January 1st, 2014
Two really good essays from Think Progress and the Breakthrough Institute paint a clear picture of the planet and it’s not as grim as a lot of people would prefer. But this just makes the communication challenge more difficult than ever. It’s easy to communicate the truth when the truth is insanely urgent and dramatic (the recent documentary “Blackfish” is an excellent example of this—the power of whales and human death override any narrative imperative). But what do you do when the problems become more long term, subtle and less visible. You have two options: lie or get better at communication. I’m for the latter.
THE WORLD’S NOT GONNA END IN 2014. I don’t think. If I’m wrong you can sue me. (Cool painting from KM Kimura)
TWO MESSAGES OF GUARDED ENVIRONMENTAL OPTIMISM
Take that, Debbie Downer.
I’m in total agreement, and yet there is the endless challenge of walking the fine line between “guarded optimism” versus ill-informed environmental “skepticism,” of the Bjorn Lomborg variety.
The only thing I know for sure is that it calls for even more focus on skillful and accurate communication. Rallying the masses is easy when the threats are large, obvious, urgent and with high stakes. But a whole lot harder when they’re not.
BLACKFISH: CASE IN POINT
The recent documentary “Blackfish” is excellent and everyone should watch and support it. I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in 1976 when the good people of Puget Sound finally rose up against the horrible practices of Sea World and kicked them out of the state for good. I would like to say I was a major part of that effort, but, alas, I was 21, living in a fraternity with only two things on my mind, the environment not being one of them. But I do recall being incredibly disgusted at the stories I heard from friends who went out there and joined in the protest. Sea World has now spent generations doing horrible things to orcas. They need to stop. And apologize for their greed.
“Blackfish” ends up being a case study in the rare instance where you really don’t need to work too hard on overall narrative dynamics. The movie doesn’t tell much of an overall story, other than these people are horrible and need to be stopped. It is the very sort of “And, And, And,” collection of vignettes that I warn against in my Science letter. And yet, the fact is, if your raw material is just incredibly engrossing and dramatic and watchable by itself, there is the rare instance when that’s all you need. And this movie is it.
In fact, it’s elegant how cleanly and simply the material is presented. Just one tragic tale after another of shoddy practices which have eventually caused the loss of lives while the animals continue to suffer.
But this is indeed the rare exception. Just look at the subject matter—whales. You couldn’t have a more immediately compelling topic to begin with. Whales and human death—can’t beat that.
GLOBAL WARMING IS NO WHALE TALE
So that’s the problem. Whales and death—an easy sell—little need to sweat it on the overall narrative front. Climate change and human discomfort eventually leading to death through chains of events … that’s a much tougher challenge.
All of which sets the stage for the big climate communications extravaganza of 2014 — the upcoming Showtime series, “The Years of Living Dangerously.” In my Der Spiegel interview (picked up last week by ABC News) I had talked about it as a possible source of hope in combatting the bo-ho-horingness of global warming, but that material didn’t make the cut, which is a shame.
I know that a lot of good people have worked very hard on the series, and they have the best possible science advisor with my buddy Joe Romm, the longtime climate blogger, so you can be assured the science of the series will be excellent.
I’m looking forward to it and hope it becomes a role model for how to “do it right” in the broad communication of a serious environmental issue.
Here’s to 2014 being, “The Best Year in Environmental Communication”!