Let’s start at the very beginning. Every month we dig ourselves deeper in the hole. Every month the future bottleneck looks tighter, the future crisis deeper, the future losses more tragic. And for a few years, we have been out of the realm of the hypothetical, with real damage starting to occur.
The changes we will need to avoid a disaster are immense. Politicians try to sell them by minimizing them, by pretending they are a jobs program. Many people don’t believe in jobs programs. Most people don’t find them interesting, either way.
The messages we send are soothing, boring and earnest, because politicians are in the business of achieving short term victories. You don’t achieve short term victories by saying “we need to lose the growth imperative, we need to reorganize, we need to urbanize, we need more calculus and more spinach, less ATV riding and less barbecue.” It’s not a product that is easy to sell.
What is the alternative product? Doubt of course, as Oreskes and Conway explain so well. Doubt sells better than calculus and spinach. In times of poor educational standards and stress, doubt feeds paranoia, a favorite pastime of many. Suddenly the earnest hippie is the establishment that is being rebelled against!
Allons enfants de la patrie! For freedom! For gasoline! For beef! (Liberte, petrol, boeuf!)
Who provides the doubt product? Pseudoscientists, of course, or at best arithmeticians and nitpickers. You know who I mean. And who buys? People who flatter themselves that they know some science and who (in some cases desperately) want to believe that the unsustainable is going to be sustained.
To some extent this dynamic is insurmountable. There are people whose only interest in the science is to provide cover for their hostility and their anger and their disbelief. Providers of pseudoscience will emerge to serve that market. It’s capitalism at work.
But who takes the long view? Where is the actual reality-based science-informed world view in all this?
People who support action do so in a tepid sort of way, not understanding what vast changes may be in store. A couple of degrees of warming doesn’t sound like much, and all the talk is about “warming”, not about the accompanying climate change. A cessation of all net carbon emissions is seen as an absurd goal. And much as we need to move that way overnight, we cannot convince people of the necessity overnight.
What’s the problem here? It’s simple. People have forgotten that spinach can be fun. And calculus too! Political types do what they do not because they adore science but because they are afraid of it. Some can’t handle it, some just think they can’t, some just don’t want to. Grant agencies encourage outreach but abhor political controversy.
The paranoid story, the environmental equivalent of Obama’s birth certificate, is an exciting narrative full of intrigue, cloak and dagger stolen emails, forged data, and competing lawsuits. It’s engaging. The opposing story is about retraining steel workers to install solar panels. Good visuals, but really, ho hum. Small scale renewable energy is a niche market, not a solution. And large scale renewables are, well, big, and controversial, and make for tedious town council meetings and sleepy reporters in those towns where somebody still bothers to collect the news.
So we have two competing ideas: 1) The future is a boring place full of nice windmills where we don’t want them or else some fluffy creatures will starve 2) the future is a dangerous place where people want to steal our money for stupid windmill projects, but if we stop them, nothing will change at all and gasoline will be cheap again and we can all drive to the coast for a weekend on the beach again hurray!
This is really weird stuff for an old science fiction fan. The future is not boring! It’s dangerous, it’s strange, it’s full of new threats and new opportunities, and it is a world of survival of the fittest, where fittest means smartest. WIRED magazine, which sells gadgets, generally tells only half the story. But every smart young person needs no assistance in seeing the other half. The old world is never coming back. I think Bush Jr. hastened the end of it by a decade or so; I can’t understand anyone blaming Obama who is trying very hard to put Humpty back together again. But Humpty will never be quite the same even under the best of circumstances.
We have to give up on fossil fuels or face massive starvation (or maybe factory foods imported from the moon?). And people think this is dull? The whole way we talk about the future here in the 21st century is so bizarre and alienated and avoidant.
Our job as communicators is not just to get the science across, but to get its implications across. They are pretty huge. And though there is hope, whatever will come out in the end will be strange. We need to understand it, and exercise collective will to prevent it from being awful. And we need careful and diligent thinking to get there. But thinking itself is not an awful fate. An obsession with the future, which is collectively adaptive, is also great fun once you have enough of the puzzle pieces in your hand. As LBJ liked to say, come, let us reason together.
As long as people are bored they just aren’t getting it.
It’s a small world now. A large world is an environment. A small world is just a vehicle. And once it crashes, you are just about done.
So that’s really the message, not politics, not culture, but reality.
The thing you are tuning out, that is reality. It will no longer take care of itself. Wake up and start learning how to drive. This thing is moving already!