Helpless at the Museum: What If You Don’t Feel Like Part of the Solution?

A few years ago—the internet tells me it was 2010—the Field Museum in Chicago put on a climate change exhibit. This was at the start of my career transition, and in fact I had just stopped working onva tenure portfolio in favor of a psychology-of-sustainability Twitter feed, so I was pretty excited to go. (Hint to people thinking about leaving academia: Twitter is a lot more fun than a tenure portfolio.)

The Chicago Journal thought the exhibit "lacks urgency."

Chicago under water at the Field Museum – photo by D. Finnin, at

The Field is the best museum I know for telling stories, and I wanted to see how they handled such a complicated topic. I’d been immersed in science communication literature, and as I was walking through I thought they did a pretty good job. They emphasized the known science, but also discussed the real areas of uncertainty. They had hands-on demos showing how climate change would affect local ecosystems. They had lots of sections on both large-scale and personal solutions—things you could do better, things you could fight for society to do better. The exhibit ended with an entire room devoted to comparing renewable energy sources. I always want to see more talk about solutions, so this made me pretty happy. I came out of the exhibit feeling energized and ready to tweet about what a great job they’d done.

Not so, my companions. My wife and a visiting friend—ecologically-minded people who recycle and eat locally, and who bought CFCs before they were cool—both found the exhibit incredibly depressing. They felt like nothing they could do would make a difference, and any resources they needed to survive were too many. They felt helpless. And I, immersed in the climate communication research, had no idea what to say or do.

I’ve seen the figures, and I firmly believe that the needed change is possible—that working together as a society, we can create carbon-neutral communities with a high quality of life. That sustainability doesn’t have to be Spartan. That everyone has something meaningful to contribute to the solutions. That the fact that I gave up my car (and my nightmare commute) and quit my job (for a better one) to focus on environmental issues doesn’t need to be a model for everyone else—that it’s okay that some people are sustainability professionals, and some people are librarians who just try to live lightly on the earth.

And yet, among my friends and family, only the sustainability professionals seem optimistic. Correlation? Causation in either direction? People shouldn’t need to devote themselves to environmental change full-time in order to feel empowered to act.

I still don’t know the answer to this one. It’s a reminder that the psychology research doesn’t always give the full story, and sometimes doesn’t get you anywhere close to the message you want to share. By the book communication is no guarantee—I think if it were, climate messages would have gotten a lot further than they have.

This is one of the open, urgent questions. There are many people out there who know that climate change exists, and want to stop it, but feel helpless and overwhelmed whenever it comes up. They have enormous, largely unused potential to make a real difference. How can we talk about climate change in a way that empowers them?

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