I've recently engaged with Dr Gail Bradbrook, Co-Founder of Extinction Rebellion and asked if she would write a monthly column for The Finanser. Thankfully she agreed and so at the start of each month I will offer Gail a voice on The Finanser. Here is the first one:
Are we paid to be stupid and dishonest, to not look up?!
Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest film Don’t Look Up is about an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. In reality it is a commentary on climate and ecological collapse. Using dark comedy and some of Hollywood's finest actors, it shines a light on our systemically insane and dishonest western world. The inane reaction of clickbait press rings especially true to those of us who have been in the media, as a result of environmental campaigning; for example this daft interview I had with Richard Madeley on Good Morning Britain.
What are the contributing psychological and cultural factors that mean we aren’t collectively facing reality and dealing with it? It’s a big question of course. If we are to tackle the climate and ecological crisis, truthfulness is a foundational requirement - especially from those in leadership and, in particular, those in the world of finance. You can’t tackle an existential threat without facing it, without being honest about the transformations required and without feeling the agency to make the change.
There is an ecological version of a massive asteroid smashing into our planet, however some of the concepts are a little bit more complex - though not especially so. This includes understanding earth’s tipping points (points of no return) and the second and third order effects they will wreak. “Planetary wave resonance” describes the wobbling of one of earth's major climate components – the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (the AMOC: you have heard of part of it at least- the jet stream) as it approaches a tipping point. This frightening phenomenon holds weather patterns for longer, causing heat domes in one part of the world (e.g. Canada last year) and devastating floods (e.g Germany and Belgium last year) in another.
Events like this, in more than one of the major food producing areas of the world, can lead to what academics call “multi bread basket failure” in other words - not enough food. And food scarcity and price hikes are triggers for civilisation collapse. The wet bulb effect is when temperatures are so high human bodies can’t survive - we have been getting perilously close in some places. This is a mechanism that can kill millions in just a few hours. This stuff isn’t happening to someone else, somewhere else, at some other time - it’s coming for us and our kids and it’s coming soon.
In other words: “THERE’S A F**KING ASTEROID ABOUT TO HIT US!”.
There are psychological barriers to facing the full horror of the situation we are in, which our culture encourages, helping us to avoid psychological pain and a sense of responsibility. Wilful blindness, for example, also known as the Ostrich Effect. There’s a number of reasons why we choose to not see what is in fact obvious. Cognitive Dissonance is another defence mechanism, involving denial of reality, when something causes uncomfortable psychological tension that doesn't match our expectations of the world. Regression is a retreating into more child-like states to defend us against feeling anxiety. Our on-demand consumer culture and our bullsh*t jobs encourage us to seek rewards and avoid pain.
I was once invited into the inner sanctum of a ‘corporate responsibility’ retreat in a FTSE100 tech company to be a critical friend. The senior manager who was there said to the group, “I love this company, I feel like I can be my true self here and say what I think”. In my session, I said to the group: “Here is the evidence of your wholesale tax dodging. How can you pretend to care about inclusion and then participate in such inequality-creating corruption?” In the coffee break, the same senior manager took me quietly to one side and said: “Thank you so much for saying what you did — there’s no way I could have done that”. The narrative that says Don’t Look Up! is endemic in our culture and a requirement of much of our employment.
Since the Paris Climate agreement was signed in 2015 60 banks have provided $3.8tn of financing for fossil fuel companies. Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s executive director and leading energy economist, told the Guardian in 2021: “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.” Despite this, financing of fossil fuels from major banks increased last year.
Whilst we may hope our leaders, across all sectors of society, are going to sort this out for us, we would be better to let go of this expectation and actively hold them to account (including through whistle blowing). This would mitigate for a number of other psychological traps.
System Justification Theory suggests we may keep upholding our current destructive way of life, through an imposed lack of imagination and a need to feel safe, even if that very mechanism makes us less safe in reality! Likewise, we assume those in leadership positions have our best interests at heart (authority bias), a mechanism that enabled us to cope with being around parents that were potentially less than ideal! We also tend to conform to what the crowd is doing, because our safety as an individual for millennia has centred on avoiding being ostracised.
A 2016 report called Thinking the Unthinkable. Based on interviews with leaders across the world, it made it clear that our leaders are perilously inadequate at facing the very real possibility of extremely difficult, non-normative events. This was most apparent as covid hit: pandemics were named as the most impactful, high-likelihood event on the Cabinet Office National Risk Register created as a result of the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act, and yet we were simply unprepared when the pretty inevitable happened.
I honestly don’t mean to get you down; and anyway that can contribute to some more psychological blockages! We can be adept at being cognitive misers, not investing the time and energy to process new and complex information in order to change our perspective. We have learned to feel helpless and powerless, so that we don’t even bother to try to change things. We become resigned to how things are. It’s also possible that if you think of yourself as different from me, an activist and environmental campaigner, you may be subconsciously rejecting the information I am sharing, as there’s a sense of clashing with your different group identity (this is in-group bias - a feature of our nature as social animals!).
And so to the perennial question: “What can I do?”. Something totally simple could spark evolutionary change. Notice the places where you are shutting out the truth or feeling unable to tell the truth, and consider being honest instead. Be unwilling to be paid to be stupid. This is a time for truth-telling and speaking out. And I'm especially calling on leaders of institutions and businesses to come out and make career-risking statements about our predicament. Some have started to do it, such as the open letter to the World Economic Forum about the need to change our economy and upgrade democracy.
The lives of the children you love depend on this increase in honesty. Because there’s one final psychological theory to leave you with: Terror Management Theory. The proposition is that we would rather our own children die than have to let go of a culture that helps us to ignore the deep anxiety we carry about death. And there’s nothing like consumer capitalism to keep us on our treadmills and in our distractions. Yet deciding to be a worthy ancestor, to live in service to life and future generations, is normal in indigenous cultures. We can live differently.
Time to look up folks!
Who is Gail Bradbrook?
Gail was named one of the 50 most influential people in Britain in GQ magazine (January 2020), placed 11 in the BBC Woman's Hour “power list” for women leaders on the environment and named in the 2021 Sunday Times Magazine list of leading environmentalists. She will be appearing in court twice this coming spring for breaking windows, in the tradition of civil disobedience, at the Department for Transport and at Barclays Bank.
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...