Non-existant toxic gas causes panic

bubble_370x370Fort Worth, Texas, last week.

Initially only two call center workers complained of dizziness and shortness of breath. An announcement was made instructing anyone with similar symptoms to leave the building.

Panic spread, firefighters and paramedics were called. Ambulances and buses evacuated 34 people to hospital and a further 110 were treated at the scene with suspected toxic fume poisoning.

But the fire chief soon discovered the source of irritation was a colleague who had sprayed herself with perfume.

He said the hysteria had escalated because of ‘psychosomatic behavior’. The Mail Online reported that medical experts regard ‘contagious fear’ as serious because it can often bring on actual symptoms.

Unlike this woman’s perfume, carbon dioxide is an odorless, colorless, invisible gas that does threaten our existence. But we are not panicking.

Why not?

Psychologists tell us the human brain is beautifully evolved to jump up and respond to immediate threats, but the long-term, insidious nature of climate change is harder for it to grasp.

As a young climate scientist in the 1970s, Graeme Pearman was one of the first to investigate links between CO2 and rising temperatures. He now advises governments, businesses and even Al Gore on climate science.

After years of presenting impeccably-researched information about the climate threat, last year he found himself sinking into a deep personal depression.

He saw the same thing happening to his scientific colleagues at the Copenhagen meeting earlier this year.

He realized he had been presenting the information, thinking that would be all that was needed to create change.

I have seen Pearman present three times and I could sit there all day listening and examining his complicated graphs and tables measuring multiple scenarios and risk probabilities.

But I’m not normal.

“I thought irrationality and denial can be overcome by more information. I was wrong,” he said.

So Pearman decided to change tack. He understood the biosphere as well as anyone else on our beautiful orb, but the people on it were another matter. Pearman moved quite deliberately from climate science to social science and formed partnerships to investigate why we seem unable to act.

He says it’s time for physical and psychological scientists to work together to understand and overcome our brain’s tendency to stare compulsively at a harmless flickering thing, but blank out a massive threat.

It’s time to understand the social dynamics that make people look to others for clues on how they should behave.

He’s realizing that fear can paralyze and lead to anger, dissociation and denial. But it can also mobilize. With super power.

Pearman’s findings will be published soon, in a psychology journal this time, but in the meantime the new study has brought him out of his depression, and given him new strategies to create that change he has known for three decades has to happen.

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