Why We Should Tell People the Truth About the Environment Even When It Is Bad News
By Carolyn Raffensperger
“I think unless the people are given information about what is happening to them, they will die in ignorance. And I think that’s a big sin. I mean, if there is such a thing as a sin, that’s it, to destroy people and not have them have a clue about how this is happening.” Alice Walker
When people find out what I do for a living—addressing climate change, toxic chemicals, and loss of species—they ask me if I am optimistic that things will turn out ok. They ask, do I think there’s a viable future for their kids and their grandchildren? They are asking me for my professional judgment about the state of the world since I live and breathe each new study and every fact.
And my colleagues and allies in the environmental work have the same kinds of discussions about the science of endocrine disruptors, rising levels of carbon dioxide, and the acidification of the ocean. My colleagues say “that’s too negative. Focus on the good news! The solutions! We can’t tell people the bad news because it will turn them off!”
But here’s the deal—we are in deep trouble. Recent data suggest that humans will suffer more chronic debilitating diseases, most of our own making; climate will ricochet from one calamitous weather pattern to another; and frogs and pollinators will not survive the predations of industrial civilization. I write this essay from central Iowa where in 2010 we had record flooding. In 2012 we had record drought. And now in 2013 we have record rainfall and flooding, again.
Here is my list of reasons for why I have come to believe that people need to know the truth about the bad environmental news.
1) We have a right to know. Just as we have a legal right to know what chemicals are used and stored in our communities, we have an ethical right to know the status and fate of the world around us.
2) Most people can handle the truth. They need to be treated like grownups not like four year olds. And most of us have pretty good bulls&*t detectors and recognize when we’re not hearing the truth.
3) If people don’t know the truth about climate change or the other problems, they can’t prepare and find ways for their families and communities to adapt and become more resilient.
4) Keeping the bad news within the confines of the scientific or activist communities isolates the scientist or activist. It makes the burden of what we know so lonely that we risk burning out.
5) If people are aware of how dire the situation is, the more likely they will be able to help. We are far more likely to find the myriad solutions to these problems with more heart and minds working on them. As the musician Amanda Palmer said “We can only connect the dots that we collect.” While environmental problems are scientific problems, they are not just scientific. We can’t rely on science alone to get us out of this mess. The way forward will require a robust ethic, widespread imagination, and multiple ways of knowing—and finding solutions.
6) One of the most guilt-inducing experiences is to discover after the fact that some atrocity happened around you. One day our grandchildren will ask “did you know?” Some day we will be able to say “yes, we knew. And we did everything we could to make a future for you that was whole, healthy, and beautiful. But doing everything we can requires that, first, we know.
What is it that we know? We know the trends, we know the statistics. An exact prediction of what will happen in 30, 50, or 100 years is impossible. But we do know some likely scenarios (drought, flood, drought, flood, for example). As futurist Jamais Cascio says, “…we have to remember that most of the plausible dystopian scenarios—again, aside from some kind of extinction event—are likely to be strange mixtures of disaster and hope, successful response and failed experiments, regional collapse,s and local resilience. A forecast that can be summed up as ‘game over’ is nearly always bad futurism.”
Finally, I was talking with environmental writers and lawyers at University of Illinois Law School earlier this year about the tsunami of bad news. One man said “if you want to find good news, look to the birds.” He described the comeback of Coopers Hawks and Eagles in his lifetime. These bits of good news are rare but they are as essential as the bad news for understanding what is really happening and what is possible.
Just as people have a right to know the bad news, they have a right to know the good news. Our future depends on gathering the dots, seeing the patterns, making new patterns and yes, telling the truth.