Waking up a dead mouse.

Monika Sieminska
5 min readMay 3, 2022

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Why we need radical optimism to fight the climate emergency.

Video by Space Jackets

Let’s start with the good news: we’ve already got all the solutions to not only stop global heating but also to start reversing it. Yes, all ready for us to implement! Yet, when you look at the mainstream narrative, it seems that not many people know about this fact.

A couple of weeks ago I met for a beer with a group of friends and the conversation turned down to the climate emergency. Quickly everyone got really sad and pessimistic, moaning about the recycling in London not being really recycled, wildfires still raging in the Amazon and the inevitable end of our civilisation. “It will only get worse, can we change the subject to something less depressing?” asked Carlos. So I mentioned The Drawdown Project, which lists 100 solutions to reverse climate change. I wasn’t surprised that no one knew about it. I’ve had that conversation many times before and unless people are into environmentalism, they tend to think climate change is a lost cause. To the amateurs, our planet is doomed. It’s hard to blame them, that’s all they hear — the media loves doom and gloom stories. And if it’s too late to change anything, why try?

According to climatologist Michal E Mann, doom mongering has overtaken climate denial as a cause of inaction. The world finally agrees that our planet is heating up because of humans. But instead of a big movement to radically change the way we live on this planet asap, our actions are too slow and too small. As if we didn’t believe we can “save the world” and decided to give up.

To me it looks like climate solutions have a marketing problem. They’re there, available, waiting for us to implement or scale. But the overarching narrative about climate change is so depressing, that they just don’t have a chance to break through.

Take this video produced recently for WWF.

From the animation point of view this is an outstanding work. The guys from NOMINT did the first animation out of ice, wow! But the story is so sad, hopeless and cliché (sorry polar bears, I do care for you) that it makes me wanna kill myself.

Interestingly even Greta Thunberg believes that you can scare people into action: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire — because it is”.

Will people act on climate change out of fear and panic? I doubt so. Fear automatically sets the “fight or flight” response in our bodies, a smart way to increase the chances of survival in an animal. In face of a threat the nervous system and hormones immediately prepare the body to fight, flee or freeze.

So if you notice your own house burning, your brain makes a subconscious decision based on how it perceives the threat. If the fire is small, you’ll fight it. If the fire is too big, you’ll run away to a safe place like a zebra from a lion. But what happens if the threat seems too large and overwhelming to fight off or escape? We freeze.

In freeze response animals get literally paralysed, most of bodily functions, sensations and emotions shut off, they often “play dead” like a mouse in this video:

Freeze response in a mouse

Freeze response can save our lives when a predator gets tricked into believing we are dead (won’t work with climate change unfortunately). It can also make death less painful, if it happens.

For a rapidly increasing number of people climate change is that overwhelming threat that freezes our brains: too big to fight and impossible to escape. We react to it with eco-anxiety. It’s a sister emotion to fear, it’s just more diffused because we don’t perceive climate change as an immediate danger, rather a possible future. Both produce similar stress response though.

Psychologists say eco-anxiety is a completely rational response to the current state of the natural world. Recent studies show that three-quarters of adults in Great Britain are worried about climate change. In one way, that’s a good thing: it’s a sign people finally know about the threat and treat it seriously. Most eco-anxious say they make lifestyle changes to lessen their impact on climate. Businesses are becoming greener, policies are changing. But it’s all too slow, too little, too shy. How do we speed this change up? What kind of story does this anxiety ridden audience need to hear to believe there is a way out? How do we get out of the freeze state and activate our fight response?

I believe that we need a radically optimistic narrative to turn the tide on climate action. We need to start seeing climate change as a beatable threat. We need a lens shift from talking about the problem to highlighting solutions. We need stories focused on opportunities and visions of a better future. We need stories that will counterbalance all the negative news that surrounds us. We need someone to tell us: We can still fix this shit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing naive optimism in the face of existential threat. There must be a place in the climate narrative for dealing with negative emotions, the fear of uncertainty, the grief of lost species, the loneliness anyone that is eco-conscious has felt many times. There is no denying that we are already late in fixing the environmental crisis and the window of time is closing quickly. But exactly because the stakes are so high, we must find a way to wake people into action.

But if you only had one shot, a couple of minutes to tell a story that will help to turn a frightened inactivist into an activist, what would this story be about? Would this be about rising sea-levels, extreme weather events and human suffering? Or would it be about climate solutions and people coming together to make things right? I choose the second option. And even if someone says it’s too optimistic, I don’t care, as long as it works and inspires people to action.

Check out www.spacejackets.co to see more animations.

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Monika Sieminska

Co-Founder, Art Director, Animator, Storyteller and Facilitator. Believes in the power of stories to change the world.