Maura Flynn, an organizer for the upcoming Hands Across The Sand protest, makes popular resistance to the expansion of offshore drilling seem like a simple thing: “I believe most people want to do the right thing; it’s just a matter of bringing the issue to everyone’s attention. We all want clean air, clean water, and to pass on a good future to those who come after us,” she says.
There’s a depressingly simple flaw in Flynn’s argument: The issue of the dangers of offshore drilling was brought to everyone’s attention last year. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig and subsequent oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico was the top story for months on end. Yet, even before the rupture in the sea bed was plugged, Congress and President Obama were moving to acquiesce to oil industry demands to allow offshore drilling to expand just as previously planned.
Hands Across The Sand is an inspiring idea: Get lots of people to go to the beach and hold hands together in a show of solidarity against offshore drilling. Photographs of these protests are supposed to demonstrate that many Americans are strongly opposed to the expansion of offshore drilling.
It may make people feel good to participate in these protests, but for those of us who want to make a difference, a difficult question needs to be asked: Will the protests actually make a difference? The answer is almost certainly no. Last year, people participated in Hands Across The Sand protests all up and down the coasts of the U.S.A. Yet, the expansion of offshore drilling has gone ahead anyway.
It’s a common belief among activists that all they need to do to become more successful is to bring the issues that they care about to the attention of large numbers of people. Activists believe deeply in their causes, and presume that others will adopt their passion, once other people learn what the activists have learned.
The approach rarely works. Part of the problem is that corporations control most mass media outlets. That fact doesn’t explain why opposition to offshore drilling has failed to catch on over the last year, however.
The core problem is more psychological in nature. Most people aren’t persuaded by facts and don’t make decisions based on rational principles. They’re motivated by storylines with unspoken narratives that often don’t match reality. People become interested in issues that match their personal preoccupations and excite their core psychological impulses.
Americans became outraged that Congressman Anthony Weiner had an Internet exchange with a woman that was sexual in nature because they’re interested in sexual stories. The story had nothing to do with their rational needs. Weiner’s Internet sex habits didn’t have a thing to do with their rational self-interest, but it stimulated their minds and made it impossible for Weiner to survive in Congress.
People were killed in the offshore drilling disaster provoked by BP’s sloppy administration of the Deepwater Horizon. Huge amounts of money were lost across a large region of the nation. Some of America’s natural treasures were imperiled. Yet, not one politician who enabled the conditions that led to the disaster was forced to resign from Congress.
Why? People don’t have a strong psychological drive to pay attention to the systemic problems of the nation’s energy infrastructure. Furthermore, people don’t like to think about dirty messes. They tend to want to avoid dealing with filth in the hopes that someone else will clean it up. Finally, at this time of year, when people think about going to the beach to have a good time, they think of lying in the sun looking at sexy young people wearing very little clothing, or playing in big, rushing waves. They don’t think of standing in a line holding hands with a complete stranger.
I’m glad that the people with Hands Across The Sand are making an effort to get people involved in opposition to offshore drilling. However, the group should not expect to achieve its goals merely by “bringing the issue to everyone’s attention”. A more strategic understanding of Americans’ irrational motivations will be required before the group will be able to have a significant impact on public opinion or legislative policy.