Martin Seligman is known as the father of positive psychology. In his words, “when I started, psychology was all about fear, conflict, struggle, and competition. I was part of movement that changed it to be also about meaning, control, love, engagement, accomplishment, success, and hope.”
He started that change by chance. In 1967, studying depression and responses to challenges, he discovered an unexpected result in dogs. He had administered an electric shock at random times to different groups. One group could stop the shock by pressing a lever, the other group’s lever did nothing (ethics boards might not allow the experiment today). He then put dogs from the groups in a room where the floor on one side could provide a similar shock. The dogs from the working-lever group escaped the shock by jumping to the other side. Most of the dogs from the nonworking-lever group didn’t try to escape. They laid and whimpered. Despite an escape other dogs found, they behaved helpless.
Seligman later experimented on people (using loud noises and instead of electric shocks) and found that people who felt they lacked control over adverse situations like also acted helpless, not acting to solve their problems even when effective solutions existed. They felt depressed.
Our myths around the environment leave us feeling helpless, especially around population. Myths like that the cures we know of, like the One Child Policy and eugenics, sound worse than the disease, that the Demographic Transition results from macroeconomic patterns beyond our control, that too many old people would ruin the economy.
These myths create in us a weird mix of contradictory beliefs: the economy requires the population to grow, but we can’t grow forever on a finite planet, but we are leveling off anyway, which isn’t a problem even though it’s a problem, government shouldn’t influence decisions on family size, but government should promote more children, and so on. The contradictions leave us feeling confused and often depressed. We lie and whimper helplessly like dogs.
We aren’t helpless
This story ends helpfully, though. The helpless dogs could learn to escape. Moving them to experience escaping the shock led them to learn to escape on their own. The effect was for decades called Learned Helplessness, but recent studies show helplessness is the default and acting takes learning. So we need not feel bad if we haven’t learned how to solve our hardest problems. Still, most of us feel helpless and whimper about overpopulation despite seeing its effects. Feeling helpless, we rationalize inaction, saying we’re helpless.
But people who act on their environmental values change their mindsets and behavior. They realize their influence. Instead blaming others, arguing over nuclear versus solar power and equivalents of the dogs whimpering, they help others. Instead of powerless and helpless they become powerful and helpful. They see the route to collective action because they enjoy connecting more with nature, which leads to connecting more with people they care about, along with more joy, fun, community, meaning, purpose, and freedom. On This Sustainable Life, people typically act on greenhouse emissions, plastics, and other pollution, rarely around population.
Yet this transformation is particularly relevant around population. Like helpless dogs, we believe we can’t make a difference. That’s were people and organizations inducing the demographic transition without waiting for the economy come in. The dogs needed to be shown they could escape. So do we. Role models show us.
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