A Theory and a Plan for Change.
Back in 2016, I coined the term “peak indifference” to describe a political phenomenon, when people who have denied an urgent problem begin to self-radicalize, not because of activists or public education, but because the problem has caught up with them, personally.
As I’ve written here, a neat microcosm of peak indifference is smoking: even if you convince yourself that tobacco isn’t that bad for you, if you keep smoking long enough, you will likely come to understand that it is very bad for you, because Stage 4 lung-cancer is convincing in a way that even the most persuasive talk with your family doctor can never be.
This week, a friend wrote to me to get me to explain this theory again — they’d been struck by it, but struggled to apply it to their own analysis of what’s going on around us, with all the problems that are clearly urgent but do not spark action (nuclear disarmament, climate action, inequality, etc).
Foundationally, “indifference” is a predictably response to problems whose causal relationship is obscure (for example, climate change). If you can’t tell for sure that driving to the corner store for a pint of milk will cause you to drown in a deluge in 50 years, it’s easy not to care about it (note that this is a separate but related phenomenon from hyperbolic discounting — treating distant harms as less salient because they are off in the future).
The job of activists confronting this class of problem is to turn indifference into opposition.
But if a problem is real (e.g. climate change) and activists fail to mobilize a timely and effective response, then the problem will mount until the number of people who are indifferent begins to decline of its own accord, without any external pressure from activists.
Everyone whose house is washed away in a flood or whose town is incinerated by a wildfire becomes a climate change partisan without having to be persuaded by an activist — personal trauma is the ultimate persuader.
The problems with relying on peak indifference to mobilize a response to a problem are twofold:
- Peak indifference may arrive after the point of no return. When that happens, it is easy to turn to nihilism (“Well, I guess my doctor was right all along, these cigarettes did give me stage four lung cancer. Guess it’s too late to quit now.”)
- Peak indifference doesn’t, in and of itself, mobilize an effective response. Trauma can hinder reason. If your town is incinerated by a wildfire, it might inspire you to become an ecofascist, advocating for zero immigration and conquest of high-lying territories abroad to protect you and you fellow Americans from the coming collapse of the habitable Earth.
The activist mission implied by this analysis is twofold:
- Hasten the moment of peak indifference. Foment protests, art (especially speculative fiction, either utopian — “we can do this” — or dystopian — “we must do this… or else” — conduct education, or do anything else that makes the distant risk more present in the minds of the still-indifferent;
- Direct the response of people who are mobilized by trauma into productive directions — countering ecofascist narratives of “lifeboat rules” with climate justice, remediation, and land-healing.
“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Activists don’t have to do anything to get people to care about nuclear annihilation, the climate emergency, or political corruption. We can just hang around and wait for these problems to become so undeniable that everyone figures out on their own that this stuff demands action.
But we shouldn’t. Because the point of peak indifference may well arrive past the point of no-return.