The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, November 30, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's blog at The Huffington Post website.
Scare Tactics in Climate Change and Addiction
"Cool It" is the newly released film about Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish economist (he speaks unaccented English) whose 2001 book "The Skeptical Environmentalist" provoked intense ire and attacks on his credibility and integrity from the environmental movement.
First, Lomborg believes in global warming. He just feels that the alarming ways in which it is portrayed (and he cites Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" as the primary example) arouse instant attention, but then fade from people's awareness when the worst images of onrushing seas, toppling dams and erupting volcanoes don't materialize -- at least where most people live.
Such alarmist imagery -- as well as being misleading and inaccurate -- leads, according to Lomborg, to actions unlikely to be cost effective in the long run, and thus to encourage the types of activities likely to halt and reverse the heating up of the earth due to greenhouse gasses produced by human activity. Lomborg feels these trends can be reversed through investing in research on inexpensive green energy sources (no, T. Boone, nuclear power doesn't fill this bill, since it costs two to three times as much to produce as fossil fuel energy).
Recently, public opinion has shifted away from a belief in global warming. Lomborg figures this is because people can't devote that level of intense vigilance to one thing over time -- which is why, ironically, movie makers and public figures like to scare the bejesus out of viewers in order to capture their wandering minds in the first place.
I have observed this process for many years, decades, with wave after wave of anti-drug advertising (one of many examples: "This is your brain on drugs"). Time and again these ads have been shown to be counterproductive -- that is, those who view them use more of the substances -- but these efforts live on (as I describe in my book, "Addiction-Proof Your Child") because, damn it, they make parents and filmmakers feel good! So what if they don't work?
In fact, finally, after so many years, Partnership ads have actually picked up the cudgels of research and sensible psychology in order to focus on the things that have some impact on drug use -- like family dynamics -- as opposed to pictures of people's rotting gums and brains.
Personal story: I was invited to a gambling addiction conference in Nova Scotia, since I was the first person to term gambling as potentially addictive. Since gaming is heavily taxed in Canada for the purpose of combating pathological gambling, this was the most luxurious addiction conference I ever attended.
But here's the thing -- the data in Canada, where the legal gambling age is 18-19, depending on the province, is that most young people take it or leave it. (What the hell is the matter with those Canadians? National health care, a legal drinking age of 18-19, narcotic injection sites, Canadian courts have consistently ruled marijuana laws null and void; don't they know sin - and addiction - when they see it?)
So, when the keynote speaker, from McGill, recounted one of those drug-type scare stories (honor student becomes addicted to gambling and kills himself), and unveiled a new scare film (a kid is breaking down in the basement while his stupid parents don't realize the evil that has invaded their home), I naturally devoted my talk to critiquing this approach -- I likened it to a temperance lecture.
Oh, the speaker was in my audience.
I'll give you three possible reactions the man, perhaps the leading figure in the field, and the conference organizers might have had: (a) they said I had made them realize how counterproductive this approach was and invited me to deliver the next year's keynote speech at the conference, (b) the man came up to me and said, "It's important to have this kind of debate to discover the most productive way to encourage healthy attitudes towards gambling," (c) the speaker and the organizers removed me from the head table at the speakers' dinner and have refused to have anything to do with me since.
Oh, you guessed the last before even reading the choices?
Kind of like the reaction Lomborg received for his efforts, would you say?
The moral of my story: You can never lose by painting any potential problem in the most dire, worst-case, we're-all-gonna-die tones as possible. Unless, that is, you want to understand and deal with the problem. That's a different story.