abstract image of a screaming face

Image: andrew hale (flickr)

Fear, Fearlessness and Environmental Activism

7th December 2017

More information

Neil Gunningham has degrees in law and criminology from Sheffield University, UK, is a Barrister and Solicitor (ACT) and holds a PhD from ANU. Although initially trained in law, his subsequent post-graduate work was in interdisciplinary social science, and for the last fifteen years he has applied that training principally in the areas of safety, health and environment, with a focus on regulation and governance.

You might also like

This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.

Fear plays a number of important and distinctive roles in social activism. Fear is not necessarily disadvantageous to social movements; a movement that did not fear its enemies might undertake reckless and counter-productive actions. However, an emotional climate of fear may serve to stifle protest and may even paralyse potential activists.

Fear is not simply an emotion to be overcome or mitigated, but is also an emotion that can effectively mobilise people. In the case of the environment, the fear of becoming ill due to contamination, the fear of what our children’s future will look like or the fear of a community being destroyed – can all galvanise people to action. So for environmental activists, fear of the consequences of inaction is often an important driver of behaviour.

Against that backdrop I want to argue that how fear plays out in social and environmental activism is contextual. Generalisations are dangerous. Importantly, fear has psychological and sociological dimensions, both of which I will begin to unpack. And of course it’s not fear alone but in combination with other emotions, that needs to be understood.

To illustrate the importance of understanding the context in which fear plays out, let me contrast fear in relation to climate change activism and fear in the context of community and regional environmental issues of the kind epitomised by the Lock the Gate movement.

Climate change is a wicked problem: it is of such a scale and complexity as to defy solution. Mitigation imposes costs in the short term for the realisation of unquantifiable future benefits. Most of us, as economists would put it, discount the future- we are very reluctant to pay a price upfront, for benefits that may only become apparent some decades down the track.

Climate change is also a difficult issue for most people to get their heads around. You cannot see it: you cannot taste or smell it: its causes are diffuse and disputed: it is impersonal: it is hard to identify a specific villain to blame and although the impacts of climate change may be apocalyptical, they appear to be beyond our control. These attributes make appeals to people’s fears about climate change very difficult to sustain.

Crucially, if people feel they can have no influence over an external threat – however extreme that threat might be – then rather than experience powerlessness and other unpleasant emotions, they try to control their internal fears instead. Therefore, they rationalise the threat (it may never happen, the scientists may be wrong, I cannot do anything about it anyway). So we find denial, apathy, avoidance. These responses to fear have important consequences, for example, media exposés of climate change that dramatize its impact - the collapse of glaciers, widespread desertification, the mass extinction of species, the last polar bear– certainly get people’s attention but their long term impact seems to be minimal.

In contrast, in the case of Lock the Gate and its siblings fear plays out very differently. These movements are concerned with immediate problems- ones whose consequences are apparent right now, and which have immediate solutions: the problems are tangible and in your backyard. People in NSW don’t have to rely just on what scientists tell them about the impact of fracking, they can see that impact, across the border in Queensland. People don’t have to rely on future scenarios of what the impact of open cut coal mines might be. They see that impact on farmers, vintners and local communities. Moreover, the solution is very obvious and achievable right now: ban fracking, no new coal mines.

In the case of environmental activism, as others have pointed out, the key mobilising emotions are anger at a perceived injustice or fear at a perceived threat, and hope that the injustice or threat can be redressed through collective action. As social movement theorist Doug McAdam has pointed out, ‘at a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about [or threatened by] some aspect of their lives and optimistic that that by acting collectively they can begin to redress the problem’. So a common sequence is: anger (or fear) to hope to action. For activist environmental groups often the key to maintaining hope is identifying and celebrating small victories.

Such shared meanings and understandings are particularly important in in managing fear. Activist organisations, recognising this, may rely on such mechanisms as emotional mass meetings, speeches, chants and songs, intimate social ties and support, training in civil disobedience and various other ‘encouragement mechanisms’ intimate social networks, close personal links forged by activists, the perceived righteousness of the movement.

Finally, while fear, anger and hope are the principal emotions that shape environmental action and consequences, they are not the only ones. Vietnamese Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hahn emphasises that ‘real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet,’ an insight that has influenced former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, amongst others. As she puts it: ‘While on one level of our experience [climate change] is a complex problem, I see in my daily life that it is our awareness of this love that can actually be transformational …It can be the strength and power that transforms a conversation, a decision taken, and the awareness why we have to take these decisions.’

Neil Gunningham is a professor of regulation at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet)

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet