Pictured above: Michael Lai, a Hong Kong activist with 350.org, in front of the famous Star Ferry
Activists often struggle at the borders of hope and despair, fraught by the seeming indifference of the public and the necessary limitations of pragmatism. Here, Michael Lai, a Hong Kong activist currently involved with the local 350.org chapter, weaves together stories of prophets and doomsayers in a meditation on activism, knowledge and the future.
We often conceive of the Trojan horse as a story of courage and trickery, but buried there too is a darker aspect. Cassandra, the princess of Troy, embodied the classic Greek tragedy as she struggled against her own unalterable fate.
As the royal heir to the city of Troy, Cassandra got her prophetic ability from Apollo, who offered the beautiful princess her prophetic flair in the hope of sleeping with her. When she refused his advances, Apollo was enraged and took away her ability to make people believe her prophecies.
As the fighting broke out in Troy, the combination of an ability to see the future and an inability to convince people of what she saw, made a perfect recipe for a cursed fate. Well aware of the soldiers inside, Cassandra tried in vain to persuade her countrymen not to bring the wooden horse within the city’s walls – and hence the famous consequence. Not only was she unable to convince her fellows of what was about to happen, but it is also easy to imagine her being treated by her compatriots as a lunatic.
While most people would find themselves empathizing with Cassandra’s tragedy, there are in fact many Cassandras in the real world. Every now and then, we hear of religious fanatics claiming the Judgment Day has arrived, or that an UFO is coming to save humanity. So far, each prophecy has failed (at least to my knowledge), and I would contend that most of these believers are treated in a similar way to Cassandra – the only difference being that these have proven to be “false Cassandras”. Eventually, it seems rational not to believe any claims of Armageddon, or even correct to regard these believers as out of their mind. However, what if this is the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf?
This brings us to the debate on climate change. I don’t think it is much exaggerated to draw a parallel between climate change and the Christian apocalypse. Both refer to an imminent disaster which we must understand and act upon to survive. While Jesus and his apostles are the spokespersons for the Christian faith, we have renowned intellects like James Hansen and James Lovelock who preach the threat of climate change. While some people will dismiss this analogy as the latter is based on scientific evidence, I think the two are more alike than not because of one specific element – uncertainty in prediction.
As for the exact timing of the Judgment Day, the Bible says “no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only (Matthew 24:36).” On the other hand, even though climate change scientists have been calling attention to imminent threats such as sea level rise and the melting of Arctic icecaps, it is difficult to make precise forecast because of statistical uncertainties in climate science. This points to one crude reality – i.e. the limit of natural science, or specifically, the limit of inductive logic in scientific research.
With this in mind, you can see why I say climate change believers are similar to religious devotees. The problem of inductive logic is that we can never say for certain whether something is going to happen, but only estimate with a certain level of confidence about its probability. Under this premise, in the end the climate change debate can boil down to a belief. And that poses a big problem for environmentalists.
Make no mistake – I do not mean that climate change is fabricated or that I don’t believe in it. However, the subtle, uncertain nature of the problem, not to mention its political, social and economic ramifications, makes it difficult to convince the majority of people of the issue’s severity. Although I can easily get assurance within environmental cliques, once I reach out to the general public in my city, Hong Kong, I find it hard to bring them to serious attention on the topic.
People in Hong Kong have usually heard about climate change. They may even sympathize with our environmental efforts. But I can see they are not emotionally engaged with it. It is easy to tell from people’s topics of conversation: they worry more about housing, employment, the economy, their marriage and raising their children, while climate change is hardly on their radar. This concrete city, lacking farming, grazing and industries that depend on natural resources, alienates people from the global environmental challenges we are facing. As they pay attention to other aspects, they seem unaware of the ways in which environmental well being relates to their top concerns. For example, the rise in food price can be partly, though not fully, attributed to natural resource depletion, pollution and climate disruption.
As the giant wooden horse rolled through the city’s walls, Cassandra ran through her war-scorched palace in search of a credulous soul. She reasoned with her fellow citizens then shouted, shook them and cried from fear, but to no avail. She had seen her city in flames, but all her pleas were met with stone-eyed dismissals. In a similar vein, the resistance to acknowledge the threat of climate change frustrates me. Although I am rarely shunned when I talk to people about this topic, the ease with which people brush off the topic leaves me thinking of that old city brought to ashes.
Perhaps only time can tell whether our climate change “prophecy” is exaggerated or not. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to err on this. A false alarm is certainly not desirable; but a miss could entail an irreversible, uncontrollable global catastrophe. We have to understand that there is a strong emotional tendency for us to disregard such an alarm, because acknowledging it means we have to make substantial changes in the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. Unfortunately, the reality of our global environmental crisis does not depend on whether we want to believe it or not. I hope that every one of us can reflect on where our daily decisions stray into denial behavior. As with many difficult decisions in life, facing reality is a painful yet necessary step in moving towards solving the problem, or at least adapting to it. Only by looking directly at the problem can we escape the tragic fate of Cassandra her people.
8 thoughts on “Cassandra: Thoughts on Climate and Credulity from a Hong Kong Activist”
Thanks Forrest for publishing my article!
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Link to this article takes me to a blank page. I look forward to your stories and links. Travel safely Forest. Cathy (El SALVADOR friend of your mom. )
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Sorry, which article is that? You’re comment is on the article from Michael Lai.
Michael–I have been thinking about the metaphor of Cassandra and the Trojan horse all week. It is interesting to me that your experience in Hong Kong seems similar to that in the U.S. The science is clear. We can see the changes with our own eyes, yet there is denial of the obvious. It is somehow so much easier to become outraged at a dentist killing a lion than the human race causing the demise of multiple species. Keep up your good work. Maybe if we all keep talking, and join voices from multiple nations, more people will listen and see, and maybe make the changes we so desperately need. Lauren
Thank you, Lauren. I believe this has to do with the psychological aspects of human being. Unless you are a highly abstract thinker, most people are rather concrete thinkers. By that I mean they are emotionally aroused by things that are of direct connection to them. Their attention goes to people immediately around them, things they can visualize see at present, instead of abstract theories in the distant future around the world. Adding to the discomfort they have to experience by acknowledging the situation seriously, and the diffusion of responsibility effect on this issue (refer to the uncertainty of who should act under an ambiguous situation, resulting in nobody taking action), it is not hard to understand why they act as if it doesn’t concern them. It has to take a lot of abstract thinking, forward thinking ability to imagine beyond their present environment to get the emotion in. Unfortunately this is not what most people are.
I think you definitely have a point, but it seems important to me to not reduce human beings to machine-like simplifications. I don’t know if we can make such a simple divide between the privileged “forward-thinkers” and the unenlightened masses. The most important questions that come up for me turn toward solutions: How did the people who are concerned about climate change get to where they are? Can engage with people that replicates this turn toward long-term thinking? How can we get people invested in this kind of thinking? If it is too difficult to push people in that direction, what other ways can we come up with to engage people?
Engaging with people on these issues can be really difficult. As you say, they’re big and scary and still seemingly far-off. I’ve found that by telling my own story and asking questions about others’ relationships with climate change–how their homes are being affected, what they know about the issues, being genuinely interested in their opinions and feelings–I can get a genuine response out of them. People open up a little, and from what I’ve seen, they do tend to have strong feelings on the issues–sometimes those feelings are just held at arms length. It’s not the star-struck conversion that an activist dreams of, but it seems to bring people closer to an understanding of the issue, and if nothing else it keeps climate change on people’s minds.
Just some brief thoughts, I hope to have the time to elaborate a more in-depth post about these issues. They’re fascinating to me, and a big part of why I’m working on 360bybike.
Many who deny the severity of climate change seem to demand that predictions of disaster need to be certain before nations make the changes necessary to prevent the disaster. This does not seem rational to me. In many aspects of life, we have to make decisions based on probability rather than certainty. If I have a child come into my clinic with a high fever, ill appearance, and a characteristic rash, I treat the child emergently for meningococcemia. I do not have time to wait for the blood culture results to verify the diagnosis. The child would probably die if I waited for these results. With all of the evidence we have now, we know that life as we know it is on this earth is like this ill child. We need to act now to prevent its death.