Editorial: Standing on the edge of time

IssueJune 2014
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

In Marge Piercy’s wonderful visionary work, Woman on the Edge of Time (1985), a young visitor from a future North American utopia wants to see a car. Dawn says: ‘I studied about them. I saw them on holi. How the whole society was built around them, they paved over the earth for them to run on and sit on right in the middle of where they lived! Everyone had to have one. And they all set out in their private autocar to go someplace at the same time and got stuck in jams and breathed poison and got sick. Yet people loved their autocars like family. They drove fast in them till they wore out and ran into each other and got broken and burned and mangled and still they would rather drive in their autocars than do anything! Now can I see one?’

The novel’s hero, Connie Ramos, a Chicana woman in her mid-thirties, tries to explain the appeal of the car: ‘But it felt good to ride in them.... Sometimes when you’re young, oh, just riding in a car, a convertible maybe with the top down and the radio turned on, a song with a beat.... You feel on top of the world. You feel so.... alive, so beautiful!’

However anti-car we may be, there is something almost all of us can recognise in that exclamation – the same thrill that comes from flying from one continent to another in a matter of hours, plunged suddenly into another culture, another climate.

We may know that a single transatlantic return flight generates 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. We may know that this 1.2 tonnes is about the limit of what an individual in Britain ought to be emitting every year. Even knowing this, most of us still experience the excitement Connie talks about, looking down on the world passing by.

However much we want a radically more just world – however much we want an environmentally-stable world – it is not easy to take criticism about what we are doing today, even from the descendants we are working for, who we are wishing for. We grew up and live in this world now, our attitudes shaped – sometimes unwillingly, often unconsciously – by the standards of those around us, and those with wealth and power.

Uncomfortably numb

With many of the issues that we are confronted with, the huge – perhaps overwhelming – nature of the problem, and the tiny size of our individual contribution to either making things worse or possibly making them better, mean that most of us most of the time retreat into what has been called ‘psychic numbing’. Writing about nuclear weapons, a pioneer in the field of ‘risk communication’, Peter Sandman, wrote in the 1985: ‘It may be useful to think of psychic numbing as a strong and dangerous medicine for fear; in overdose it leads to paralysis, and most people are in overdose.’

Sandman suggested that in relation to nuclear weapons, the main goal should not be to generate concern, but to ‘focus on reducing numbness’. He went on: ‘Terror and numbness, we think, are predominantly responses to risks too horrible to think about, while preventive action may be likelier when the risk is high in probability but not so high in magnitude.’ This might be, he suggests, why campaigns against drink driving are more effective when they focus on the loss of driving licences (a likely event) – rather than on loss of life (‘a horrible consequence’).

Healing antidotes

While acknowledging the value of US eco-philosopher and trainer Joanna Macy’s therapy-based workshops in countering numbing about nuclear weapons (she has developed environment-centred workshops), Sandman argues that for most people the proper counter to numbness is ‘reassurance’: communications that reduce fear and therefore reduce the need to remain numb.

He wrote: ‘Four antidotes to numbing are anger, love, hope, and action. These concepts – not terror – are the keys to mobilizing a huge popular movement against nuclear weapons.’ The same may be true of climate change.

For many activists, Sandman pointed out, ‘anger at those responsible for the arms race frees energy for action that is otherwise bound up in fear, guilt, and depression’. Identifying those responsible for the danger, and feeling the anger that comes with this identification, can be an important step in moving out of paralysis (see Barbara Deming’s essay in the last issue for more on anger). As for love, the mobilising power here comes from identifying those we are fighting for, those we care about.

Under the title of ‘hope’, Sandman referred to ‘optimism, a sense of personal control and efficacy, confidence in methods and solutions, a sense of moral responsibility, and a vision of the world one is aiming for.’ He pointed to research that shows three information processes (cognitions, not emotions) determine whether someone will do something about a health risk: 1) recognising that a danger is real; 2) believing that the recommended plan of action will reduce the danger; and 3) having confidence in their ability to carry out the plan.

Co-operation in crisis

There is something related to this in disaster psychology, where social psychologists have discovered in recent years that crowds tend not to panic in disasters. Time and again, we find high levels of co-operation and altruism during crisis situations.

The three most powerful factors in generating panic behaviour, researchers say, are: 1) a perception of an immediate great threat to self and/or significant others; 2) the belief that escape from the threat is possible, but routes are rapidly closing; and 3) a feeling of helplessness in otherwise dealing with the threat, particularly when others are not seen as able to help.

We can see a match between the three items on the two lists.

In the case of nuclear weapons, there is a widespread recognition in Britain that possessing such weapons makes the world more dangerous by encouraging proliferation, alongside widespread complacency that nuclear weapons help to ‘keep the peace’ by creating uncertainty in the minds of potential attackers, and making wars between the major powers ‘unthinkable’.

In the case of climate change, government polling shows most people are concerned about climate change, but only a minority believe climate change is the result of human activity (other recent polls have even smaller figures for this).

With both nuclear weapons and climate change, there appears to be quite a bit of public scepticism that the actions urged by activists (unilateral nuclear disarmament; ending use of fossil fuels) will actually have the desired effects (a world without nuclear weapons; climate stability); and there may also be limited confidence that citizen action can have a significant impact on decision-making in these areas.

These are matters that have been thought about by campaigners for many years; the disciplines of risk communication and disaster psychology may help us to think new thoughts, and find new ways forward.

Sandman’s fourth antidote to paralysis is action. Action becomes easier when anger, love and hope are felt; it’s also easier to feel these feelings (rather than numbness), Sandman points out, when we are taking action. It is a virtuous circle.

When we move into action, it is even possible to hear without too much pain the voices of those who will come after us.



Noam Chomsky observed recently that it is difficult to think of recent parallels with the Russian annexation of Ukraine, a violation of international law – ‘the Iraq invasion is a vastly greater crime’, he added.

However, he notes, ‘one comparable example comes to mind: U.S. control of Guantánamo Bay in southeastern Cuba. Guantánamo was wrested from Cuba at gunpoint in 1903 and not relinquished despite Cuba’s demands ever since it attained independence in 1959.’

As PN went to press, the situation in eastern Ukraine seemed to hang in the balance, with skirmishes between rebels and government forces possibly leading the country towards bloody civil war. On the other hand, the country might be heading towards a negotiated solution, following Russian president Vladimir Putin’s order to Russian troops to withdraw from the border with Ukraine.

In our last editorial (greatly expanded online, with references), we argued that the western powers could make one major contribution to the Ukraine crisis: pledge never to accept a Ukrainian application to join NATO.

What is really needed to de-escalate Russian foreign policy in Europe is to dismantle NATO and reverse NATO’s eastward drive that has followed the broken promises made in 1991 not to expand even ‘one inch’ to the east.

Russia’s aggression cannot be justified, but it is not irrational in the light of the west’s deceit and relentless encroachment. If Russia had acted the same way towards the US, we would have been at war decades ago.

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