The Monkey Trap

Letting go is hard, when the pursuit of pleasure meets the uncertainty of a changing climate.

This, apparently, is how you trap a monkey:

First, you need to find a place where monkeys hang out. Of course, this will be an easier prospect in Delhi than it is in, say, Dubbo – for reasons that should be self evident. Next, find a heavy flagon or urn – something that’s about the same weight as the monkey you want to catch, with an opening just large enough for the monkey to get it’s hand in. Then, in full view of the monkey, place the vessel on the ground and drop something small inside. Peanuts are good, but to a curious monkey anything you put in there might just prove irresistible; so a hand full of pebbles may suffice. Finally, stand back and watch. If all goes to plan, an inquisitive monkey will be overcome by the urge to find out just what good things have been gifted to it. The monkey will reach inside the urn, it will grasp whatever you have left for it, and with a fist full of trinkets it is now unable to remove its hand from the opening. All you need to do, is walk up to the monkey and release it from the bondage of its freedom.

Variations of this little anecdote have been used by motivational speakers and lifestyle gurus the world over; to highlight a classic conundrum in human behavior. It suggests that until one is willing to let go of the lifestyle one already has, they are at risk of becoming enslaved by that very lifestyle. It’s a compelling metaphor; made more compelling some might say, because it features a monkey.

Putting the monkey aside for the moment (with or without its fist stuck fast in an earthenware jug), the idea that we are motivated more by the pursuit of pleasure than the threat of pain is not a new one. If, for example, we look closely at why people appear unwilling to alter their greenhouse-gas-belching behaviors, the similarities are not lost on those that are familiar with theories of hedonic motivation. And that’s most of us, isn’t it?

Here’s my take: hedonic motivation theory suggests that people are generally predisposed to do more to pursue pleasure than they are to move away from pain. Now, if this is true (and many a hedonic motivational theorist will insist that it is), then the threat of catastrophic climate change will be regarded as a reason to continue doing the very things that they tell us not to do: “I think I’ll continue to drive my imported seven seat SUV down to the gym, after I drop by the supermarket and grab some non-organic processed meat products for dinner; if you don’t mind”. This, you see, will bring pleasure, because pain is inevitably on its way.

Or is it? Is it possible that by changing aspects of our carbon-intensive lifestyles we can mitigate against climate change; adapt where necessary; and make it a pleasurable experience for all involved?

Surely it’s possible. Although orthodoxy in the public discourse on climate change would lead to the conclusion that we are about to enter a period of pain. Of course for some, the localised impact of climate change will indeed be catastrophic. These people are among the most geographically, economically and politically vulnerable among us; are members of the worlds poorest communities; and almost all have few material pleasures of which to speak. For these people, the opportunity to pursue pleasure rarely arises when the desire to move away from pain is ever-present. It is ironic then, that those with the material wealth necessary to both mitigate against and adapt to climate change, are also those contributing most to its cause. So the question must be answered: what will it take to get people in relatively wealthy communities to alter their climate-changing behaviors?

Sex appeal. That’s my answer. When we clear away the debris of the ‘climate change debate’, and we look closely at the real reasons why most of us in the developed world choose to do the things we do, and to buy the things we buy (most of which is superfluous, incidentally); our behaviors are largely explained by the elementary principals of marketing. If a low-carbon emitting lifestyle could be shown to boost ones self-esteem; to improve ones potential career prospects; to better ones standing in the community; and to make one more attractive to the opposite sex (if it’s the opposite sex you’re interested in, that is); I don’t think we would have so much difficultly convincing the middle classes to make the switch. Instead of talking down the prospect of a bright future, it’s time to pitch the message differently.

For example, ditching the car for a bicycle on some of those short trips will save carbon emissions: but it might also work off some of those extra pounds, which is good for your self-esteem. When you are out on the bike, you have some time to think about where your current career is headed and you might finally make the decision to quit your job and find a better one. Riding a bike can be good for your career prospects, too.

Because you are out on your bike and not zooming past in your car, you get to share a greeting with others out-and-about in your neighborhood. One of them invites you to join a local community action group – which you cheerfully accept. You attend the first meeting where you are introduced to Chris. It turns out that Chris is the one, and you are married three weeks later in a garden wedding attended by all your new friends and neighbors. So riding a bike improves your standing in the community and makes you more attractive to everyone. See?

Okay, I accept that some of this may appear somewhat far-fetched, but there is little doubt in my mind that the benefits mentioned are more likely to come to those living a low-carbon lifestyle than those living a carbon-intensive one. So to promote the cause, all we need are some champions and a clearer understanding of how much more pleasurable life could be.

Which only leaves one question outstanding from the monkey trap metaphor: once caught, what does one do with a violently distraught and potentially rabid monkey? This could be a question worth exploring further, or it could become a metaphor for something deep within the human psyche, linked of course, to climate change.

A metaphor worth exploring on another day perhaps.


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