It can be stunning how differently different subcultures address related ideas. Economists vs energy providers, reporters vs bloggers, cat lovers vs bird lovers, industrialists versus environmentalists, ecologists versus climate physicists, scientists vs politicians, journalists vs entertainers, engineers vs economists. The consequences of differing vocabularies and habits of thought are everywhere and are increasing as the world becomes more crowded, complex and interdependent.
Economists’ faith in eternal growth as opposed to the environmentalist’s fear of imminent doom is a case in point. It leads me and a few stalwart others to a synthesis position: the desire to apply intellect to the problems to avoid the doom associated with compulsive growth, and instead to create a reasonable steady state economic system. This is the idea cluster that I’m trying to participate in building, but it is early days for this ambitious view.
An idea cluster is much bigger than a meme. It is sometimes identical to an ideology, but it isn’t always that. It is a cultural predisposition to notice certain things and think about them in certain ways.
Where Idea Clusters Come From
To see where we’re going it often helps to consider where we’ve been.
In the past century, the century of mass media, it was the media that mostly provided the language, the Lego blocks, the molecules of thought for most people. Tiny little cultural clusters coalesced under the pressure of very powerful aggregators and distributors of information, not just through news but even through entertainment.
In America, the news media developed a set of scruples that reporting and commentary functions should be kept very distinct. The reporting people in particular were taught this as a bedrock ethical principle, and continue to defend it fiercely. A news medium is an economic entity, but its success depends on public trust, so the thinking went. Thus the reporter should be scrupulously “neutral”. Because the ownership wanted an outlet for its own ideas, the “editorial” sandbox was set up for them.
So the raw materials for thought become 1) the world of commerce, trade, profit, wealth, “free enterprise” to give it its triumphal name 2) the world of strife, controversy, secrets kept and secrets breached, objectives baldly stated and objectives obscured, speech honest and speech mendacious, in other words the gritty world of “muckraking”. And opposition to these ideas was framed in the same terms: “the workers control the means of production”, “power to the people” “el pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” etc.
For a long time, this model served well enough. When there is a local question, say a road bond or new convention center, the tension between fiscal conservatism and boosterism is very well suited for this constellation: there is a horse race of two ideas, both resonate with the values of the community, no special expertise is required to understand the issues, and eventually, one side or the other will win. (Then, if the project is approved it will be executed well, indifferently or badly, again stories which the traditional media are well suited to examine.)
In the past, even national questions were somewhat more disjoint than they are now. Everything wasn’t deeply enmeshed in everything else, specifically because the American landscape wasn’t very crowded. So for the most part, even national issues had a local, parochial flavor; a public dance of debate, a backstage drama of arm twisting and intrigue, and on the whole, an increasingly homogeneous national character that matched circumstances well enough.
Thus emerges our habitual mental model: “there are two sides to every story”. Everybody bends the truth in their direction. The public interest is the sum of every individual’s self interest. Some people are especially influential because they control large institutions or large pots of money. Decisions are based on cultural affinities, alliances, and exchanges of political capital.
But the questions we face now are very different. Try to map this habit of mind onto questions of managing the earth as a tightly coupled and disrupted system and what do you get?
A Better Word for Doom?
All of this is by way of addressing one of my perennial questions, which Andy Revkin again raised recently in a Dot Earth column:
If the science pointing to a rising risk of dangerous human interference with climate is settled, the thinking goes, then why aren’t people and the world’s nations galvanized?
People are casting about for the right words to describe our moral and existential quandary, words that will galvanize “action”.
Revkin points out an article on Seed where several very appropriate people (myself oddly excluded, hrmph) take up the topic with varying degrees of success. I am most sympathetic to Ann Kinzig’s approach. She concludes “If we accept that language is never neutral, why not adopt the terms that resonate with a broader swath of the public?” And indeed, I think language is never neutral, despite the protestations of people inculcated in journalistic culture. But what language should we use?
Matt Nisbet, whose article with Chris Mooney is often credited (somewhat to my dismay, longtime readers might guess) with starting the conversation about how these ideas are communicated, starts off on the right foot but then stumbles into this rather inane and feeble pair of examples:
The point is not to “sell” the public on climate change, but rather to use research on framing to create communication contexts that move beyond polarization, promote discussion, generate partnerships and connections, and that accurately convey the objective urgency of the problem. If the public feels like they are being marketed to, it will only continue to fuel additional polarization and perceptual gridlock. In shifting the frame on climate change, the goals should not be to persuade, but rather to start conversations with the public that recognize, respect, and incorporate differences in knowledge, values, perspectives, and goals.
In one prominent example of re-framing the debate, strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger have led the way by advocating that climate change should not be defined as a pollution problem that requires additional regulation but as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for growing the economy and creating jobs around clean technology. This reframing moves the debate beyond a narrow constituency of environmental advocates and opens the doors for a broader climate movement that includes labor, business leaders, and the investor class. The frame was a major emphasis by both presidential candidates in the past election, is emphasized in Al Gore’s “Repower America” television ads, and continues to be a dominant focus of the Obama administration.
A second framing strategy to move beyond perceptual gridlock is offered by scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Evangelical leaders such as Richard Cizik who frame environmental stewardship in terms of morality and ethics, engaging an Evangelical audience who might not otherwise pay attention to appeals on climate change. This frame is more than just a talking point or a rebranding of the issue: When scientists and religious leaders join together around shared values to work on a common problem, it builds bonds of trust that enables long-term collaboration and that breaks down prejudices.
Sorry, a shallow appeal to the fading paradigm of personal greed as one example, and a scolding from an evangelist on the other? Out of the frying pan and into two fires? What sort of help is that? Does that help you? It doesn’t help me, and it apparently doesn’t help Revkin who ends on a note of futility:
So what’s your view? Is the climate challenge one of communication style, of inadequate energy choices, of the hard-wired aspects of human nature?
My sense is there’s a big dose of the latter in this arena. Humans remain mainly focused on the here and now, and the worst outcomes in a warming world remain someday or somewhere. There’s still scant evidence we’re able to invest against inevitable shocks even when the danger is clear and local …
Stop the Presses
Stop the presses, Andy. You missed the point. Of course you missed the point, or pretended to, because the problem is you.
No, not you, Revkin, personally. Revkin, despite my constant harping about you, you are among the best of a bad lot, trying to bring a journalistic sensibility to a set of problems that do not map onto the intellectual style of the journalist. The point is that that style is serving us badly.
If the science pointing to a rising risk of dangerous human interference with climate is settled, then why isn’t the press galvanized? Why do the stories run on page 13?
What we need is not a noun phrase, a new name for doom. The qeustion of global this or climate that is not going to help. We need a noun phrase embedded in a new way of thinking, an approach to planetary maturity on a suddenly depleted world. You can call it Mrs. Renfro’s Corn Relish for all I care; it’s the context that matters.
The Sustainability Mindset
Sustainability on a crowded and finite world is a fundamental challenge to every culture and ideology that ever emerged on the growing and open world. Humans are vastly adaptable, but the cultural matrices in which we find ourselves are not. The buildings of Rome are mostly not new, but they are much newer than the routes that the streets take through them. The main street through Bastrop TX carries little sign of the Spanish empire but is still called El Camino Real.
Most of us don’t have a sustainability mindset.
Those few that think they do, mostly don’t. The green movement have a Luddite view, a romantic view perhaps workable on a planet with a tenth of its present population. They are, I think, good people with much to teach us, but they aren’t really facing up to the scale of the problem any more than most other people are, and their culture is actively suspicious of quantitative thinking. So much as I love greenies, as much as I hope the agrarian ideal eventually pans out, this isn’t the time for it. We have big, collective problems to solve and we need a big, collective way of thinking about it. And not even a Woody Guthrie-esque “one big union” is big enough. Big government, big business, these are part of the solution.
The press isn’t giving us the vocabulary to think about our circumstances.
Where the media are bored by a topic, the public is implicitly informed that the topic is unimportant. My experience of understanding that events unfolding in Iran were important before the press caught on was sadly familiar to me.
Just as early last week, when non-Twitterphiles were not thinking about Iran, most people aren’t thinking about a way out of our quandary. People may think there is no quandary, or they may think there is no way out, or they may think that some other “They” have everything under control. What they don’t think about is which approaches they would tolerate, what the menu of scenarios, getting uglier by the month, looks like. There’s little awareness of the nature of the choices we face, and hence little support for people in the position to make the decisions/
The media are, in fact, bored. Sustainability, for the most part, doesn’t map onto what excites them. Read my lips Andy Revkin.
There is no proper word for doom when that word only appears on page thirteen.
Even running the same old stuff on page 1 won’t do. The entire way we organize ourselves, not just our cultures and our subcultures, but everybody else’s too, have to change in ways that lack any precedent. And they will change, too. There is no maybe about that. The only maybe is how much suffering we will have to endure before our thoughts adequately conform, to the world we actually end up with. All of which depends, as Buddha says, on our thoughts.
I only know what to do in the broadest sense. We need to start thinking about the things we need to think about. All of us, not just a few wonks and nerds.
We don’t need a friendlier name for doom. We need a 24 hour doom channel. God knows it’s not boring once you actually get the picture.
It’s the future. The press, or whatever replaces it, needs to read more like science fiction. Let’s talk about scenarios, about what problems nature will present us with, and about coalitions, how we will address them. Let’s talk about social organizing tools. Let’s look backward from 2400 AD and describe how we overcame the nation-state, the proliferation of mutually hostile religions and ideologies, and the ethic of greed. Let’s think about how to extract unity from hostility and fear. Let’s try to understand why surplus feels like poverty.
Let’s not wait for Them to rescue us. There is only us. And whatever ends up serving the purposes of the “front page”, let’s put the “stuff that matters” on it, and not just “what’s fit to print”.
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