June 5th, 2015
Why hasn’t this term been used more widely? It is applicable to so much, starting with environmentalism. It is the “everything’s going to pieces” mindset. I talk about it a bit in my new book. Everyone needs to start talking about it.
WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
GOING TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET
Are people’s minds really flexible and open to change, or are they somehow rigidly fixed? Is anybody really listening these days? Or are the haters just gonna hate, as Taylor Swift insists.
I’m quoted this month in Discover Magazine in an article titled, “A User’s Guide to Rational Thinking” by Christie Aschwanden (I think you need a subscription to read it). She does a nice job of presenting the work of Dan Kahan from Yale’s Center for Cultural Cognition. He suggests an awful lot of how you think is constrained by “pre-established cultural or social groups.”
This week, in sort of the ultimate case study of “the scarer’s gonna scare,” comes Paul Ehrlich. On his NY Times blog Dot Earth, Andy Revkin takes a look at world population growth (which maybe isn’t looking as grim as traditionally thought), and notes that Ehrlich, despite decades of wildy erroneous predictions of global cataclysm, is still at age 84 sticking to his pessimistic guns — determined to be a declensionist to his grave.
THE DECLENSIONIST NARRATIVE
So the term I learned recently that I wish I’d known decades ago is “the declensionist narrative.” If you’re a history student you may be intimately familiar with it from studies of Native American cultures, though it is a form of thinking that goes back centuries. In simple terms it is the deep seated belief that no matter what we do, the world is declining (declensionism).
It’s the “things just ain’t what they used to be,” mode of thinking. I make a brief mention of it in my upcoming book, but I intend to dig deeper into it in the near future. It’s a pretty fundamental question — are people just going to be pessimistic or optimistic no matter what they are confronted with?
And if so, where is this thinking based? Is it formed by environment, or could it be structurally present from birth? Are newborn babies already optimists and pessimists?
My good friend Nancy Knowlton has a nice essay this week in the Huffington Post about optimism for the oceans. But then she’s always been an optimist by her own nature. She was probably an optimist in utero.
NPR’s “This American Life” evolution and climate science controversies is that I sensed a tight correlation between personality types and world outlooks. After a while, I knew that when someone was skeptical about global warming they were probably going to be skeptical about a bunch of other things. The two movies left me thinking of one word only — personality.
In it’s ultimate comic form, what we’re talking about here is Debbie Downer — the Saturday Night Live character who had a hopelessly grim outlook on the world. I think the pattern also crops up in response to Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Nature,” plus the guys at Breakthrough Institute have often cast the world in a less dire light than declensionists.
FINDING MOTIVATION IN AN NON-CRISIS WORLD
So is nature headed towards oblivion? A new paper this week in Trends in Research in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) reviews 100 species that were previously thought to be headed towards extinction but are now looking much better. They propose the term “Lifting Baselines” as a modification of shifting baselines (but to be honest, I don’t think it works very well — it’s conceptually confusing — is it a command or a description?)
So the real question is something I began pondering a decade ago when I was running my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project — which is, how do you motivate people when the problems are no longer at the crisis stage?
This becomes a huge messaging challenge. The public just wants a clear, simple, single narrative — is this a crisis or not, yes or no. The TREE paper presents mixed messages. The title of the paper includes the phrase “conservation successes” — yay, good news! But then in a inset box they reaffirm the declensionist theme by saying, “The sixth mass extinction on our planet is real and by most measures the state of biodiversity is deteriorating.” Wanh, wanh, want (the Debbie Downer refrain).
SHOULD SCIENTISTS BE MESSENGERS?
I’m not going to answer this question — there’s already enough scientists who hate me for my critiques of science communication, and lots more who will join in when the new book comes out in September arguing with the subtitle of, “Why Science Needs Story” and recommending the science world turn to Hollywood for the answers.
But science and messaging are not easily compatible. Messaging requires a keen sensitivity to the current political landscape. Science means getting people to understand the truth of what is happening in nature, regardless of the political shortcomings of humans. There is a danger when scientists attempt both without the proper training, time and resources to achieve both goals at once. It’s not an easy split agenda to address.
ABT IN ACTION
One last note — wanna see a perfect ABT? Have a look at this, the last bit of the abstract for the TREE paper. I’ve added the THEREFORE. The ABT is everywhere.
Biologists and policymakers are accustomed to managing species in decline, but for the first time in generations they are also encountering recovering populations of ocean predators. Many citizens perceive these species as invaders and conflicts are increasing. (THEREFORE) It is time to celebrate these hard-earned successes and lift baselines for recovering species.