Our species would be better off if more of us, especially the first-world folk stuffed with power and wealth and discretionary money and time, were more uncompromising about finding and pursuing our passions. Real ones, deep ones. Things we’re willing to die for (i.e. playing Starcraft really really well doesn’t count, for anyone).
If I don’t care deeply about something I won’t do it as well as I can even if I want to, and if I do care deeply, I can’t help but do it as well as I can, because it’ll feel like I don’t have a choice.
In fact that’s exactly how you know when you’ve found your passion: you don’t feel like you have a choice anymore.
But the rub: many of us don’t know what our passion is. A byproduct of that is that we get convinced that we don’t and even can’t have one, so we may as well trudge through life. 16 tons and what do you get?
And worse, we often don’t have the time to figure out what our passions are before committing to spend massive time doing some job or other, whether we like it or not, because we gotta put food on the table.
That’s an inconvenient constraint, so I was thinking: how to use a job search to aid in figuring out what we really want?
And then, the other day, I was writing a cover letter for a job. It’s a job I want, but I didn’t know how much until I wrote the letter.
The thing poured out of me. I wasn’t writing a cover letter, I was justifying of my existence, committing my soul to paper. It was unusual since normally writing cover letters feels to me like slowly suffocating inside a rolled up carpet.
Note this isn’t necessarily a wise way to write a cover letter, especially if you’re not gifted with words.
I had to rewrite mine because it read like the end of a Dickens novel (“It is a far better thing that I do than I have ever done before…” barf).
But it showed me something. It made own desires vivid and clear. So maybe here’s an exercise:
Find 10 job ads. Draft a cover letter for each over the course of a week or so. The ones that come most easily to you might tell you something important about who you are.
This is why I wish Johnnie Cochran was a Climateer: he could sell the rhyme in the title of this post. If you don’t know who he was, then a) you’re young; and b) he was the lawyer who got OJ Simpson off the hook for murder. One of his key arguments was “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!” and it delights me that someone once walked the Earth both brazen and charming enough to rhyme someone’s shackles away. It’s like Dr. Suess conjured a lawyer and it came to life and it was Johnnie Cochran.
Alas the titular rhyme isn’t his. Rather I made it up to convey my view on climate communication and I want it to weasel into your head.
I’ll work up to its meaning. Let’s start with a question which causes much twisting of hair and drooping of heads:
How can we change deniers’ minds?
Here’s the answer: we shouldn’t try. Two reasons:
#1 It’s impossible
If someone doesn’t want to believe there’s a danger, arguments won’t change her mind. Beliefs mingle with emotions and egos in ways that make them impervious to argument. A denier’s more likely to assume the messenger’s an idiot rather than consider the message. Here’s a review of the evidence.
#2 There’s an easier way to create change
Consider other movements, like civil rights. In the sixties, many whites, especially white southerners, opposed civil rights. Let’s call them skeptics (to be generous). Question: did the civil rights movement succeed because skeptics changed their minds? Answer: mostly not. Some skeptics eventually did but that came later. How did the civil rights movement happen then?
Answer: sympathizers got louder (the Volume Theory)
Civil rights supporters started more openly criticizing previously unopposed positions, both in public and private life. As a result, Uncle Cletus stopped feeling so free to wax racist around the Thanksgiving turkey. As the voice of civil rights got louder, Uncle Cletus got softer, until a new norm took hold: it was ok and even good to support civil rights, and increasingly icky not to. It was this new norm that changed the tide.
Civil rights happened not because folks changed sides, but rather because the sides changed volume: one got louder and the other consequently softer. Let’s call this the Volume Theory.
This is how most movements happen. Consider India’s struggle for independence. A few thousand Brits ruled 300 million Indians. Most Indians didn’t like it, but they were silent because they felt powerless. But then Gandhi convinced his fellows of something which in retrospect is silly-obvious: there was no way the British could oppose 300 million obstinant Indians. So Indians got obstinant and the Brits left.
The Volume Theory makes sense in light of what we know about behavioral change. We’re willing to do what we see others doing and unwilling to do the opposite. It’s called Social Proof, and most of us don’t realize the extent to which it holds sway in our lives. If I don’t know any vocal civil rights supporters, I won’t be vocal either. Silence reinforces itself and the status quo along with it.
If you doubt the Volume Theory, do an experiment: gather a group of old white southerners, get them trusting, tipsy, and talking about civil rights. You may hear some ugly sentiments (to be fair it’s not just Southerners. I can turn at least one member of my own “progressive” northern family into a white supremacist with three Manhattans and the right conversation starter). The old attitudes aren’t gone; they’re just quiet and retired.
Let’s circle back to Climate Change. Many are worried about it, as well we should be. But we’re also too quiet. Nearly all of the non-experts I know who care about Climate Change avoid it for fear of feather-ruffling. Even many experts keep quiet.
So the most important thing each of us, as individuals, can do is speak up and convince others to as well. This goes especially for everyday folks who aren’t already considered partisans. Everyone expects Al Gore to talk Climate Change, so that’s nothing new, but if someone who’s never spoken up before suddenly starts, ears will perk.
Beware: others will try to discourage you, often with good intentions. I recently listened to a marketing pro tell a sustainability group to avoid mentioning Climate Change because it’s too divisive. It’s common marketing advice and it’s wrong. Creating change isn’t like selling widgets. The obstacles to success are different. Pepsi lovers don’t feel pressure to avoid talking about or drinking Pepsi in the presence of Coke drinkers, for example. Marketing pros aren’t aware of the silence problem so they give bad advice.
The silence problem can only be fixed through exposure. Every time I speak plainly, a listener feels freer to follow suit. Our silence allows deniers to advertise their beliefs and implies to the undecided that there’s no problem. It’s Uncle Cletus redux.
Inspire the Choir, Shush the Denier
Now we come to my mantra. When we speak up, we won’t try to change deniers’ minds (because we can’t). Instead we’ll help create a new norm where it’s good to call for action and not good to resist it. We’ll speak to inspire those who already want action to raise their voices too (“Inspire the Choir”), and a side effect will be to shush deniers.
Our ability to pull it off depends on our not looking like mad harpies, which means that, while we’ll be insistent and strong and plain, we’ll also be patient. Don’t back down, but neither fling insults. “Dignified Relentlessness” is a good phrase to keep in mind.
If you’re not used to raising your voice, you may have initial discomfort, but
It will soon feel better than the powerlessness so many endure. That’s been the case for me, in spades.
Once we realize how much power we have, we’ll feel great.
A few more words about when, where and how to bring the subject up.
First and obviously, when someone denies that climate change is a problem in the company of others, speak up. You needn’t be an expert. Just say that 99% of all climate scientists agree we’ve got a problem and it’s not a conspiracy and it seems foolish to pretend there’s nothing to talk about. If you want talking points, check this out.
Less obviously, when you’re discussing future, and Climate Change might affect them, say so. Example: in seminars I ask about the effect of Climate Change during seminar Q&A periods. Like a few weeks ago: I went to a forum where my city’s water planners presented future plans. My city gets more than 90% of its water from snowpack, and snowpack has shrunk 15-30% in recent decades. The trend will accelerate with Climate Change but that wasn’t factored into the strategy, so I asked about it and it changed the discussion. I made it easier for everyone to discuss it and was prominent in the rest of the Q&A. This tactic is especially nice because you can influence a lot of people with only a tiny effort.
Another issue to watch out for: Climate Change is so thorny that it triggers something called Motivated Avoidance, which refers to our tendency to actively avoid the most difficult topics because ignorance is bliss. I’m still learning how to counter it but here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Avoid apocalyptic language. It’s good to insist that we have a serious and urgent problem of the highest order, but don’t say stuff like: “If we don’t act now, we’re all gonna die!”
Use repetition. Keep bringing it up. It’ll annoy those who are trying to avoid the subject, but don’t worry about that. Keep bringing it up.
Address the avoidance issue head on. Acknowledge that we don’t want to talk about Climate Change because it’s so difficult, and say you don’t blame anyone for not wanting to talk about it, but that confronting it is healthy and right so you insist on talking. As Churchill said of Germany’s push toward Britain in WWII: “It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour” Make it clear that you’re not going to stop pressing.
Make confronting the problem the noble thing to do. For guidance, study Churchill, who excelled at preempting Motivated Avoidance by making his listeners feel proud to confront their problems. For example, he famously said in a speech to the House of Commons that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. It made adopting his plan feel like the brave choice (which it was).
So: talk. It’s critical and anyone can do it. You needn’t be an activist, sit in a tree, lash yourself to a gas pump or lay siege to a congressman’s office. You just need to talk. It’ll ruffle feathers but that’s ok. Change doesn’t happen without ruffling and you’ll be doing it for the best of reasons.
Time is dear, so don’t delay. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
The world has more problems than it should because too many of us settle. We think we’re incapable of finding a calling and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy which is reinforced by our universal tendency toward cowardice. Ergo…teeming hoards doing work they don’t much care for while our unaddressed problems grow.
I also think that if more of us gave ourselves the freedom to find our passions, many of those passions would lie in helping the world, including addressing climate change, which is why I decided to post this. I can’t count the number of people who’ve told me they’d love to work on climate change but they can’t because they’re busy making a living with [pointless job they don't care about].
My point is that our failure to address climate change (along with all our other problems) is part of a larger, more general human failing: a failure of spirit.
And so, for the second time, I’m posting a stupid diagram to remind us what we already know but put out of our minds.
Though many in the West view it as a rights violation, China won’t stop because:
It’s part of the culture now. It’s as Chinese as whatever the Chinese equivalent of apple pie is. Kinda.
It appears to work – China claims it’s prevented about 400 million (!!!) babies.
So here’s my point: China could grant its citizens more freedom without easing its overall limit on children by running a cap-and-trade system. Couples could buy and sell permits to make babies. Let’s say I want 5 babies (so I can form a Motown singing group). If I can find 5 couples who plan not to have any babies for now, I can buy their permits. When I have a baby, a permit gets torn up. If those other couples later decide to have babies, they can buy permits from others. But the total number of allowable babies is the same as in the old system. When the demand for babies goes up, permit prices would rise and vice-versa. The system might stop the selective abortion of female fetuses which the one-child policy has spawned (pun!). Has China considered this?
You might rebut: the poor would end up less at liberty to have babies than the rich, which would introduce a new and unprecedented kind of inequality into Chinese society, which could breed problems (pun, again) – an Occupy Wealthy Genitals movement would be good for no one, for example. At the least, the system would have to include a rule that only couples can buy permits and a couple can only hold one permit at a time, to prevent a speculative baby market from forming (babies aren’t for shorting).
So the policy could have serious problems. Why then am I writing this? I have time to kill and I’m searching for useful ways to think about overpopulation and I hoped writing about it would shake up my thinking. It’s not working. One more thought before I close:
I, like many people, think that the one-child policy is problematic. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s inherently wrong – instead, I think it’s only wrong because so many people don’t like it and don’t want it. I’d be happy to live in a country with a one-child policy, but only if most of my fellow citizens were as comfortable with the idea as I am (and assuming it works).
In fact I might prefer it. As things now stand, I’m leaning away from having a child, not because I don’t want one , but in part because, in the absence of a societal agreement to reduce population, I regard it as my duty to you and especially to your already-living children to avoid adding to our numbers, and to provide a model to others who feel pressure to have babies. If the US had a one-child policy, I’d feel more comfortable having a child. That would be nice.
I wonder: could reproduction limits ever become acceptable in the West, by an acceptable process (i.e. not unilaterally imposed by Big Brother)? What would it take for Americans to become more like me (besides getting shorter, balder, skinnier and more appreciative of Tom Jones’ singing voice)?
I haven’t a clue. Probably not cap and trade.
The best path would be that most of us just voluntarily decide we’re going to not have many babies for a while. It’s already happening to an extent (birthrates are falling worldwide), but not fast enough given the size of our carbon footprints. The trend can accelerate if more of us openly encourage each other to limit our broods. So please limit your brood. Here, have some Durex condoms. They’re my favorite. They almost never break.
Also this is a chicken:
I put this chicken here because Google Analytics says that a bunch chicken-seekers are somehow coming to this site. I’m cool with that and will hereafter lure even more chicken-seekers by posting pictures of chickens and writing “chicken” a lot. Then later if I get bored with Climate Change I can sell wings by mail.
If you came here looking for chickens: joke’s on you pal! But since you’re here, please contemplate your role in Climate Change and consider joining efforts to address the problem.
I’ll do anything to raise awareness about climate change, and that includes dressing like an elf and standing around in superconductor-cold during my town’s largest holiday event and accosting citizens who are just trying to have a good time.
The activity also included having lots of pictures taken with children and trying to explain to them a) what climate change is; and b) that I’m a real elf. I was more successful in the first endeavor since my ears kept almost falling off.
A surprise: nobody tried to argue, even though I was loud. The prospect of heckling an elf may have been too ridiculous. It’s good that nobody did because I had a bunch of pre-prepared and (I daresay) cutting elf-comebacks for anyone who tried. I was ready to go all Rodney Dangerelf.
I wonder: when the arctic is gone in a couple of decades, where will parents tell their children Santa Claus lives? On a boat?
For those interested, here’s the sign I was brandishing about (if you’d like to brandish the same sign at some future event email me):
And here’s another way of looking at what’s happening in the Arctic: a graph of the Arctic ice volume at its annual low point, over years.
IMO the most important thing we can do to address Climate Change at the moment is to convince the federal government to put a price on carbon emissions, as the governments of other developed countries have already done or are doing.
The simplest, best way to do it is to tax fossil fuels in proportion to the carbon they create, and then distribute the proceeds back to citizens in the form of tax-breaks or dividend checks (to protect citizens’ pocket-books).
The tax will leverage the potent power of our economy to innovate – it’ll respond quickly and forcefully if the tax is sufficiently high.
There’s currently a White House petition to create just such a tax, and it’s imperative that it gets signatures.
If you sign this thing I’ll love you more than I love you already. More than Cher loved Sonny, more than Stimpy loved Ren, more than Luke loved Leia before he found out she was his sister. Serious love.
I’ll love you even more if you repost this on your FB page and more generally spread it around to every last person you know. Imagine me kissing you repeatedly on the cheeks until they’re raw and giving you expert back-rubs. Or sharing a cold brewski with you in your man-cave, for the less touchy-feely among you.
I think if we all chose our work according to this thing, we’d be happier and civilization might not have as much of that Held-Together-By-Bubblegum-and-Chicken-Wire feeling.
The bottom circles are straightforward, the top one less so. How do we know what’s good for the world?
I can only tell you how I do it. I think there are 5 things which have any relation to human well being: food/water, shelter, love, health, and learning. Everything else is a distraction at best. So whatever I do has to contribute directly and effectively to the lives of others in one of those 5 categories.
Feel free to choose according some other criteria but make sure they don’t just amount to some complicated rationalization for what you’re already doing.
Most of us know this stuff implicitly but fail to act on it. I chalk it up to a general self-fulfilling lack of confidence – we don’t think we can find the sweet spot, so we don’t look very hard and so we don’t find it.
I think we can if we look – our failure to find what we want has mostly to do with our lack of faith in our capacity to do so, with a little fear mixed in. Once we believe we can do it, we can.
If you’re not in the sweet spot, change. Life only happens once so don’t chicken out. Proceed as if you’re some combination of Shaft and Darth Vader and you’ll be fine. Here’s an inspiring ditty to keep you locked on:
Of the many things I love about parents, I love this above all: there’s no fucking around. Parents have a galloping urge to protect and nurture at all costs. Children unlock something superhuman in us. Hence we have mothers dead lifting Chevys and wrestling polar bears. If Lucifer himself approached your mom and said, “Either your kid dies right now or you go to hell and endure infinite suffering for a thousand eternities,” into the inferno she’d leap.
I’m watching a couple raise their toddler in my house, and I see that thing in them and it’s stunning. This morning I found them together in the living room, in a sort of long group hug, three foreheads touching. Mom and Dad’s eyes were closed, and it was like they were wrapped inside a kind of cocoon made of…uh…love. You could practically see it.
If only strangers were able to look after one another with the same holy ferocity. It would be a different world. A world where football players don’t tackle so much as hug and utility bills come with gumdrops to soften the blow.
But parents: your job is changing. Our kids will likely spend their lives on a harsh planet dominated by corrosive and intractable climate problems. They’re sitting ducks. No one can help them but us.
Even for many of us who stay abreast of climate change, its progression remains unreal. It’s hard to believe, even with evidence aplenty, that the Earth could go bonkers. Neither our experiences nor our stories help us see how it could be. I study climate change every day and it’s unreal for me – I can only imagine how unreal it must be to the average person whose exposure is limited to the occasional news article. But if you study it long enough and know some thermodynamics, there it is, staring you in the face. It doesn’t help that the effects lag far behind the causes – the thermal inertia of the oceans makes it easy pretend for now that we’re getting away with our little Faustian bargain.
This is real, it’s happening and our children will probably suffer.
Which is why your job as a parent is changing. When your kid’s sick, you act. Climate change is a serious kind of sickness, and likewise we must act. We can’t hang our kids out to dry. I stare at that toddler and I’m overcome by our carelessness, of the future we’re leaving for her. She can’t yet even understand what’s coming. Is this who we are? Are we really okay blindsiding our children? No. We’re better than that. I have to believe that. We must act like it.
If you’re a parent, be a climate activist. If you’ve got a kid, you’re all-in whether you want to be or not. It’s one more thing to worry about in an already-full life but who cares – kids come first.
So here’s a simple two-part plan:
First, set aside 15-30 minutes each day to learn about Climate Change. The goal is to replace your vague foreboding with a clear picture of the problem. I recommend this book, by an investigative journalist who covers the issue out of concern for his own child. He speaks in a parent’s voice. To familiarize yourself with the underlying science, I recommend this.
Once you grok enough detail to overcome the sense of unreality, take the same 15-30 minutes every day to act. Lobby your representatives, write to your local paper, cut your carbon footprint, and talk to family, friends, and neighbors about the problem. Find local climate activists and follow their lead. Join this organization. Acting in tandem with others strengthens the will, fosters hope, and prevents decision paralysis (key for parents, who soldier through decision fatigue even when not contemplating climate change)
I emphasize the importance of making a small, consistent commitment, which is the best way to approach any long-term project. You’ll start painlessly and progress from there. It’ll be easier than it sounds, certainly easier than watching the Teletubbies. Once you find a little groove, your involvement will grow naturally.
Good luck. May your kids remain ever adorable and never reach puberty.
If a savage gang was approaching your town with the intent to pillage, and you told your fellow citizens that it was so, would that be alarmism, or the necessary confrontation of fact?
We can’t deal with a problem without knowing its scope. Discussing the risks of climate change isn’t automatically alarmism, so let’s take care in who we call alarmist.
It’s one thing if you don’t believe climate change is a serious problem. You’re wrong but there’s nothing inconsistent about calling Climate activists alarmists in that case.
It’s another thing if you understand that climate change is a serious problem but persist in calling activists alarmists.
Before you apply the label, think carefully about whether the person in question is trying to frighten or trying to foster a complete understanding of the problem. You may incorrectly conclude that they’re trying to scare you simply because you are, in fact, scared.
Some problems are actually, unavoidably scary. That’s life. There’s no use pretending. Better to face problems and cultivate courage than to look the other way.