“Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind”
(Albert Einstein, 1950, as cited in Pinker, 2019, from Mueller, 1989)
One of the criticisms levelled at those who celebrate the progress that society has already achieved is that a positive mindset can lead to complacency. This is indeed something which everyone who is concerned with understanding global affairs should be wary of. Complacency can lead to inaction where action is deemed to be necessary, and it can also mean that those who are more vociferous can be heard more loudly: the dominant narrative can be controlled by powerful interests.
However, I would argue that there is a more pressing case to be made against acting too soon, too urgently, and too rashly.
The dangers of urgency
Urgency can lead to a sense of despair – and this in its own right is concerning from a mental health perspective. But despair is also a concern because it may lead to either a lack of action, or action which tends towards adaptation rather than mitigation (i.e. directing more energy towards solving the effects of a problems rather than its causes). For instance, in the face of rising sea levels due to climate change, it may well be easier for authorities to prioritise the construction of higher sea walls over cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Acting urgently can also lead to responses to challenges which might be rushed, inappropriate, or uncoordinated. They may even be counter-productive, or cause significant knock-on impacts elsewhere. For example, the rush to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, initially by co-firing biomass with coal in pre-existing power stations, and latterly through the use of biomass boilers, has resulted in deforestation, some from virgin forests, with its concomitant loss of biodiversity. Marco Magrini (2018) has also written about Germany’s rapid post-Fukushima shift from nuclear to coal power, and about China’s environmental challenge of dealing with rusting petrol-driven motorbikes caused by the government’s rushed promotion of electric scooters (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Abandoned motorbikes in Shenzen, China, April 2016
Much like compassion fatigue, ‘urgency fatigue’ can also set in. Politicians, commentators and advocates of special interest groups are all vying for media attention with ever more extreme refrains. For instance, how many institutions have been experiencing ‘an existential crisis’ in recent years? Well, a quick search of the web reveals that almost every organisation is apparently struggling to survive: the NHS, the army, social care services, Britain, the EU, humanity and now the world! Professor Mike Hulme (2019) has recently written eloquently on the reasons why he is resisting the trend towards ‘extinctionism’ in the current discourse about climate change here (thank you to Steve Brace for drawing this to my attention).
The ratcheting up of calls for ‘urgent’ help can also lead to a ‘crying wolf’ scenario: when there is a genuinely existential threat, what fresh rhetoric will be needed to make us take action?
Related to urgency fatigue is another problem – and this too is self-perpetuating: it can feed a news and current affairs culture where whoever shouts the loudest gets the most airtime, commands the most attention, and uses up valuable political capital. This is all achieved at the expense of those issues which may deserve deeper reflection but which lack vociferous advocates. Without a figure such as Greta Thunberg for climate change, Malala Yousafzai for women’s rights, or Nelson Mandela for racial equality, some causes flounder. Is this fair? Where is the antibiotic resistance poster child? Where is the pro-vaccination icon?
Nuanced arguments and detailed contemplation can also be lost in this noisy atmosphere; is there time, for example, for us to understand the position of the Russian and Canadian governments, who can be reluctant to act on climate change, unless we appreciate that they may benefit from the expansion of arable land in their northern regions?
I propose that an atmosphere of urgency can lead to a sense of disbelief when confronted by ‘good news stories’ – a sense which is so profound as to make one doubt the existence, or even the promise, of progress. This is shown in the ‘cycle of urgency’ flow diagram (Figure 2, below):
Figure 2: The cycle of urgency
Doesn’t urgency drive action?
One counter-argument might be that if it wasn’t for high profile, negative, urgent stories, then less human progress would have been made, as key players, citizens and consumers would have been less aware of them.
I appreciate that this line of reasoning does have some validity. Would today’s environmentalists have been quite so numerous or effective in their work if they hadn’t been roused by ‘Save the Whales’ campaigns in their formative years? Would climate change have climbed up the league of pressing matters for the UN to consider without the urgency instilled by Al Gore in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’? (Update to blog post: Hans Rosling reported in ‘Factfulness’ that Gore told him in 2009 ‘We need to create fear!’).
However, does this counter-argument still hold as strongly today? Haven’t the biggest global lessons been learned? Do advancements in communications and education mean that society is capable of avoiding past mistakes without the headline-grabbing negativity and urgency which drove previous reforms?
For example, do we really need an ‘Extinction Rebellion’ campaign to push climate change to the top of the news? Or is action being taken anyway, behind the scenes, to move the world in this direction?
Could it be the case that several ‘big issues’ are gradually being tackled without being driven by a headline-grabbing sense of urgency? What motivates the drivers behind social and economic movements such as Professor Tom Crowther of Crowther Lab, who has produced meaningful and optimistic strategies for combatting climate change. Or Chad Frishmann of Project Drawdown (Figure 3)?
Figure 3: Project Drawdown book cover
Overcoming the urge for urgency
There are significant challenges facing the world, but I would argue that it is necessary to strike a balance between educating and informing people enough to rouse and inspire them without inducing despair or panic. Humanity should not have its achievements undermined by the corrosive effects of urgency. We deserve better than being faced with daily self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.
Hulme, M (2019) ‘Am I a denier, a human extinction denier?’ 27 May 2019 https://mikehulme.org/am-i-a-denier-a-human-extinction-denier/# (accessed 7 June 2019)
Magrini, R (2018) ‘Green loopholes’ in Geographical, 90:4 (April 2018), page 9 – available online at http://geographical.co.uk/nature/energy/item/2669-green-loopholes (accessed 7 June 2019)
Mueller, J (1989) Retreat from Doomsday: The obsolescence of major war (New York: Basic Books)
Pinker, S (2019) Enlightenment Now (Penguin)