How to Communicate the Unthinkable

How to Communicate the Unthinkable

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

REM, It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine)

The End of the World? We Don’t Feel Fine

Well, at least this New York magazine article published last week has stimulated some conversation – that’s saying something. A friend mentioned this on a call this week and told me he couldn’t bear to keep reading to finish the article – it was too bleak. In The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think, author David Wallace-Wells has sparked a debate among those concerned with the climate, those who are not, and the scientists who know the facts. Ironically, the conversation is not so much about what we can do to avoid this calamity, as he stated succinctly in the 2nd paragraph.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

No, the conversation, nay, controversy, is that many in the debate think that Wallace-Wells went too far in painting such a bleak picture. Too shocking. Others think the truth is worth hearing, however searing it is. Indeed, while some criticize the dramatic language, most climate change experts don’t dispute the conclusions, just the framing. Let that sink in. “Yes, this is what could happen. But it’s so awful, we really should moderate our tone, its upsetting,” they seem to be saying.

Reaction to Wallace-Wells’ Stark Projection of Climate Facts

In Apocalypse soon? A disturbing doomsday article has divided scientists, the article is tackled from a New Zealand perspective.

The articles he said, “was not a series of predictions of what will happen. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.”

The outlook was dire. “No plausible program of emissions reductions can prevent climate disaster.

“Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century.”

He writes that the Earth had a mass extinction 250 million years ago when the planet warmed by five degrees triggering the release of methane encased in Arctic ice.

“This ended up with 97 per cent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a faster rate”.

In Most scientists are progressive, but is science too conservative?  author Mark Wells pairs a study of the accelerating Sixth Mass Extinction with Wallace-Wells apocalyptic article, concluding that a) its not the job of scientists to popularize their conclusions; but b) there is such a thing as being too conservative in the face of particularly dire conclusions. Popular science writers like Wallace-Wells bridge that divide when they communicate alarming conclusions and manage to get through to the masses.

There’s no doubt that Wallace-Wells’ article has been terrifically successful in igniting (so to speak) conversations. It’s “gone viral” in a way that very few science-related articles do, and it’s made many people who were extremely complacent about climate change wake up long enough to rethink their “Eh, it’ll all be after I’m dead” attitudes.

On the other hand, scaring people is not always the best way to good policy. You can demonstrate this with any number of Insert-Name-Here laws. Tell a story of some poor, neglected, or worse yet, abused and murdered kid, and it’s a gateway to passing a law that does far more to erode human rights that it does to protect them.

Crying doom is an easy way to draw eyeballs and “niggling” is what science does. 

But—make that BUT—Wallace-Wells’ piece isn’t a shallow attempt to grab you by the throat and make you pay attention. It’s a thoughtful, well-written, and generally well-researched plea designed to … grab you by throat and make you pay attention

The Key: There is Still Time to Act, But We Have to Get Busy

In popular science fiction, Dystopia seems to be more of an attraction though, Dystopia is easier to accept when its fiction. We like it when we get to see a world gone wrong, imagine our worst fears, but do it at a distance, because we know its fiction, and we’re not to blame (and we don’t have to do anything about it). Psychologically-speaking, Science Fiction may be a little like the Horror genre, where we can watch our fears unfold safely from a seat in the theater or living room. The list of popular movies about the end of the world as we know it is too long to list here, so let’s turn to Wikipedia’s List of Dystopian Films entry. Imagine the box office behind this list of widely recognizable hit films, including the popular Terminator and Matrix serial releases, two of my favorites.


But the movie that came to my mind after reading this disturbing article wasn’t on this list. Melancholia, a film by Danish filmaker Lars von Trier, is highly recommended if you haven’t seen it. Kirsten Dunst plays a chronically depressed young woman in an intense study of a rich family dealing with … wait for it … the end of the world. A rogue planet named Melancholia has entered our Solar System appearing from behind the sun, which doesn’t give us much time to react. It is on a collision course with Earth. What’s the appropriate response in the face of such alarming news? While most are actively engaged in Denial and rational analysis, comforted that their analysis shows it will be a near miss, Justine gets more and more depressed. “Is Depression ever the appropriate emotion/reaction to worldly events?” the film seems to ask. “It is when its the end of the world” seems to be the answer.

Does this sound similar to our situation with Climate Change? It is – except – in our real life scenario, we CAN still do something about the end of the world – its not like we have a rogue planet careening into our orbit or anything. We have to deal with a situation right here on earth, and its a situation with precedent – climate calamity by carbon is nothing new, apparently. But maybe its just too real for most to grasp, maybe its too immediate, maybe its that we don’t like the message that the unthinkable future is based on what happens if we don’t change our ways, maybe its the message that we are responsible and we are the only ones to change the future. Can change be that unthinkable that we all turn away? Herein lie the roots of Denial that I write about on this blog (here, here and here).

Personal Energy: A Pathway to Personal Change

I launched this concept of Personal Energy over two years ago, with the same message in mind. Personal change is at the heart of getting out of this mess: we caused it, and as a highly adaptable species, we can adjust, change our behaviors, and deal with it. We can, that is, if we wake up and do something about it, if we Take Action. Note the bold in the quotes above – “absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives…” and “…absent aggressive action.” That’s the message these writers seek to convey.

For me that is why Wallace-Wells communicates using the starkest language possible – to stimulate Change while there’s still time. When your audience is not listening to your well-reasoned fact-based arguments, maybe its time to shout out a more emotional message. Even if its too late to avoid most of the damage, I believe its at least worth it to try, to go down swinging. If we let this be the End, we’re at the tale end of 200,000 years of Evolution and only 5,000 years of Civilization – a great story, no doubt, but way too short given our potential.

We owe it to our kids and the rest of humanity not yet born to shout out and turn over the tables in the marketplace. Like the scientists, I agree with these assessments. I am not against facing the truth about consequences. I think that whatever motivates us to wake up to the crisis at hand is helpful. I hope that Wallace-Wells writes a dozen more articles just like the one he just wrote. He could take each of his 9 sections and expand them into fuller articles. Maybe we need to shift from the reasoned arguments of An Inconvenient Truth documentary in 2006 and its sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power about to be released in three weeks, to something more like The Sky is Falling – No Really, It Is as a dystopian movie series with a popular message to grab the imagination and stimulate popular action. The onus is upon each of us that gets the message to do something to share our perspectives and motivations and grow our ranks.

The Me- Network: Tool for Personal Change

Last month in the Rose Garden, Trump monumentally stepped away from historic American global leadership, so strong is his denial and wish to return to an unattainable past, his head buried in the sand and his short fingers plugging his ears so as to not hear this message of CALAMITY IF THERE IS NO CHANGE. Trump and those who think like him prefer fantasies where everything stays as it is – or better, we go back to an imagined past, MAGA – over a reality where things get really bad without radical change.

But there is a third path: beyond Denial and Depression lies Action. The Me- Network initiative described on this website is an active response to this crisis, a toolset and social network that will help automate these changes to move us along. As it’s getting launched in fits and starts, note that at its core it’s an antidote not only to the Denial, but also to the Depression, Despair and Futility that one may adopt on grasping the overwhelming nature of the predicament we’re in.

The Me- Network is a positive response to the challenge of how to get Billions to change their relationship with Energy in a short term. I don’t know another way, and I resolutely choose Optimism and Action over all the other alternatives. I hope more articles get written until we all wake up to the challenge at hand. This isn’t a song or a movie. It’s real life.

By  John Cooper

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