shelter’s soothing promise of protection
actually increased the risk of nuclear hos-tilities. Religious leaders, peace activists,
and scientists argued as much at the time,
pointing out that the construction of shelters was a distraction from the urgent task
of defusing the crisis. Eventually, their
message won out.
Stop digging. Disarm. Was
that my message, too? Or, in a
time of environmental calamity, was I peddling blueprints
for bomb shelters?
I decided to avoid answering questions from audiences
who just wanted to know
what they should buy. This
was tougher than it seemed,
if only because listeners were
wily and turned the questions
around. What did I feed my
children? What sort of water
did I drink? How did I clean
my bathroom? My kids eat
food grown by local farmers.
We all drink tap water. And,
um, basically, nobody cleans my
bathroom. Now, to get back to
toxic chemical reform . . .
After one discomfiting exchange on a college campus,
a man from the audience approached me with a suggestion: Read Gerhart Wiebe, a
psychologist who wrote, in
1973, that information about a problem
over which people feel little sense of personal agency gives rise to “well-informed
futility.” The more knowledgeable we are
about such a problem, the more we are filled
with paralyzing futility. Futility, in turn,
forestalls action. Eventually, we turn away
from the knowledge itself; no one likes to
feel intolerably guilty, helpless, or afraid.
I read Wiebe. And I read his revisionist
modernizer, Peter Sandman, who goes on
to say that well-informed futility flourishes
whenever there are discontinuities in the
messages we receive, as when we are told
that a problem is dire (climate chaos) but
the proposed solution (buy new light bulbs)
seems trivial. If the problem were truly
huge, wouldn’t we be asked to respond with
actions of equivalent magnitude?
Sandra Steingraber’s most recent book is
Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children
in an Age of Environmental Crisis.