The 8-Second Attention Span

New reports from and show yet another way that politicized claims about American “exceptionalism” are not only overblown, but downright wrong on most global measures of progress. This time, it’s growing skepticism about climate change that’s adding yet another ball and chain to our nation’s economic future.

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In the eight years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, public concern about climate change in the U.S. has decreased, while increasing in places such as China and India.

But it’s not just awareness of climate change that’s on the rise in these so-called “developing” countries (a term I dislike and rarely use). Their citizens have embraced the urgent need for green lifestyle changes, in everything from home energy use to water conservation.

So what’s going on here at home? Why are people losing their mojo when it comes to buying green stuff and making changes, and why are they burying their heads in the (rapidly disappearing) sand on climate change?

I think we can point to a bunch of factors. First, we’re burned out on green education. We don’t like being told we should recycle, we should turn the heat down, we should purchase sustainably harvested goods and sustainably made products. In China and India, it’s considered COOL to be green. And a lot of that coolness is based on a higher level of concern about climate change. For example, 57 percent of Chinese citizens are worried about climate change, versus about 45 percent of U.S. citizens. But there are other big factors, such as government subsidies for green business and initiatives such as the “Cool China” National Low-Carbon Action Plan, which encourages citizens to go vegetarian one day a week, and hand wash clothes one day a week. Americans might blanch at such ideas, but those are pretty painless compared to what climate change may force upon us.

Maybe our apathy is tied to the fact that attention spans are shrinking. According to one study, the average American attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds. Now it’s eight seconds—one second less than a goldfish

Even if these statistics are slightly silly, the underlying point is good. We’re a fickle people, and getting more fickle every day. The conversion to a green economy will require us to stay focused. It means selling the story of climate change, and taking action.