agreement about these issues.

So why is there such reluctance to act on this knowledge, and why do deniers get such airplay? I wish the issue were as simple as money and power. Unfortunately I think denialism is caused by something more entrenched, and harder to fight: fear. Let me return to Future Shock:

One widespread response to high-speed change is outright denial. The Denier’s strategy is to ‘block out’ unwelcome reality. When the demand for decisions reaches crescendo, he flatly refuses to take in new information. Like the disaster victim whose face registers total disbelief, the Denier, too, cannot accept the evidence of his sense … An unknowing victim of future shock, the Denier sets himself up for personal catastrophe. His strategy for coping increases the likelihood that when he finally is forced to adapt, his encounter with change will come in the form of a single massive life crisis, rather than a sequence of manageable problems.

The problem for us, of course, is that it’s the planet itself that is in crisis, not just individuals. No matter how scary the forecasts for the future, I would argue with knowledge comes agency.

Sophie Cunningham will be one of the presenters at tonight’s Big Gay Week event, The Only Gay Book in the Village, alongside Benjamin Law, Fiona McGregor and William Yang.

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