The Public Will Never Go For That!

posters for Victory Gardens 1943; download an entire 1943 Victory Garden manual here

I‘ve often been accused of being a defeatist. I don’t believe the collapse of our civilization in this century can be avoided. I don’t believe that our now-global systems (political, economic, social, business, educational, health systems etc) that cause so much suffering, human and more-than-human, can possibly be reformed. I don’t believe that anyone or any group (sorry Margaret) has the power to bring about the kind of dramatic, radical changes that would significantly improve any of the predicaments we are currently facing or will soon be facing.

But I think that’s just being savvy about human nature, complexity, the nature of predicaments, and how change actually happens. It’s pessimistic, to be sure, but it’s not defeatist — it’s realistic.

So you may be surprised that this essay’s purpose is to confront what I see as real defeatism that I think, especially this year, has caused us to underestimate “the public’s” willingness to tolerate significant changes to our lifestyles, for the betterment of all. And the words that exemplify this defeatism most often are: The public will never go for that. 

I first noticed this underestimation of humans’/citizens’ capacity for change about 20 years ago, when I spoke with climate scientists. When they told me that they would never admit in a public conversation just how desperate the situation is regarding climate change and other facets of ecological collapse, I kept asking them: Why?

Of course they had legitimate concerns about job security. If they told the truth speaking as members of a government scientific body, they would probably be canned by the political interests who controlled that body. But they could, and did, sign on to collective pleas and lobbying from large groups of scientists speaking as individual scientists, like the Union of Concerned Scientists. But business leaders and citizens certainly noticed the cognitive dissonance between what they were saying on the record as spokespeople for their organizations, and what they were saying as part of a large but more anonymous group (and to their own close friends and families). Which story do you think most business leaders and citizens have chosen to believe? The one that says there’s still time, that we can “solve” the problem if, if, if only, and that we can get where we need to get by painless baby steps. Starting in five years.

But they told me there was another reason they didn’t say what they really believed, what they really knew, in public. And that was that they were afraid that a dire message that told people they had to make drastic changes in their own lifestyles, and major sacrifices, now, would simply be unacceptable to their audiences. They would not be invited back. They would be discounted as crazies, alarmists. People would simply not listen. People only want to hear reassurances, comforts, good news. Even if it’s untrue.

Now, to me, that’s defeatism. It indicates a failure to appreciate that throughout history people have been willing to make huge changes to the way they live, if everyone else is willing (perhaps with some cajoling) to do their part, too. And that’s the rub. We have given up believing in the potential for large-scale collective action in the public good. We have given up on each other.

That’s dreadfully understandable. Self-interested corporatists, conservatives and their media use the public will never go for that as a club to beat down any suggestion that large-scale collective action is possible. The public will never go for medicare for all. The public will never agree to make sacrifices to mitigate climate change. The public will never give up their guns, their cars, their vacation flights, to reduce needless deaths, global warming, or the spread of a pandemic.

The problem is, we don’t know that that’s true. Many countries have medicare for all, and have made major sacrifices for the benefit of all their citizens, including, if reluctantly, in New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and other countries that have beaten CoVid-19 and long ago returned to near-normal lives.

Defeatism is the pessimistic assumption that “the public will never go for that”. It’s lazy, uncourageous, and weak. Instead of letting this fiction dictate not only what we do, but what we don’t do, we could be following many models around the world where the citizens have embraced the challenge, won the day, and collectively celebrated their successes.

The defeatists’ second line of defence is that would never work here. This argument is presented as a statement of fact, when it is an unsubstantiated opinion. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Wait too long to act, implement ineffectual half-measures, watch them fail, see the public resentment over confusing, annoying instructions achieving nothing at all, or worse. See, we told you it would never work here. We couldn’t even get the public to

This defeatism, encouraged by corporatist interests, the ultra-rich defending their privilege, and nostalgic conservatives prompted by execrable media to yearn for a return to a safe, simple, ordered past that actually never existed, extends to every part of our modern society, and its effects are lethal.

There is overwhelming evidence that if we all shifted to a balanced, varied, plant-based diet, we would live an average of ten years longer overall and our healthy lifespans, the number of years free from chronic illness, would likely nearly double. This is not rocket science. If the food industry were prompted and rewarded to make it work, there is no reason why this would be difficult, or more expensive, or more time-consuming, or less delicious. But we can’t even get our national food guides to suggest it. Why? The public would never go for that. You can’t tell people what they can and can’t eat! Even if it’s killing them, and costing us all a fortune in treatments and hospitalizations and lost work time, not to mention its social costs and the massive amounts of human and animal misery and disease (including pandemics) it perpetuates?

In war-time, and during depressions, suddenly we find a way to get past this fiction, this excuse for mad, complacent, defeatist behaviour. In wartime (real wars where we have a stake, not the proxy/drone wars we fight now), people have readily given up their luxuries, and even some favoured foods and activities, and put in hours of extra toil each day, all to “support our troops”. During the Great Depression, corporate and some individual tax rates were as high as 90%, and everyone understood this was a necessary cost to prevent people starving.

We put the brakes on a horrific threat to our planet — the destruction of the ozone layer — in just 5 years, by simply banning dangerous refrigerants and working with the industry to invent safer alternatives. Many countries have done the same by quickly phasing out incandescent light bulbs, reducing the energy consumption of lighting by over 80% with no inconvenience whatsoever, and the lighting manufacturers are doing just fine, thank you.

Instead of the public will never go for that, and that would never work here, we might try another self-fulfilling prophesy: We’re all going to do this because it’s in everyone’s interest. I think we’d be surprised at how it might land.

Instead, we have governments reopening businesses, schools and public institutions and facilities just as the pandemic variants are starting to take hold. Why don’t we Go For Zero? The public would never go for that. That would never work here.

Instead, we have the new US president repudiating everything that Bernie and AOC urged Democrats to support and vote for. Why not medicare for all? The public would never go for that. That would never work here.

Instead, we have meat packers designated as essential workers, dying in massive numbers of CoVid-19 as their factories, which are veritable hot-houses of disease to begin with, working at close quarters to chop up the ghastly products of factory farms that are likewise hot-houses of disease and misery (and the origin of most pandemic diseases), have been responsible for a large proportion of the super-spreader events that have caused 80% of CoVid-19 infections. Why not shut down meat packers and factory farms (which account for less than 2% of wages and GDP in most countries while producing over 90% of animal “products”) and encourage people to eat something else at least until we can get them to clean up their act? The public would never go for that. That would never work here.

As long as we keep saying it, and allow our cowardly, complacent governments to keep saying it, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have given up on us, and we have given up on each other.

Now that’s defeatism.

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6 Responses to The Public Will Never Go For That!

  1. Brutus says:

    Agree entirely with your first two paragraphs. Well done. No one has ever actually accused me of defeatism (almost no one reads my blog), but I take that charge on myself often enough. The biggest reason for my defeatism is the collective behaviors we already have as examples. But as you point out, it’s not the masses but the decision makers driving those behaviors. The second biggest reason is supplied by William Ophuls in his book Immoderate Greatness (2012), namely, a gigantic failure of morale. This second reason was a surprise for me to read but makes a great deal of sense on consideration.

    The other euphemistic phrase frequently used by (non-)leaders to defer taking meaningful action is We don’t want to cause a panic. If the civilizational collapse doesn’t call for panic, what does? The phrase was trotted out (one example among many) to justify delayed U.S. response to the pandemic after leaders were caught with their pants down, fully exposed in their abject mismanagement and dereliction of duty. My assessment is that the public would prefer to get bad news straight and early rather than delayed from weasels or through amplified suffering. I would also reinforce your phrase “the ultra-rich defending their privilege.” That narrow cadre is influential waaaaay out of proportion to their numbers but arguably in proportion to their absurd wealth.

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    I remember reading Limits to Growth back in the 1970’s and thinking how obvious it was that economic growth was subject to fast-approaching limits and that too much growth would cause real trouble. I figured that everyone else would see how simple the concept of a finite surface of a spherical earth tolerating unlimited human impact was impossible. We couldn’t be so stupid as to deny the obvious. And here we are.

    Fifty years on I am a confirmed defeatist. But I’m in good company…

    “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
    ― Albert Einstein

    “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”
    ― George Carlin

    “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.”
    ― Napoleon Bonaparte

    “Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
    ― Oscar Wilde

    “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”
    ― Robert A. Heinlein

    “When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
    ― Jonathan Swift

    “[In the Universe it may be that] Primitive life is very common and intelligent life is fairly rare. Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth.”
    ― Stephen W. Hawking

    “I have defined the hundred per cent American as ninety-nine per cent an idiot.”
    ― George Bernard Shaw

  3. Nathan Shepperd says:

    At the risk of sounding uncharitable, it does sound from your description that there’s a bit of cowardice involved with climate scientists of job security and status are inhibitors of honesty. A bit unfair to single them out however.

    The trouble I have with the attitude you describe – “the government could tell people do do something sensible and they’d all do it” – is comic the idea that the true government is a noble institution that can get people to come together if only those corporate interests would stop interfering. I picked up this idea myself. However this idealised government is a fantasy. In fact with the different reactions to covid-19 the culture is more important than the government – the government is an abstraction made up of a large number of people with different attitudes.
    Also I don’t consider myself “allowing” the “leaders” in government to do anything. In practical terms I have zero influence. That’s where the sort of thing you’ve written falls down – it sounds reasonable in a persons head but refuses to translate onto the actual dysfunctional organisations we are familiar with – and humans sticking their heads in the sand because change is uncomfortable and status and popularity are addictive.

    I think in another post you’d say something similar but I enjoy the fact that you write from several different perspectives.

  4. Les W Kuzyk says:

    Realistic is the best view on the most likely outcomes going forward. A series of crises I write into my near future speculations. I learned the hard way, when, as an analyst, I published facts on a measure showing global overshoot. Human nature. We are not overly intelligent when it comes to planetary care.
    Krakatoa II — second in a novel series

  5. Apneaman says:

    You can barely get half of them to wear a mask – gimme a break Dave.

    James Hanson’s ‘no doubt’ warning was in 1988. That means were in decade #4 of ever more dire warnings.

    Damn straight I’m a defeatist. I gave up on the humans over a decade ago & wish I would have done it sooner.

    Research Confirms: When Receiving Bad News, We Shoot the Messenger

    You forgot to mention all the death threats climate scientists have received & continue to receive. Not just them their spouses & children too. They live & work in big American cities. It’s easy to label them cowards & defeatists when retired & living on an idyllic island off the coast of BC.

    The same nutters who went on a rampage on Jan 6th are the same tribe who threaten to kill climate scientists.

    All your examples (apples to oranges) have been debunked so many times, I’m surprised to see them here. Hope & idealism die hard.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments. I confess when I wrote this I was kind of testing it out in my own mind rather than instinctively sensing it to be true.

    There are days when I think about the message of my grandparents, who lived through the great depression and told me how astonished they were about how quickly mindsets changed when the crisis really hit home, and suddenly there was a critical mass of people willing to radically change their behaviours when there hadn’t been just a month before. It’s like a tipping point was reached and suddenly a great many middle-class people with a “not my problem” mindset suddenly had face-to-face, personal evidence that it actually was.

    Part of me wants to believe it’s hopeless — it’s easier to start coming to grips with collapse and crisis when you let go of the thought that with the right behaviours the crisis can be averted. It’s easier, and doesn’t require coping with so much uncertainty and ambiguity. It can be an enormous relief.

    But part of me wants to believe that, at least for some crises and issues like pandemics, universal health care, global malnutrition, and factory farming, such a tipping point is not impossible, and therefore hopelessness is defeatist. There are success stories for each of these crises. And ultimately the people I’m saying are sometimes tempted to behave in what might seem to be a cowardly and defeatist way are those of us fighting the good fight on these issues — you and me.

    I go back and forth. It’s the nature of joyful pessimism, I guess.

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