Greta Thunberg and the Psychology of Fear

Greta Thunberg and the Psychology of Fear

From “Science confirms spiders and snakes are innately terrifying” (NY POST 10/21/17)

George Cassidy Payne

The youth can’t seem to win. If they don’t speak up about vital issues, they are labeled as apathetic, clueless, and self-centered. When they do take an interest in the affairs of the world, they are often ridiculed as being inexperienced, naïve, and, once again, self-centered. A no-win situation.

That is one reason Greta Thunberg so inspires me.  Knowing the position her generation faces does not deter Greta from following what she believes is her calling. As the 2019 Person of the Year, Time wrote:

Over the course of little more than a year, a 16-year-old from Stockholm went from a solitary protest on the cobblestones outside her country’s Parliament to leading a worldwide youth movement; from a schoolkid conjugating verbs in French class to meeting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations and receiving audiences with Presidents and the Pope.

Naturally, she has her share of detractors. President Trump, most notably, took to Twitter to say that “Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend!” (Earlier this year, in a different tweet, the POTUS was even more dismissive of Thunberg.)

Yet, Thunberg’s most formidable opponent may not be the ageists and climate deniers, or even Donald Trump. Perhaps, her most staunch and unassailable enemy in this battle is evolution itself.

Thunberg knows the stakes. According to the research highlighted in the Time article, “emissions would need to start falling next year by 7.6% annually and continue at that rate for a decade in order for the world to have any chance of hitting the widely accepted targets for stopping global warming.”

The world is nowhere near that goal. It looks almost certain that we will reach the 1.5-celsius mark-exposing 350 million additional people to catastrophes such as drought and floods, and “push roughly 120 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.” The ensuing chaotic destruction of our global social and economic systems has been well prophecized and described by scientists and artists alike.

These facts being what they are, Thunberg is right. It’s an emergency. Preparing for climate catastrophes and curbing global warming should be the world’s most urgent task. In light of the clear and present danger, her adamant stance is appropriate, realistic, and vitally important. Yet it is not penetrating the way people know it should despite prestigious honors from reputable magazines. Why is that?

The answer to that question is not an easy one, but a psychological theory posits humans are hardwired to fear natural phenomena such as snakes and windstorms, and events such as nightfall and illness.  These are real fears happening immediately and most dramatically. For millions of years, our ancestors faced these fears, learning to adapt to them.

On the other hand, terms such as global warming, climate change, climate crisis, or climate emergency are relatively new and have little to do with the most substantial phases of our human development. In fact, it is mind-bending to consider just how recent global warming and climate crisis are in terms of the history of human fear.

On this point, psychologist Martin Seligman’s theory of prepared learning is particularly helpful. Seligman suggests that “we have developed a fear system that is ‘prepared’-sensitive to certain situations due to the effect of evolution. In the modern world, “traffic and electrical accidents are major killers, but for the majority of the history of primates…hazards such as snakes and spiders have been a far greater risk.” Seligman contends that “individual primates who more easily learned to fear the biggest threats were those more likely to survive and pass on their gene-meaning over time, that we have evolved a genetically based, fear-learning system.”¹

If Seligman is right, that is bad news for the movement Greta Thunberg is championing, It means that the fear we should fear most, i.e., climate change, is not a fear hardwired into our species.  Certainly not one we are equipped by evolution to take as seriously as this intrepid young activist expects and demands.

¹ 30-Second Psychology, edited by Christian Jarrett (The Ivy Press, NY, 2011)

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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