“They have no message” — if you’re saying this, you’re probably a Nerd Looper

AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY (the Occupy Wall Street movement). Last year I whined about, “Where are all the demonstrations?” after the Gulf oil spill. The fear was that people have gotten so complacent with their online activism that they no longer want to go outside. This is one of the many refreshing things about the Occupy Wall Street movement — proof that people are still able to pull themselves away from their laptops. Yay!

tent it up


Three weeks ago I was sitting with a group of people who were talking about the very start of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. One rather obnoxious person very confidently said, “They’re a big waste of time — they have no message, they’re not organized, they should just go home.” Wrong. Demonstrably wrong now, three weeks later as you can see the significant amount of success they are experiencing in grabbing national attention.

That person’s critique makes me think of the most common criticism I heard from environmentalists of Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” So many times I’ve been in discussions and said, “I have some criticisms,” and someone else says, “I know, it was such a great movie, but then it got to the end and they didn’t have a good set of instructions of what you should do.”

Well, no. I completely disagree. It was not a good movie as far as movies go (see my standard critique), but it did succeed in stirring a following, and for that it didn’t need any instructions or message or anything specific at the end of it. If you think it did, you’re probably a Nerd Looper.


Who cares how the movie ended. It succeeded in the same way the Occupy Wall Street movement has succeeded. And same for the Tea Party. All three of these groups managed to achieve the “arouse” part of the “arouse and fulfill” couplet. The question is whether they are able to move to a second stage and formalize their enthusiasm into a long term movement. It’s pretty much the same as the shift in a new business from the start-up phase to the long term operation.

This kind of matches what I presented in “Flock of Dodos” with the figure that shows how an idea begins as a piece of intuition, which is not science and starts down in the gut, but then for it to turn into science (or a formal movement) must migrate upwards from the gut to the brain. Drawing on the small business parallel, it’s the transition from all the excitement of launching a new product to actually making things work over the long term.

The thing that I think is a shame with Al Gore is that he wasn’t able to put together a really, really good second movie that he could have released in 2008 which would have moved the enthusiasm generated in 2006 into a more formal mass movement. In November 2008 Gore was quoted in the NY Times saying that while his movie succeeded in creating awareness, it failed to create the sense of urgency needed to produce the mass movement they had hoped for.

Actually, what they did do in 2008 was spend a huge amount of money on lame-o television ads with political opposites sitting on a couch reading a script saying they agree about climate change. Which didn’t work.


Last year Sharon Begley wrote an essay in Newsweek which ended with her drawing parallels between the Wall Street mess and climate change. At the broadest of levels, there are a lot of similarities. Both Wall Street and climate are problems that involve gargantuan amounts of information — so much that you wonder whether anyone really can in a single moment completely grasp the entire situation.

That was certainly the case for Wall Street where the role of “derivatives” and all sorts of other complex functions created a system for which there were simply too many cogs in the system to take it all in at once. Same for climate change. Just try following the average topic of debate on the blog Real Climate (which is perhaps the most highly regarded climate blog). It’s largely impenetrable to the average reader (the current topic is “spectral polar cartography”) yet it is the forum for plenty of heated argumentation from all sorts of non-scientists.

Years ago there was a major fisheries biologist who tried to make the case for “qualitative” modeling of some ocean fisheries rather than quantitative. The idea is that some systems, like the population biology of many ocean fisheries species, are so complex you can’t realistically produce enough numbers for any quantitative model to be accurate and realistic. Therefore you’re better off soaking in all the information you can, then making a prediction based on your gut instinct.

Which brings us back to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Civil rights author/activist Cornell West is quoted on the Wikipedia page about the movement saying, “It’s impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand, or two demands. We’re talking about a democratic awakening.”

I think he’s pretty much got it right there. The set of faults being addressed by the Occupy Wall Street crowd is so complex and far reaching that to try and distill it down to a handful of things right now would be to trivialize it and open up the potential for people to address the few things and think that’s all there is. This was the problem of the Gore film — it addressed a huge can of worms and actually did a great job of starting the fire, and that was all it needed to do — it didn’t need to lay out the agenda right then or tell people “the one thing they can do”. It just needed for people to pour out into the streets and start creating a POPULAR mass movement. The rest can come with the next stage, as the Tea Partiers have shown. But it hasn’t so far with the issue of climate change. It just ain’t that popular so far.