'Hug the Monster' for Realistic Hope in Global Warming (or How to Transform Your Fearful Inner Climate)

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A Metaphor to Change Fear Into Action and Extinguish the Panic and Despair so Deadly in a Great Crisis

Nature's Edge Notebook #27

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Sometimes, the right metaphor can save your life.

"Hug the monster" is a metaphor taught by U.S. Air Force trainers to those headed into harm's way.

The monster is your fear in a sudden crisis - as when you find yourself trapped in a downed plane or a burning house.

If you freeze or panic - if you go into merely reactive "brainlock" - you're lost.

But if your mind has been prepared in advance to recognize the psychological grip of fear, focus on it, and then transform its intense energy into action - sometimes even by changing it into anger - and by also engaging the thinking part of your brain to work the problem, your chances of survival go way up.

Around the world, a growing number of people are showing signs of hugging the monster of what the world's experts have plainly shown to be a great crisis facing us all.

Established scientists, community and government leaders and journalists, as they describe the disruptions, suffering and destruction that manmade global warming is already producing, with far worse in the offing if humanity doesn't somehow control it, are starting to allow themselves publicly to use terms like "calamity," "catastrophe", and "risk to the collective civilization."

Sooner or later, everyone who learns about the rapid advance of manmade global warming must deal with the question of fear.

For many years now, the worlds scientists and economists have depicted  upheavals in security plans, financial networks, and food and water systems due to the rapidity with which annual global temperature is rising as a result of excess carbon emissions.

But those who have also hugged this monster are finding that doing so transforms the crisis:

  • for government leaders around the world, into a wide field of ways to inspire action as they begin to find reasons for what the Holocaust scholar Philip Hallie calls "realistic hope."
  • for climate scientists, economists and other academic specialists, into the most fascinating, challenging and complex puzzle they've ever faced together - fascinating and challenging, not least because its biggest unknown is "what will the humans do?"  (The world's scientists have been the heroes and leaders of this story from the start. They've had to live longest with the fear it can induce.)
  • and for journalists, into what we call "a great story" - and please note that for us professional reporters, the word "story" is a term of art. This story is exciting professionally for its enormous and unprecedented journalistic problems, and for the variety it presents to our imaginations and skills, our art and our craft.  It may even be greater, in some ways, than the approach of World War Two must have been for journalists in the 1930s, given the projected effects of the rapid global change the world's climate scientists report is now under way.

The climate scientists and some other experts have actually been hugging this monster, transforming their fearful inner climate into action, doing so for some time, albeit privately.

Past Silence 'for Fear of Paralyzing the Public'

A few years ago, this reporter heard a prominent climate and environment scientist speaking at a large but off-the-record conference of experts and policy makers from around the world who had gathered at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

(The conference was held under "Chatham House Rules"; in hopes of encouraging vigorous and free discussion, they allow the content of talks and discussions to be reported later but not the identity of the speakers or participants.)

He told us that he and most other climate scientists often simply didn't want to speak openly about what they were learning about how disruptive and frightening the changes of manmade global warming were clearly going to be for "fear of paralyzing the public."

That speaker now has an influential job in the Obama administration.

But even The White House is showing signs of more open discussion about climate change in the near future. President Obama recently told Rolling Stone that global warming may well be an issue even during his reelection campaign, which would likely highlight the question of just how how serious - even frightening - it is.

References in some media to looming catastrophic consequences of climate change seem to this reporter to be more frequent.

A few days ago in the New York Times, a thoroughgoing front page article about global warming quoted a range of scientists on the overall effect of the global upheavals that can be expected from manmade global warming. Here are three excerpts - bolded highlights mine:

  • "'The big damages come if the climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases turns out to be high,' said Raymond T. Pierre-humbert, a climate scientist at the University of Chicago. 'Then it's not a bullet headed at us, but a thermonuclear warhead.'" (Recent scientific studies report the climate's sensitivity to greenhouse gases is proving to be higher than expected.)
  • "Ultimately, as the climate continues warming and more data accumulate, it will become obvious how clouds are reacting. But that could take decades, scientists say, and if the answer turns out to be that catastrophe looms, it would most likely be too late."
  • "'Even if there were no political implications, it just seems deeply unprofessional and irresponsible to look at this and say, "We're sure it's not a problem," ' said Kerry A. Emanuel, another M.I.T. scientist. 'It's a special kind of risk, because it's a risk to the collective civilization.'"

'A Risk to the Collective (Global) Civilization'

Global warming's "risk to the collective civilization" (meaning global civilization) has been continually spoken of in secret or unofficial or private conversations among engaged climate scientists and government and policy leaders around the world.

Such terms - catastrophe, threat to civilization itself - have been commonplace in carefully worded private discussions among peer-reviewed experts that this reporter and other journalists have often experienced and sometimes engaged in.

Careful not to prompt destructive panic, nor to lose credibility, responsible experts have been careful to temper their public depictions of what the world's climate science has been revealing about the worst effects - if humanity does not handle the problem immediately - of the rapid climatic and oceanic changes already under way.

But clearly, with so enormous and inclusive a truth as this one, the proven details of which are widely available to anyone with access to the Internet, "the truth will out, we see it day by day," as English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote long ago.

And so, inevitably, experts and leaders around the world are beginning to be more open about the frightening prospects.

However, in doing so, they are also beginning to demonstrate how to hug this monster - to embrace the fear it instills. They need to have done so to speak with credibility.

This is something leaders may do almost instinctively, as in the famous case of FDR.

'Nothing to Fear But…' - Leaders' Meta-Psychology in a Grave Crisis

"We have nothing to fear… but fear itself!" - FDR's most famous words. Soon after he was elected president in the midst of the Great Depression, he delivered them before the newsreel cameras with an intentionally determined and jaunty self-confidence.

He was using even his voice and body language to demonstrate the affect - the attitude - with which to hug the monster, fear.

It was a form of meta-psychology, asking Americans to think about their own psychology, in this case their fear, asking them to get their minds around it, embrace it, and, in a way, to become their own shrinks - to examine their fears and try to convert them into effective action, to get on with it.

This reporter has seen a variety of leaders in the United States and other countries in recent years begin to do something similar regarding manmade global warming - in speeches at the global climate summit in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011, at a variety of policy, scientific and academic conferences, and in news reports about leaders at all levels from local activists and mayors to governors to heads of state.

(It's even tempting to suspect that the growing number of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies now flowing out of Hollywood are somehow a response to the growing concern and quiet fear that more people may be feeling as the worrisome news from climate scientists increases alongside inescapable and increasingly erratic and extreme weather and shifting seasons.)

"Hug the Monster: How Fear Can Save Your Life" is the title of a chapter in The Survivor's Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, the book in which this reporter, after five years of wrestling with the enormous and daunting story of manmade global warming, first learned the phrase "Hug the monster" - a phrase that immediately struck me for its pertinence to the climate story.

The book was written by Ben Sherwood after he served as executive producer for ABC News' "Good Morning America," during which, as he explains it, he had noticed so many survivors of different kinds among the guests on the TV show that he set out to discover and report what was known in different companies and disciplines about who survives different kinds of crises and why.

He published it in 2009, two years before he became president of ABC News, and established a related website, www.thesurvivorsclub.org.

Nowhere in the book does Sherwood mention climate change, but here's a passage from the end of that chapter that struck this reporter for its relevance to the increasingly public questions about how our global civilization will deal with the advance of global warming:

Fear as a Security System - When Properly Used (Air Force Mantra)

"Without a doubt, fear is the most ancient, efficient, and effective security system in the world. Over many thousands of years, our magnificently wired brains have sensed, reacted, and then acted upon every imaginable threat. Practically speaking, when you manage fear, your chances improve in almost every situation. But if your alarms go haywire, your odds plummet."

He concludes:

"For survival then, here's the bottom line. If you're scared out of your mind, try to remember this Air Force mantra: Hug The monster. Wrap your arms around fear, wrestle it under control, and turn it into a driving force in your plan of attack. 'Survival is not about bravery and heroics,' award-winning journalist Laurence Gonzales writes in his superb book Deep Survival. 'Survivors aren't fearless. They use fear: They turn it into anger and focus.' The good news is that you can learn to subdue the monster and extinguish some of the clanging bells. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. Indeed, with enough hugs, you can even tame the beast and turn him into your best friend and most dependable ally."

As a growing number of professional journalists around the world are finding, the story of manmade global warming (and the other evil twin of excess carbon emissions, the rapid acidification of the oceans) is unprecedented in its scale, almost "too big to cover," and frightening.

But there are now signs that, little by little, voices and personalities are beginning to emerge around the world who are starting to hug this monster, manage the fear, and turning the emotions it causes into action.

For us journalists, the core responsibilities of our profession include knowing how to report unpleasant but important facts - and to do so in ways that nonetheless engage groups small and large, even in a sense "entertain" them, as in entertaining the mind, and to try to win their tacit appreciation for doing so.

Obviously, when the news is horrendous, such as, say, a looming world war or the rapid climb in global temperature and ocean acidification, our job includes the very essence of what it means to hug the monster.

But as this reporter and a growing number of others now working the story can report, once we do so, manmade global warming transforms into "a great story" (in our profession's term of art) - and even one in which it is possible to glimpse a number of reasons for "realistic hope."

To be continued…


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