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Only collective action will bring change post-pandemic

Neil King | Gabriel Borrud
June 30, 2020

When faced with a crisis, coming together is the one vehicle of change humans have when it comes to fighting for their future, says social psychologist Stephen Reicher.

Extinction Rebellion protesters hold a banner saying 'United for Climate'
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Belga Mag/L. Silvestre

Human beings all over the world agreed to strict limitations to their rights when governments made the decision to enter lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis. Many have done it willingly on behalf of the collective. So why can't this same attitude be seen when tackling climate change?

Stephen Reicher is a social psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he researches collective behavior and social identity. DW spoke to him for the second season of the environmental podcast On The Green Fence

DW: We've watched the collective move very fast in response to this crisis. Were you amazed by that?

Stephen Reicher: At one level, I wasn't. If you look at the literature on what happens in emergencies, the traditional literature plays into this notion of the public as a problem — the idea that human beings are always psychologically frail and they always have difficulty in dealing with complex information. And under a crisis, they crack, they panic. You would never have a Hollywood disaster film without people running, screaming, waving their hands in the air and blocking the exits.

But actually, that isn't what happens in disasters. When people come together, when they have a sense that others will support them, especially in situations of difficulty, then it makes them better able to cope and more psychologically resilient. Collectivity is the resource that allows us to cope practically, but also psychologically, to get through these times. 

Read more: Life after coronavirus: 'We can shape a totally different world'

Why was the response to the coronavirus seemingly so easy, particularly when compared to the far more existential threat of climate change? What is the difference between these two?

The temporality of the issue, the fact that it is immediate, the ways in which it is tangible and the way in which it is unarguable.

If you are talking about the events that are happening now due to climate change and that are killing people, it is probabilistic that climate change was critical to them. The probabilities are very, very high. But it is not immediately self-evident in the same way that it's evident that somebody is dying from coronavirus. These things become arguable.

Read more: Coronavirus linked to destruction of wildlife and world's ecosystems

And that's where the second factor comes in, which is the political factor. In some places it has been consensual, and it has been pretty positive. And that's because politicians have not tried to argue or mobilize against compliance with medically-necessary measures. In other places, that's not true — in the United States, for instance, where Trump has been supporting those in various states who have been calling it a "lockdown tyranny." And in Brazil, and in India.

The other absolutely obvious point differentiating coronavirus from climate change are the political differences and the differences in terms of political leadership — in terms of a) how we understand what's going on, and b) how we should respond to what's going on.

Bushfire in Australia
Although climate disasters like the Australian bushfires are strongly linked to climate change, the link isn't as immediate as deaths from coronavirus, says ReicherImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Khan
Donation items hung up on a fence during the coronavirus pandemic in Dresden, Germany
One example of collective action can be seen in a makeshift donation fence locals in Dresden made to provide immediate help to the homeless during the lockdownImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Michael

If I understood you correctly, if there were general consensus and a general realization that we are facing an existential threat and everybody really believed the science, the collective would be moved to action. Is it really that simple or is something else holding us back?

At the moment we are acting collectively towards members of our community who are currently alive, and we can see whether they will live or die. It is much more abstract in the sense of climate change because we are acting for many of those who are not yet born — they might be our children or grandchildren.

It's the articulation of the psychological and lived experience with the ideological way in which we make sense of it and explain it and are told how to behave. The reason why the political, in many ways, is more powerful in undermining action on climate change is because it is much more abstract. It is a much less direct experience.

Read more: Radical environmentalism: 'We need to be ready to risk our lives'

Do we need role models to catalyze change? And if so, what kind of role models? If Greta Thunberg, for instance, can’t pull it off, then who could?

We need leadership. I don't think it's entirely coincidental that some of the countries where coronavirus is raging most dangerously are those with toxic leadership, as in the United States, as in Brazil. Whereas in some of those countries which are doing well — like New Zealand — the leadership takes a very different form indeed. 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands before her nation's flag
Jacinda Ardern has been credited with keeping COVID-19 numbers low in New Zealand. To date, the country has seen roughly 1,500 cases and 22 deathsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Perry
US President Donald Trump
The number of cases in the US has surpassed 2.5 million. Critics say President Trump's delayed response is partially to blame Image: Getty Images/W. McNamee

Leadership can take many forms. It doesn't have to be traditional. It doesn't have to be hierarchical. It doesn't have to be a single individual. It can be distributed. But you need voices which, firstly, serve to create a sense of community and communal responsibility.  Secondly, they need to form a relationship with the public. A leader needs to be seen in many ways as one of us, as acting for us, and as achieving for us, in order to be effective.

Leadership is effective to the extent that we believe that a leader is representative of us, understands who we are and what we value. More than ever, we do need good, inclusive leadership that engages with the public rather than imposes on the public.

Read more: Plunging solar energy prices spell bright future for clean electricity

On a personal level, Steve, if you as a social psychologist could mold the change that we'd need to achieve for a sustainable world, how would you go about putting the collective on the right track?

The group is always going to be part of the solution. Groups can do awful things and groups can do magnificent things. The problem doesn't lie in group psychology, per se. It depends on the specific ideologies and cultures that define the groups we belong to. How inclusive or exclusive are they? What are the norms and values that define the nature of our community? Are they values of compassion or are they values of strength and domination? Not all groups are good, but that depends upon the group culture.

The thing that is absolutely clear, however, is that if you get rid of groups, then you get rid of the one vehicle of change that we've actually got. If you get rid of groups, you freeze the status quo. The power of the powerless lies in their combination. I think we can wield that power for good rather than for ill.

Adolph Hitler driving past cheering crowds in Berlin's Olympic Stadium in 1939
The genocidal Nazi dicatorship is the prime historic example of how dangerous the collective can beImage: picture-alliance/Everett Collection

 Read more:Pandemic sheds light on importance of biodiversity

Martin Luther King waving to the crowds in Washington D.C. in 1963
History also teaches us that the collective is the only vehicle for change we have, says ReicherImage: AFP/Getty Images

Do you think we're going to pull this off? If the science is right, we are running out of time. When it comes to the changes that have to be made, are we going to be magnificent? Are we going to be horrible?

There is a problem with the debate that's going on at the moment. Some people are telling us that coronavirus is going to change the world for the good — we're going to realize that collectivity is terrible, we're going to realize that precarity is destructive and that inequalities kill. And other people are saying, no, no, no, it's going to be completely awful — we're all going to be divided, we're going have a recession which will pit us against each other.

The danger of making predictions in those forms is that it gives rise to fatalism. Either you believe it's going be awful so there is nothing you can do about it, or you believe it's going to happen anyway and therefore you don't need to do anything about it. Those were the critiques, for instance, of mechanical forms of Marxism.

I don't think there is any inevitable outcome. I'm not a prophet. If we want to move forward progressively, we've got to harness the power of the collective. We've got to understand how it's within the collective that we become agents who can actually make and change our own world.

To predict is to be counterproductive. It pacifies people. It says "the future will be like this," rather than to say "we need to fight for the future."

Stephen Reicher is a social psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The interview was conducted by Neil King and Gabriel Borrud for DW's environmental podcast, On the Green Fence. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.