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By Sherry Listgarten

Are you that duck?

Uploaded: Mar 15, 2020

I was walking my dog earlier this week, enjoying the rare everyday activity that wasn’t cancelled(!) She likes to visit a big oak tree where a woman puts out food for squirrels and ducks every few days. On that morning, there were loads of ducks under it, and my dog sat and watched for a while. A few ducks looked over at her, and as we slowly moved forward, a few started edging away, towards the far side of the tree, while others seemed unbothered. We got closer, and a few more started moving away and/or quacking an alert. Finally, when we got close enough, my dog lunged forward (on leash), and all flew away except for this one guy, who stood there unmoved.

Is this duck being savvy or stupid? What led him to play a (successful) game of chicken with a dog? Is he a duck genius who has learned the limitations of on-leash dogs? Or is he just really hungry? Or maybe he’s a contrarian, unhappy with his fellow ducks’ group-think tendencies? In this case, he won out, ending up with a nice scattering of food that he could eat at his leisure.

I was laughing at this because I’d been thinking about the variety of ways that people respond to threats, and here it was playing out in ducks. I’ve written about this earlier in the context of climate change, and have been interested to see what’s happening with coronavirus. It is a different kind of threat in that it is more immediate and the communication has (lately) been much less ambiguous. (I guess the airlines and cruise ships didn’t have time to mount a coordinated anti-science effort.) As a result, the range of responses is more limited, but it’s still there.

Here are a few observations, but I’d love to hear yours. I think several of these apply to climate change as well (which is what this blog is supposed to be about).

Small things are harder than they should be. It’s been interesting for me to see how hard it was, at least early on, for my daughter to clean her hands after coming inside the house or before eating lunch at school (for example). It’s not hard to do, and it doesn’t take long. It’s not unpleasant, and it’s not hard to remember. She has hand sanitizer in her lunch bag, and a sign on our door as reminders. But she was really resistant to it. It seemed more than the usual anti-parenting reflex. What gives?

My guess is that in part this kind of resistance stems from a reluctance to acknowledge that something big is wrong. That is not a comfortable feeling, and it can take a while to accept. But it’s not only that. In some cases (e.g., washing hands at school) you are acknowledging it in a public way, which is harder. You are telling your friends “I think something big is wrong.” Furthermore, you are acknowledging it with a relatively feeble response compared with the magnitude of the problem. “I think something big is wrong, and this is all that I can do about it.” It’s like eating a veggie burger or biking to the grocery store in the face of global climate change. Really? That’s all you can do? I think it’s this combination of things -- acknowledging a problem that you have little control over, in a public way, with a seemingly feeble response -- that makes us resistant to doing it. It’s vaguely embarrassing, I suppose, or at least humbling.

A desire for control can exaggerate responses. In the other direction, responses can also be exaggerated. Most of us are trained to want control over what happens to ourselves and our family. We take pride in that. So not everyone is comfortable with taking only the small recommended actions. “Surely I can and should do better.” This has resulted in some extreme responses that end up being harmful to the overall effort. One example would be excessive hoarding of masks and sanitizer for personal use, so that organizations that need them are facing shortages. Another would be angrily chastising those around you who are not responding in the way that you would want them to. This struggle for more control can also lead to debilitating anxiety, which could end up being harmful to your own immune system, for example if you can’t sleep.

The early actors have out-sized importance. Some people recognized the severity of the virus early on and were among the first to change habits, taking actions that others could see. It may have been something like washing their hands before eating, opting to work from home, or using a paper towel to open a restroom door. At the time, these actions may have seemed extreme, but by starting to normalize these beneficial habits, they made it easier for others to adopt them. It takes some courage and conviction to be an early mover, but if done in the right way, it can have an outsized impact. (1)

Some diversity in responses is helpful. A range of reactions can be a good thing. In my family, we have the eager responders and the foot-dragging laggers, and we help to balance each other out. I am more towards the former camp, though not as much as others who think I am too lax. The foot-draggers, as long as they are open to authoritative information, help to reduce the stress factor and encourage all of us to be more creative and find more palatable changes.

I hope you are all finding ways to calibrate your response and to work constructively with those who may be taking a different tack. With clear, consistent, authoritative information to guide us, we’ve seen that together “we hold the power to change,” as reader Bette said on last week’s post. I hope we can hold onto that sentiment when the coronavirus situation stabilizes and we focus again on climate change.

Stay healthy, everyone, and a special thanks to all of our healthcare workers.

Notes and References
1. What is “the right way”? I’m not sure. Did people accuse the hand washers of virtue signaling or alarmism? If not, why not?

Current Climate Data (February 2020)
This was the second warmest February ever for the globe.

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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