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Blogs - short snappy pieces, often topical, sometimes informal

Here in New York City, the summer felt hot, unusually so.

Snow S.BodnerNasa confirmed that July 2016 was the warmest on record. Sea ice continues to decline and shows no signs of recovery. Yet people continue to deny the reality of climate change aided largely by a conservative media bias. Over and over again we psychologists ask why. Despite the mounting evidence of climate change and its dangers, many people either ignore or deny this reality.

One factor that I note in this denial is people’s repeated reference to their own personal memories or individual perceptions. If a person doesn’t experience any weather differences, then he or she doesn’t actually believe they exist. How many times have I heard anyone from a local taxi cab driver to a pundit scoff about climate change by making reference to a particularly cold day or an early snowstorm? Or a personal anecdote from their childhood? Countless. All the time. The mental constructions of environmental spaces remain highly individualistic.

Is this denial related to the role imagination plays in the construction of our mental maps of the environment?

In 1961 David Lowenthal wrote a paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, “Geography, Experience and Imagination: Towards a Geographical Epistemology.” In this paper he considers the disconnect between the world outside and the pictures of that world as they exist in our own heads. While this classical paper laid down some new and foundational thinking about the field of geography, a few points from Lowenthal’s seminal work emerge as especially salient to the discussion of climate change denial.

Making use of Piaget, Lowenthal argues that object constancy is a staple of development, of sanity. Object constancy derives from the physical property of the thing itself, and from the ability to remember it and conjure it up when not present. The cognitive fluidity inherent in the imagining of an object to produce its constancy can also apply to the concept of place, the mental maps that we know as towns, cities, states and countries; to what we know as home. Consensus about the boundaries of place also derive from two sources: the physical properties of spatial demarcations and the ability to remember them. In the remembering generational and personal memory can imbue place with unique attributes that deviate from concrete reality.

Mostly everyone has some rudimentary knowledge of the shape and size of the world and the boundaries that define our planet. Despite that understanding a belief in a frontier, in a place that is as of yet unmapped, persists. This allows people to mitigate the sensory information about how the climate is changing by imagining that it isn’t. The belief in a future mitigates the upsetting realities of the present.

Lowenthal writes, “Because we cherish the past as a collective guide to behavior, the general consensus alters very slowly” he writes. “Scientists as well as layman ignore evidence incompatible with their preconceptions. New theories which fail to fit established views are resisted, in the hope they will prove false or irrelevant.” (1961, p.245)

This is a very anthropocentric view, one very consistent with the recent declaration of the Anthropocene to the International Geological Congress in Capetown this August.

Lowenthal explains, “All aspects of the environment exist for us only in so far as they are related to our purposes.”

He elaborates. The human perceptual world is very limited. Other creatures see sensory sides to life we can’t imagine. We have increasing evidence from science about the magnitude of mammalian consciousness. Human experience is only one tree in the forest. Technology can extend our range but only somewhat. For this reason people tend to make decisions and judgments based on a personal terra cognita, one defined by a relatively narrow set of perceptions. Despite globalization, many, many private worlds not incorporated into a shared understanding still define human understanding about the nature of the planet.

These private schemes can’t easily be communicated or shared. No matter how much technology we possess, humans can almost neurologically transform reality through the cognitive precepts that come to symbolize our personal environments. To use the famous image brought to the public attention by Al Gore - this is why we can sit like frogs in a slowly boiling pot of water and not jump out.

Lowenthal writes, “There has to be correspondence between what people perceive and the world as it is for us to survive . . . we must be able to see things not only as they are but also as what they might become.” (1961, p.250),

So how do we transform the idiosyncratic view each individual has of his or her world and transform it into something more collective? How can the individual experience of learning, imagination and memory become part of a shared understanding of of nature (mammalian and otherwise) that gives rise to a shared map of our current climate reality?

I believe that rather than running from technology and innovation we may have no choice but to enhance our technologies, possibly even making better and more moral use of artificial intelligence, to help us imagine a past into the future, to create sensory data that can help people connect their personal maps to the social. Psychologists, therefore, might be wise to focus upon our psyche’s transformative potential to help people imagine a life greater than themselves. Who knows? Such a perspective might in fact improve mental health as well as the fate of our planet.

WIth respect to climate change, this is our challenge. We have to transform individual geographies and the personal narratives attached to them into a larger shared story about our planet. This is what David Lowenthal believed in 1961.

Susan Bodnar, PhD