How to Be a Climate Hero
by audrey schulman
ONE AFTERNOON last summer, I was on
a commuter train when I heard someone
yelling behind me. I didn’t pay attention
because I was breaking up a fight between
my kids. But the third time the person
yelled, I turned around.
It was a boy, about six years old. He
was standing on his seat screaming, “My
mom’s having a seizure!” The only part of
his mom I could see were her legs, sticking out into the aisle, convulsing. And
arrayed around the train car were forty
other people, mouths open. Not one of
them doing a thing.
Humans tend to freeze like this—the
Bystander Effect, it’s called. It was first
demonstrated in a famous psychology
experiment by John Darley and Bibb
Latané in which the subject was asked to
fill out some forms. He or she assumed
these forms were preparatory to the experiment, but the experiment had already
begun. While the person circled multiple-choice answers, smoke began to sneak out
of a vent in the room. Thick, gray smoke.
The kind that says fire. The experimenter
then timed how long it took for the subject
to leave the room.
The only variable was whether there
were other people in the room. These people
pretended to be subjects also, but actually
they were actors paid by the experimenter
to stay there, heads down, pencils working,
ignoring the smoke. If the subject was alone
in the room, 75 percent of the time she or
he would leave inside of a minute. But if
there were others in the room working
away on their forms, the subject would stay
there with them—90 percent of the time.
Stay there filling out forms until the smoke
was too thick to see through. Until, if there
had been a fire, it would have been licking
at the walls.
In the decades since that first experiment, it’s been repeated with many varia-
tions on the type of emergency: staged robberies, lost wallets, people in hallways crying
for help, etc. Every time, if there was more
than one person witnessing the event, all of
them were almost certain to do nothing.
So the boy on the train was loudly identifying this as a true emergency, his mother
physically demonstrating the urgency of
the matter. Still everyone sat there, mouths
open. Half of them had cell phones, but
not one of them was dialing 9-1-1.
Remember this fact: although we feel safer
in a crowd, that’s actually where humans
are most incapacitated. The bigger the
crowd, the stronger the effect.
Right now everyone understands that
something truly horrible is happening to the
planet’s climate. The heat waves and forest
fires, the floods and droughts. But there are
6 billion of us now—quite the Bystander
Effect. So we stay in our seats filling out
forms, trying to ignore the smoke swirling
thicker around us. We bustle about our normal lives, assuming it can’t be as bad as it
seems because surely, then, everyone would
be marching in the street about it.
On the train with the epileptic mother, I
stepped forward, yelling out, “Someone call
9-1-1! Someone get the conductor!” I knew
about the Bystander Effect, had studied it in
school, and knowing about the effect, it
turns out, inoculates you against it.
Before I moved, everyone’s faces had
been contorted with terror—as though
they were the ones having the seizure, or as
though this woman thrashing around like a
dying fish might be about to start biting
their ankles. But from the moment I
stepped forward, telling them what to do,
the fear in their faces melted away. Two
other people stood up to help. Four others
whipped out their cell phones to call 9-1-1.
One person ran for the conductor. They just
needed someone to break the group cohesion and start the action.
A few years ago, when my first child
was born, I became paralyzed with fear
about climate disruption. It was so clear
that our children would be punished for
what we adults were doing to the world. I
got depressed. I got anxious. Then, from
sheer desperation, I started writing letters
to editors. I remember well the first one
that got published. It was in the Boston
Globe, and it supported building Cape
Wind, the large wind farm proposed for
Nantucket Sound. The head of Cape Wind
called me up personally to thank me. The
thrill I got. The sense of agency.
After that I was out of my seat. I believed
there was a safe room I could try to get to
if I moved super quick. Now I go to every
demonstration. I write to every politician.
I insulate my house fanatically. I don’t own a
car. Every year I do a little more: composting
kitchen waste, shopping at farmers’ markets, recycling, buying only secondhand.
Using carbon calculators, I’ve figured that
I’ve lowered my family’s emissions 50 percent in seven years. That’s a big step.
Because of my actions, my fear for my children’s future is not incapacitating. I’m
striding down the aisle trying to help. Not
only have I improved my emotional state,
I’ve broken group cohesion and started to
pull others from their seats. I’ve gotten
friends and relatives to insulate more and
drive less, to admit the problem and start
thinking about the solution.
Scientists tell us we have ten years, if
that, to make significant changes. Every
indication, from ice caps to defrosting tundra, seems to show this is the tipping point.
This is our moment. Perhaps you never
thought you’d get a chance to play hero.
Here it is. The kid on the train is screaming
out for help. The weather is convulsing. It
doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure what to do.
Make your best guess. Call 9-1-1. For god’s
sake, get the conductor.