February 28th, 2013
Pro-nuker Rod Adams correctly pointed out that I know nuttin’ when it comes to the issue of nuclear power today, but more importantly, he offered up a simple slogan (Fission Fast!) just as I was thinking of a similar simple slogan (Curb Carbon), neither of which are much use in a world so fractious and leaderless that nobody’s listening to any leaders. Oh, well.
NUKE THIS! From an anti-nuclear rally last year in Tokyo, more than 30 years after the No Nukes rallies in the U.S., showing the staying power of a good slogan.
SUPER SLOGAN SOON!
I don’t know nuclear supporter Rod Adams, but he posted a nice discussion on his blog, ATOMIC INSIGHTS, addressing the point of my last post. He agreed with the basic need for simple, unifying slogans that are short, punchy and ideally either rhyming or alliterative. He offered up a pro-nuclear slogan of, “Fission Fast!”
I’m kinda opinion-free when it comes to nuclear power, having not delved into the topic deeply enough to have strong thoughts on either side. I know the potential risks are nightmarish, but the fears have often been over-blown. Such is the power of fear-based communication. In my book, I mentioned my German editor, whose father is a nuclear engineer, who simply can’t understand why the facts failed to win out in Germany when it comes to nuclear power.
Anyhow, yes, “Fission Fast!” works. I was also going to ask why the climate movement didn’t initially come up with something like, “Curb Carbon,” then hold the same sort of mass rallies that happened for, “No Nukes.”
But I’ll tell you why. The climate movement is so massively cerebrally driven (thus my complaint a while back about what I termed, “The Nerd Loop”). They are so proud of their endless, endless studies of polling data and framing and message boxing and semantics and semiotics and … yet … in the end, they can’t communicate their way out of a box. And thus they allowed their entire message and movement to be co-opted by a group of Hollywood producers who shoved out on the world stage a nice guy who had lost his Presidential bid and taken to giving humble Powerpoint talks. All of which drove the entire movement into the ditch in which it now sits, smoldering, directionless and leaderless.
I don’t know how you fix this. Maybe you hold separate rallies within the movement that say, “Stop Being So Cerebral!” It’s the source of the problem. Heavily cerebral types have a hard time unifying. Lynch mobs tend to not be very deep thinkers. Not that you want a lynch mob. I’m just talking about the core dilemma.
I think (there I go, being cerebral myself) it’s the undoing of the climate movement. Too much thought. Too analytical. Too many people parsing every thought and suggested slogan.
CLIMATE ACTIVIST: “Let’s CURB CARBON … only I wouldn’t say that CARBON by itself is necessarily the problem because when you look at …”
Oh, don’t be such a scientist.
Good luck unifying so many independent thinkers in an age of corporate culture. How’s that for a pretty grim assessment? As I get ready to spend tomorrow serving on a committee with the American Institute of Physics which should be a fascinating look into yet another culture that I have no experience with. Yeeha!
February 25th, 2013
In 1979 I attended a No Nukes rally in D.C. that was 170,000 people. A couple days later the NYC rally was over 200,000. That’s your “baseline” for mass rallies. Climate is supposed to be the biggest threat ever, but the rallies are an order of magnitude smaller (and “An Inconvenient Truth” never produced any significant rallies). Here’s four hypotheses to account for the difference.
“EVERYBODY NEEDS SOME POWER I’M TOLD”. I was among the 170,000 on the Captial Mall in D.C. singing along with with John Hall in 1979. Why aren’t the climate crowds as big?
THE DAYS OF GENUINE MASS RALLIES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
On a crazy Friday night at Harvard in the spring of 1979 my girlfriend at the time said we should hop in my car and drive all night to D.C. to take part in the gigantic rally in response to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Being young and impulsive we did, and by the next afternoon we were in the thick of the 170,000 people on the National Mall listening to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and countless other ageless activists, and even singing along with John Hall as he performed his anti-nuke anthem, “Power.”
I guess that’s the sort of memory that still burns in my mind when I look at today’s limpid, sold out, fractious, climate movement. What happened? Why were the mass rallies so massive back then, but today are so minimal (while the budgets of the NGO’s are so massive)?
I felt and expressed this after the Gulf oil spill in 2010, and even went up to Santa Barbara to interview some of the people who were around in 1969 when the Santa Barbara oil spill produced a huge public backlash against the oil companies. There was nothing of the sort for the BP spill.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Why do mass rallies still matter? Because despite the internet, we are still a television-oriented society. Television shapes our perception of the real world, and “perception is reality.” Images of online petitions of 100,000 people offer no authority and are easily faked. Images of 100,000 live bodies assembled for a rally says EVERYTHING.
So here’s four hypotheses to account for today’s minimalist climate rallies compared to the days of No Nukes.
HYPOTHESIS #1: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TWEETED (GLADWELL)
Malcolm Gladwell maybe jumped the gun a little bit in 2010 with his New Yorker article, “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” which, similar to just about all of his stuff was pretty flippin’ brilliant. The following spring, the arab nations used social media as a central element for their upheavals, suggesting their revolution actually was tweeted. Then it’s not clear, particularly with Egypt, how solid the revolution was in the end. Who knows. But there’s no denying more Americans are sitting in front of their computers these days thinking they are changing the world with their keyboards (um … like maybe me?) instead of getting out in the streets. Most of them would probably argue their actions on a keyboard are just as effective as turning up in person for rallies. Gladwell wouldn’t agree. I wouldn’t either. Seeing is still believing in this country. No social media excuses are valid.
HYPOTHESIS #2: SOON, SALIENT, CERTAIN (INGRAM)
Andy Revkin, in 2006 in one of the best essays of his career titled, “Yelling “Fire” on a Crowded Planet,” cited Helen Ingram of U.C. Irvine who said that problems which receive attention tend to be, “Soon, Salient, and Certain” (btw, I attended his Zocalo event last week here in L.A. which was great and he mentioned this element). Revkin talks about how pushing for a sense of urgency for a threat which isn’t “soon” could actually be counter-productive as people burn out. Which is interesting because in November, 2008, Al Gore was quoted in the NY Times talking about the failure of the climate movement saying, “There is not anything anywhere close to an appropriate sense of urgency.” Meaning he and others paid no heed to this element of “soon” with regard to the threat.
In contrast, the nuclear power danger became enormously SALIENT in the United States on March 28, 1979 with the Three Mile Island accident, which never killed anyone but was terrifying enough to launch the mass protests. There are some environmental pundits who believe global warming/carbon emissions will never be a powerful enough force in the U.S. to launch mass demonstrations until we get a summer heat wave producing huge numbers of death as happened in France in 2003 producing over 14,000 heat-related deaths.
HYPOTHESIS #3: EVIL, ALLITERATION, ALONE (THE SIMPSONS)
Look at what the No Nukes rallies had in narrative terms. The writers of “The Simpsons” knew this and put it to use with the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant owned by Montgomery Burns.
EVIL – They had a singular source of very visible evil — the nuclear power plants. One of the key principles in storytelling is that, “your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” The nuclear industry is an awesome and perfect villain, filled with mystery tracking all the way back to the atomic bomb era.
ALLITERATION – slogans matter. Just listen to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s speech last year to the National Academy of Sciences. He talked about all the artificial things that make statements feel more true. The clarity of text is one. Repetition is another. And rhyming and alliteration is yet another. “No Nukes” has a powerful ring to it. What does the climate movement have that’s comparable and equally unifying??? Maybe “350”? Um … not so much. 350 what’s? When you search “global warming slogan” you get a page with these “slogans”, which kinda says volumes about the horrendously bad communications skills of the movement:
– “Earth-please do think about me!”
– “Global warming, a Global warning”
– “Alone we can make a difference , but together we can change the world and protect our mother earth from global warming”
– “We’re burning our children’s inheritance”
– “Global Warming – A topic that’s heating up”
ALONE – It was indeed a different time for society in 1979, on the eve of cable television, but still just 3 or 4 channels in most homes. Today’s world of a go-zillion channels of everything is more factitious than ever, but Obama has proven that leadership still works if you have a voice that is trusted and liked.
HYPOTHESIS #4: A TOP-HEAVY MOVEMENT
Just look at the budgets of today’s environmental NGO’s. I guess it’s something nobody likes to talk about. And yes, I know, you need all the lawyers, scientists and economists to fight big business. But it ain’t the same impassioned movement as the old days. It was more grassroots back then, less DC-based NGO’s. The pyramid has become inverted. Less grassroots today, more big NGO’s with big budgets (without naming any names, the biggest one had income of over $1 billion in 2011 — wow).
So that’s what’s changed. Which I suppose is inevitable. But the picture is clear. The environmental movement got richer, smarter and more bureaucratic, but the rallies today are smaller than back then. I think that’s kinda sad.
February 20th, 2013
35,000 turned out in D.C. for the climate rally last weekend. That says EVERYTHING.
(CLEAN) POWER TO THE PEOPLE, RIGHT ON.
EMPOWERING THE GRASSROOTS
In 2005 I made a great little 6 minute video with Mark Dowie, the longtime constructive critic of the environmental movement and author of THE book that every environmentalist should have as required reading, “LOSING GROUND: American Environmentalism as the Close of the Twentieth Century.” The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is mandatory for all those who live by the quote about not wanting to be condemned to repeat the past.
My video was great, not based on the filmmaking (all I did was set up a camera and let him speak his wisdom, from which I pulled out 6 of the most powerful minutes), but based on the wisdom he conveyed.
First off, he quoted famed grassroots activist Saul Alinsky (the guy Hillary Clinton did her thesis on which is used by the far right to argue that she’s some sort of demonic socialist) with his term, “TOTAL TACTICS.” That’s the first thing to consider with what Bill McKibben has created with 350.org.
Total Tactics refers to the fact that every mass movement needs action at ALL levels, and more importantly, the various levels need to respect each other and work together. For too long the climate movement has been too top heavy. Matt Nisbet (with his Climate Shift report) and others have pointed out not just the gargantuan sums of money squandered on the failed “Cap and Trade” effort, but also there was an element of blind arrogance in developing the strategy of “let’s pass climate legislation at the top, then explain it to the American public as it gets foisted on them.”
As Theda Skocpol pointed out last month, they failed. Yes, Cap and Trade worked great for acid rain. But it wasn’t as simple as just going for it again with the climate.
It would have been nice if the masterminds of the climate effort had taken a Total Tactics approach of simultaneously creating a coordinated mass movement to accompany the congressional effort. It would have been nice if there had been climate rallies in the spring of 2010 of 35,000 people showing support for the Waxman-Markey bill, but there wasn’t.
Now there is. At last. But of course some people are asking whether this is the proper direction (a writer for Grist painted the rally as “fraying at the ends” which is kinda missing the significance of 35,000 people for climate action for the first time in history). I received a couple of emails from climate friends saying they think the Keystone Pipeline is the wrong target, and Andy Revkin pointed out, “What about what’s happening in oil producing regions like Nigeria?”
VISCERAL IS TOUGHER THAN CEREBRAL
I tend to view the world in terms of the cerebral/visceral divide. My take on the rally is that “the message” is the cerebral element. Some might think “the message” of the rally was the Keystone Pipeline, but really the actual message of 35,000 people is much simpler — it’s that 35,000 people care enough about the fate of the climate to turn up.
Who cares about the specific message of a mass rally for now. Just get the bodies out there. Which is what 350.org understands and is doing. THAT is the visceral component — the live action, the experiential. It’s much harder in today’s internet-distracted world (keeping in mind Malcolm Gladwell said, “The revolution will not be tweeted,”) but at the same time, it has more significance and meaning than ever before. And it’s what has been missing.
So I say kudos to McKibben — the guy most likely to provide the LEADERSHIP that the movement has sadly lacked. As Mark Dowie said, you have to have the grassroots element as well as the NGO’s. Both levels are essential and equally important. And they need to respect each other.
The D.C. climate rally is a major step forward in creating a mass movement for climate that will eventually work. Unlike what has transpired so far.
February 11th, 2013
Here’s a textbook example of how to make a nice, simple, friendly, well conceived, developed and executed informative video.
THIS IS HOW TO DO IT: “My Toxic Couch” video from NRDC is very well done
I’m going to call this a piece of “informative media” because I so despise the term “educational media” (almost all of which is so poorly crafted). Let’s take a look at all the ways in which it excels:
STORYTELLING – Last July we (my team of Dorie Barton, Brian Palermo and myself) ran a day-long storytelling workshop at NRDC for which this was one of the storylines presented by Sarah Janssen, an NRDC scientist. Since then, the NRDC folks did an outstanding job of bringing the concept to life. The video presents a story following all the basic rules we discuss. It sets up an “ordinary world” (Sarah, her daughter, her cat on their couch), then takes us into the “special world” of realizing their couch is toxic. She then takes us on a journey of exploration in pursuit of answers to questions she poses (“How can this be possible?” and “Now, it’s in my family’s couch?”). This is exactly how you use storytelling for effective broad communication. And just as a thought exercise, imagine this video without the daughter, cat, and personal story or even artwork — just a bunch of photos of couches with facts and figures. That would be fine for a presentation at a science conference, but not so good with the general public.
FORMAT – In “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” I talked about my belief that this sort of piece (limited imagery presented slowly so that the viewer can absorb the visuals then concentrate on the audio) is more effective for educational purposes than a video where the imagery is constantly moving. This is the divide between entertainment and education. It’s fun to be entertained, but it’s hard to mix entertainment and education. Yes, I know EVERY teacher dreams of it, but the truth is they don’t mix well. If you have a serious issue to communicate, things should be slowed down a bit like this. I came to this conclusion after doing 4 Flash pieces for my Shifting Baselines project, two of which were very popular and effective (“Pristine?” and “Shifting Baselines in the Surf“).
ARTWORK – Brilliant, lovely, friendly, lively, vibrant, human, textured, effective.
VOICE – Perfect, first person with huge credibility, and a voice that is not overly dramatic, affected, strident or monotonic, just simply a bullseye for having the crucial qualities of trust and likeability, all of which is incredibly subjective (welcome to the “art” side of communication)
USE OF TEXT — So good — you need on-screen text for an educational video to hammer home the key points. It’s primarily a visual medium, so you really have to at some point use text to be explicit about your message. Just look at the end of almost any television commercial.
MUSIC SCORING — Really great, the pacing matches the voice and editing
FINAL TOUCH – Love that the cat comes back at the end, solo
“Wow! That was gorgeous, and really effective. I remember clearly how good her story was at the workshop in July, and it’s really thrilling to see how well this turned out. Such a great example to show how effective good story can be, and the message of what we need to do is so clear and simple. The watercolors worked beautifully and brought in a whole new layer of accessibility. Congratulations to all on this terrific piece!” – Dorie Barton
“I totally agree with the above. This is fantastic use of the elements of our workshop. Biggest point: It is RELATABLE! Most of the target audience of voters who could effect change have kids. Many have cats and nearly all have couches. So almost everyone watching this will see themselves in this video. RELATABLE. Which is a perfect way of making dry science personal and important.” – Brian Palermo
February 4th, 2013
That’s the inescapable conclusion when you look at the 50 years of research on the crown-of-thorns starfish problem that has led to no clear answers. This includes my own work in the 1980’s.
HAVING THEIR WAY WITH NATURE AND SCIENCE. The starfish must find it hilarious that after 50 years of research nobody still knows how or why they come and go so dramatically.
ONE BIG MYSTERY, ONE BIG MESS
Sorry. I suppose I should put it a little more delicately. But seriously. FIFTY years of research, tens of millions of dollars spent, and we can’t tell you why an extremely common starfish undergoes population explosions? It is a monument to the impotence of the entire field of marine biology. Terrestrial ecologists have no trouble telling you what causes locust or bamboo cycles. But crown-of-thorns starfish? It was a mess when I studied it in the mid-80’s, it’s still a mess.
Not that there aren’t lots of great marine biologists in this world. I’ve known heaps of them. But let’s be honest, this is one of the biggest questions in the entire field of marine biology, and it’s not a particularly complex question (“Why the population explosions?”). And yet … here’s an article just this week saying pretty much nobody knows nuttin’.
COULDA FOOLED ME
The article does claim the folks on the Great Barrier Reef have got their story worked out (that the population explosions are caused by nutrient runoff from the land feeding the larvae — if only larval ecology were that simple). I don’t have the time and energy to try and still promote the 4 years of work I did on the problem in the mid-1980’s studying the larvae of the starfish and publishing several peer-reviewed papers. But I will say this — their current thinking (mentioned in this article) is simply wrong. And every so often a marine biologist will track me down with this opinion that they are all wrong and I will agree. But it’s a rats nest, with funding motivation at the core of at least some of the opinions.
Again, sorry, too busy to wade into it. Life is too short. I have movies to make. But this is pathetic that 50 years has produced so little knowledge.