Are you that duck? | A New Shade of Green | Sherry Listgarten | |

Local Blogs

A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

E-mail Sherry Listgarten

About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

View all posts from Sherry Listgarten

Are you that duck?

Uploaded: Mar 15, 2020
I was walking my dog earlier this week, enjoying the rare everyday activity that wasn’t cancelled(!) She likes to visit a big oak tree where a woman puts out food for squirrels and ducks every few days. On that morning, there were loads of ducks under it, and my dog sat and watched for a while. A few ducks looked over at her, and as we slowly moved forward, a few started edging away, towards the far side of the tree, while others seemed unbothered. We got closer, and a few more started moving away and/or quacking an alert. Finally, when we got close enough, my dog lunged forward (on leash), and all flew away except for this one guy, who stood there unmoved.

Is this duck being savvy or stupid? What led him to play a (successful) game of chicken with a dog? Is he a duck genius who has learned the limitations of on-leash dogs? Or is he just really hungry? Or maybe he’s a contrarian, unhappy with his fellow ducks’ group-think tendencies? In this case, he won out, ending up with a nice scattering of food that he could eat at his leisure.

I was laughing at this because I’d been thinking about the variety of ways that people respond to threats, and here it was playing out in ducks. I’ve written about this earlier in the context of climate change, and have been interested to see what’s happening with coronavirus. It is a different kind of threat in that it is more immediate and the communication has (lately) been much less ambiguous. (I guess the airlines and cruise ships didn’t have time to mount a coordinated anti-science effort.) As a result, the range of responses is more limited, but it’s still there.

Here are a few observations, but I’d love to hear yours. I think several of these apply to climate change as well (which is what this blog is supposed to be about).

Small things are harder than they should be. It’s been interesting for me to see how hard it was, at least early on, for my daughter to clean her hands after coming inside the house or before eating lunch at school (for example). It’s not hard to do, and it doesn’t take long. It’s not unpleasant, and it’s not hard to remember. She has hand sanitizer in her lunch bag, and a sign on our door as reminders. But she was really resistant to it. It seemed more than the usual anti-parenting reflex. What gives?

My guess is that in part this kind of resistance stems from a reluctance to acknowledge that something big is wrong. That is not a comfortable feeling, and it can take a while to accept. But it’s not only that. In some cases (e.g., washing hands at school) you are acknowledging it in a public way, which is harder. You are telling your friends “I think something big is wrong.” Furthermore, you are acknowledging it with a relatively feeble response compared with the magnitude of the problem. “I think something big is wrong, and this is all that I can do about it.” It’s like eating a veggie burger or biking to the grocery store in the face of global climate change. Really? That’s all you can do? I think it’s this combination of things -- acknowledging a problem that you have little control over, in a public way, with a seemingly feeble response -- that makes us resistant to doing it. It’s vaguely embarrassing, I suppose, or at least humbling.

A desire for control can exaggerate responses. In the other direction, responses can also be exaggerated. Most of us are trained to want control over what happens to ourselves and our family. We take pride in that. So not everyone is comfortable with taking only the small recommended actions. “Surely I can and should do better.” This has resulted in some extreme responses that end up being harmful to the overall effort. One example would be excessive hoarding of masks and sanitizer for personal use, so that organizations that need them are facing shortages. Another would be angrily chastising those around you who are not responding in the way that you would want them to. This struggle for more control can also lead to debilitating anxiety, which could end up being harmful to your own immune system, for example if you can’t sleep.

The early actors have out-sized importance. Some people recognized the severity of the virus early on and were among the first to change habits, taking actions that others could see. It may have been something like washing their hands before eating, opting to work from home, or using a paper towel to open a restroom door. At the time, these actions may have seemed extreme, but by starting to normalize these beneficial habits, they made it easier for others to adopt them. It takes some courage and conviction to be an early mover, but if done in the right way, it can have an outsized impact. (1)

Some diversity in responses is helpful. A range of reactions can be a good thing. In my family, we have the eager responders and the foot-dragging laggers, and we help to balance each other out. I am more towards the former camp, though not as much as others who think I am too lax. The foot-draggers, as long as they are open to authoritative information, help to reduce the stress factor and encourage all of us to be more creative and find more palatable changes.

I hope you are all finding ways to calibrate your response and to work constructively with those who may be taking a different tack. With clear, consistent, authoritative information to guide us, we’ve seen that together “we hold the power to change,” as reader Bette said on last week’s post. I hope we can hold onto that sentiment when the coronavirus situation stabilizes and we focus again on climate change.

Stay healthy, everyone, and a special thanks to all of our healthcare workers.

Notes and References
1. What is “the right way”? I’m not sure. Did people accuse the hand washers of virtue signaling or alarmism? If not, why not?

Current Climate Data (February 2020)
This was the second warmest February ever for the globe.

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

Comment Guidelines
I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines, or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based and refer to reputable sources.
- Stay on topic.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Trump fired the Pandemic Team, a resident of Meadow Park,
on Mar 15, 2020 at 9:18 am

Another good column.

Particularly like the Climate update that you consistently have with each column. Climate is a global problem, with highl localized results:

"After a dry January across southwestern California, February brought little to no relief, with many locations reporting less than 5% of average rainfall. California ranked driest on record for February with 0.20 inch of precipitation, besting the previous record of 0.31 inch set back in 1964. "

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Mar 15, 2020 at 10:53 am

Neal is a registered user.

Often, prevention doesn't have any short term rewards or tangible rewards. It's hard to wrap one's head around a possible cause and effect scenario. Most people don't wash their hands on a regular basis and there doesn't appear to be downside. As a consequence they continue with the same old behavior. Many people don't get flu shots and stay healthy. If you get a flu shot and stay healthy, was it because of the flu shot or were you just lucky? You'll never know. Likewise, you'll never know if hand washing and other preventative procedures are keeping the corona virus at bay.

Posted by Don't torment the wildlife , a resident of Menlo Park,
on Mar 15, 2020 at 11:27 am

Please don't let your dog torment the ducks, especially when they are eating. Why would you allow your dog to lunge at them, even if your dog is on a leash. Remember that they are small and defenseless so please just keep your dog away from them.

I walk to the duck pond in Burgess Park and am appalled at the kids who throw things at the ducks or run after them, frightening the poor ducks to death. The ducks that are not wild cannot fly. I think they must have been dumped in the pond by people who at one time kept them as pets. All they can do is run for safety into the pond. It especially bothers me when I see them sleeping on the grass and children/people with dogs run up to them and frighten them, forcing them back in the pond.

It would be great if parents could teach (and show by example) their children to respect the wildlife by not treating it as their entertainment. Help children to imagine how they would feel if a predatory giant came running after them. It might help them to be kinder and more thoughtful as they grow older.

Posted by cur mudgeon, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Mar 16, 2020 at 1:26 pm

Don't Torment,
Really? You missed the whole point of the blog by focusing on your perceived act of animal harassment . I can attest to Sherry being an extremely conscientious dog owner. Her dog would never be off leash in that situation.

Posted by Rick, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 16, 2020 at 2:45 pm

Dogs shouldn't be lunging at anything, even if restrained on a leash. I have a friend with a genuine service dog (unlike the fake emotional support animals). That dog doesn't do anything but exude calm even when people allow their untrained little yappy dogs to bark at her.

I generally support Sherry's efforts, but she has the Palo Alto attitude. What we need to do for climate change is much what we're finally started to do for COVID-19. Lock down. Shelter in place. Think of our neighbors and not of ourselves.

Everything suggested so far for First World consumers to do to "Combat Climate Change" is too little, too late. We don't need "feel good" change, like limiting plastic bags. We are going to need painful change like we are finally seeing for COVID-19.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Mar 16, 2020 at 5:20 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Rick: Thanks for getting the comments back on track :) There's no doubt that clear, direct government policies and communications make a huge difference (as we are seeing). You mention that "painful change" is necessary to address climate change. What would be the top changes you would advocate as being tough but necessary? I've been writing mostly about voluntary changes that people can make, but if you want to recommend policies, that'd be interesting too.

@Neal: Yes, that is a really tricky aspect of all of this. I think it's also why defensive efforts like the pandemic office (or whatever it was called), cyber-security, etc, often don't get much funding until really bad things happen. Until then, it seems like you are wasting money and being paranoid. Then they get funded for a while, then memories get short, and they get de-funded again. Many CEOs and politicians and investors hate that kind of "nothing to show for it" or "cost of doing business" expense. Regulations can be written to ensure these things get done anyway, so these same folks then become anti-regulation. And you can see why -- regulations can be inefficient and/or outdated. So, argh.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 16, 2020 at 9:34 pm

Your readers might like to look at:
Web Link

It's from the financial media: "Why don't we panic about climate change like we do coronavirus?"

(And to pick up on a point from your last post) a transformation towards an economy not dependent on burning fossil fuels will reduce lethal pollution.
However, many don't wish to pursue this in order to avoid the type of economic losses, layoffs, etc. that are just now starting to happen, worldwide, in 2020.

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Mar 17, 2020 at 8:05 am

You asked, "What would be the top changes you would advocate as being tough but necessary? " Population control. Everybody is a consumer and a polluter. Do we really need more consumers and polluters? The corona virus is a pathogen that makes humans sick and humans have become pathogens making our planet sick. It's too bad the Earth can't shelter in place to reduce its contact with humans. Controlling our reckless reproductive habits is a "painful change" most people aren't interested in.

Posted by Not a penny more, a resident of Community Center,
on Mar 17, 2020 at 12:58 pm

= Likewise, you'll never know if hand washing and other preventative procedures are keeping the corona virus at bay.

Nor will you know if your meds really work. Or anything, ever.

What tripe. Pls remove these "reduce population" sociopath rants.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Mar 18, 2020 at 12:28 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@neighbor -- Thanks for sharing that link. It's a great point about politics being a short-term game, and pretty interesting raising the question about whether a democratic system with frequent elections is well suited to dealing with a long-term threat like climate change.

@neal -- I'm not sure that population control needs to be painful. The reading I have done indicates that by making birth control available to those who want it, and providing education to women and girls so they have more opportunities, would be more than enough to keep population under control.

Thanks for the comments, and hope everyone is doing okay.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Burning just one "old style" light bulb can cost $150 or more per year
By Sherry Listgarten | 11 comments | 2,629 views

Reflecting on lives this Thanksgiving Day
By Tim Hunt | 0 comments | 1,202 views

Premiere! “I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage” – Here, a page/weekday
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,098 views