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Death to Media

posted by Marcus, October 31, 2016 @ 4:06 am

Or, ‘Mer­chants of Calm: How the Media is Mur­der­ing Us.’

The New York­er recent­ly pub­lished in its archives a selec­tion of sto­ries on cli­mate change, dat­ing back to 2005. Two things struck me about the cura­tion of this small col­lec­tion. First, its small­ness. The arti­cles are thin, with almost glanc­ing dis­cus­sion of the vast top­ic. Most main­stream US peri­od­i­cals have been rel­a­tive­ly qui­et on the sub­ject of cli­mate change since it came to light. The Wash­ing­ton Post has worked in the past year to pick up the slack, but in doing so has high­light­ed its ear­li­er lax­i­ty. More telling though – fol­low­ing this obser­va­tion on the small­ness of The New York­er archive, and sort­ing back to the ear­li­est arti­cle in 2005 – came a sec­ond more pro­found real­i­sa­tion: the best arti­cle in the col­lec­tion, the most wide rang­ing and con­fi­dent, was the first piece writ­ten more than a decade ago.

The Cli­mate of Man by Eliz­a­beth Kol­bert in April 2005 (18 months before the movie ‘An Incon­ve­nient Truth’ hit cin­e­mas) tack­led the sub­ject of cli­mate change with more force and more sci­ence, than any sub­se­quent piece in The New York­er. This con­trast rein­forced some­thing greater we’ve seen in the world over the past decade; some­thing that has great bear­ing on the future of our species and indeed all life in the known Uni­verse – now and until the end of time.

THE SETUP

In Sep­tem­ber 2016, I strolled ill-equipped into a the­atre in Cir­cu­lar Quay in Syd­ney, to see for­mer US Vice-Pres­i­dent Al Gore’s doc­u­men­tary ‘An Incon­ve­nient Truth’. The movie struck me like a falling weight. The cin­e­ma felt espe­cial­ly dark and the air heavy. The mes­sage (for me) was clear: The human race is blithe­ly play­ing a dice game with glob­al extinc­tion.

Many crit­ics thought the movie alarmist. To me, it seemed the oppo­site. The film­mak­ers described fear­some cli­mate feed­back loops with del­i­cate trep­i­da­tion. They were try­ing not to alarm us. The joc­u­lar ref­er­ence to ‘drunk­en trees’, the class­room tone to the “giant mir­ror” of the Arc­tic albe­do effect, and the whim­si­cal warn­ing that warm­ing is “not good for crea­tures like polar bears that depend on the ice.”

Not good for polar bears?!’ My mind was scream­ing. How about “not good for car­bon-based life”? Sure­ly any­one with a fair-to-mid­dling under­stand­ing of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics had to con­clude that these dis­cov­er­ies were point­ing to glob­al entropy. You see, the del­i­cate bal­ance of cli­mat­ic con­di­tions over the past bil­lion years – cou­pled with carbon’s four sticky valence elec­trons – has jogged the arrange­ment of pro­teins and sug­ars into com­plex life, there­by allow­ing bet­ter dis­tri­b­u­tion of heat from solar radi­a­tion. That’s entropy. It’s why we exist. But fid­dling with one ini­tial con­di­tion – our balmy +/- 50˚C – sends the whole thing, all of us, into the sky as gas. Earth becomes Venus. The known Uni­verse falls silent. No more heart­beats. Just space. And rock. And gas. That’s where we’re head­ing.

RATS

At the end of the Per­mi­an Era 260 mil­lion years ago, anoth­er set of coin­cid­ing trig­gers caused glob­al warm­ing. What fol­lowed was the worst extinc­tion in the planet’s his­to­ry, wip­ing out ~95% of life. The largest thing to sur­vive was a giant rat called a Cyn­odont.

Cynognathus crateronotus, Cynodontia

Cynog­nathus craterono­tus, Cyn­odon­tia

If the past is any pre­dic­tor of the future (and it usu­al­ly is), warm­ing is dead­lier than mete­ors, dis­ease, wars, earth­quakes, vol­ca­noes or ice ages. In fact, the only rea­son we exist (dinosaurs too) is that enough algae sur­vived the End-Per­mi­an warm­ing episode to reab­sorb car­bon from the atmos­phere. Oth­er­wise, all life would have dis­ap­peared. All life. Even­tu­al­ly every liv­ing thing would have rot­ted into methane and end­ed up in the sky caus­ing even more warm­ing. Just like Venus. With an aver­age sur­face tem­per­a­ture hot enough to melt lead, Venus is Earth after run­away warm­ing.

I wob­bled out of that cin­e­ma with an over­whelm­ing sense of urgency. We have to stop this, right? Noth­ing has ever been so impor­tant. Eliz­a­beth Kol­bert had some that same urgency in her 2005 New York­er arti­cle. Al Gore had it. So what hap­pened? Why now – 10 years on – is The New York­er strug­gling to com­pile a decent list of arti­cles? WHY are we still watch­ing CO2 lev­els march inex­orably upward?

Atmospheric CO2 concentration, Mauna Loa (08/2016)

Atmos­pher­ic CO2 con­cen­tra­tion, Mau­na Loa (08/2016)

For some­thing this impor­tant, a decade should have been more than enough for an intel­li­gent species to make a dif­fer­ence, right? Even a dent. Instead, we’re careen­ing toward the precipice faster every decade. So where are our sur­vival mech­a­nisms? Why haven’t we done any­thing sub­stan­tial? And is there some­thing wrong with us?

WHAT’S WRONG WITH US

After ‘An Incon­ve­nient Truth’ I spent weeks in a sort of ‘Karate Kid’ train­ing mon­tage con­sum­ing infor­ma­tion on the top­ic. The more I thought about it, the more I won­dered… Is it the ‘Fer­mi Para­dox’? Enri­co Fer­mi built the world’s first nuclear reac­tor togeth­er with atom­ic bomb inven­tor Leo Szi­lard. Fer­mi famous­ly asked “where is every­body?” Why isn’t the uni­verse teem­ing with life? Where are the oth­er life forms? They should be every­where. So why haven’t we found any? I couldn’t help but won­der if the two things are relat­ed. I mean, we’re made of car­bon. So is our fuel. So is the gas dri­ving us toward extinc­tion. For car­bon-based life to evolve, we’re basi­cal­ly sit­ting on a tick­ing time bomb. The minute we dis­cov­ered fire we set the clock tick­ing. We start­ed burn­ing wood then coal then oil and in a cos­mic instant we’re burn­ing our­selves up too. Lit­er­al­ly, the oil we’re burn­ing is the decayed rem­nants of the life­forms that died in the last major glob­al warm­ing event. The more suc­cess­ful we become as a species the clos­er we get to the end. That would explain why the Uni­verse is emp­ty. Car­bon is life. And every life-form that ever exist­ed fell into the same trap: We learn to make fire. By the time we realise the smoke is killing us, it’s too late.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE THING

In Novem­ber that year – after ‘An Incon­ve­nient Truth’ hit cin­e­mas – I learned Al Gore was start­ing a train­ing pro­gram. I would have crossed the Earth to get to it, but my home­town was his first stop. I spent two days in a dark­ened room with Mr Gore, two senior cli­mate sci­en­tists, and a hun­dred peo­ple all going over the sci­ence. Then I hit the road. I trav­elled around the coun­try for a year deliv­er­ing ‘An Incon­ve­nient Truth’ at schools, com­mu­ni­ty halls, in board­rooms, lunch­rooms, and con­fer­ence halls. I was invit­ed to speak at banks, law firms, tech com­pa­nies, media organ­i­sa­tions, con­ven­tions, a music fes­ti­val, the high-IQ soci­ety ‘Men­sa’, and a Bil­ly Gra­ham-style beach­front mar­quee. I met thou­sands of peo­ple. All of them were full of ques­tions. Most had a sim­i­lar reac­tion: “This is bad. We should do some­thing.” The fol­low­ing year Mr Gore returned, and I helped train more cli­mate pre­sen­ters. And again the year after that. And grad­u­al­ly some­thing changed.

It was sub­tle at first.

And it wasn’t what I expect­ed.

Incre­men­tal­ly, there was some noise. Meet­ings. Agree­ments. Tar­gets. And a vague sense of the required urgency. Pock­ets of it. But after a cou­ple of years I noticed the ini­tial reac­tion – “This is bad. We should do some­thing” – was begin­ning to fade. Inter­est waned. Crowds thinned. Pol­i­tics began mud­dy­ing the waters. The more the Left piled onto the dis­rup­tion band­wag­on, the more the Right threw up road­blocks. But that wasn’t the heart of the thing. Nobody real­ly want­ed to talk about cli­mate change. Even when a string of leaked emails showed oil com­pa­nies throw­ing mon­ey at dis­in­for­ma­tion, no one got upset. Not the way you would if they were mur­der­ing peo­ple. And they are mur­der­ing peo­ple. The def­i­n­i­tion of mur­der in West­ern legal sys­tems is action or inac­tion with dis­re­gard for human life. We already know air pol­lu­tion kills mil­lions of peo­ple a year, and cli­mate change will kill many more. But we all keep buy­ing gas from these com­pa­nies. So where is the nec­es­sary out­rage?

For a while I thought the GFC had been the main dis­trac­tion. Mon­ey got tight. Peo­ple were more wor­ried about their jobs, their mort­gage, and putting food on the table than they were about our glob­al predica­ment. But that wasn’t the whole prob­lem either. The econ­o­my recov­ered and our pri­or­i­ties didn’t. Some­thing deep­er was amiss.

For 12,000 years Native Amer­i­can Indi­ans hunt­ed buf­fa­lo by dri­ving them over cliffs. The trick to get­ting a herd of buf­fa­lo to fol­low each oth­er over a cliff, is that the wind must blow from behind, or the back of the herd smells the fear of those going over the edge and they scat­ter. Some­how, on the sub­ject of cli­mate change, the wind has changed. The human herd isn’t smelling the alarm. And glob­al atmos­pher­ic CO2 con­cen­tra­tions keep ris­ing. There are more floods, fires and cyclones and a few pock­ets of activ­i­ty. Every day I watch the news and won­der why peo­ple are becom­ing more com­pla­cent. Is it a lack of hope, a ris­ing sense of futil­i­ty? That doesn’t explain it either. There are more rea­sons for hope now than ever.

For a few more years I had anoth­er the­o­ry. In the late ‘60s two researchers – John Dar­ley and Bibb Latané – con­duct­ed the ‘Dif­fu­sion of Respon­si­bil­i­ty’ exper­i­ment where they asked par­tic­i­pants to fill out ques­tion­naires in a room which sud­den­ly began to fill with smoke. Dar­ley and Latané showed sta­tis­ti­cal­ly that the more peo­ple they piled into the room, the less like­ly the groups were to raise the alarm. They con­clud­ed that peo­ple in groups are less like­ly to make deci­sions. Peo­ple wait for some­one else to act. It seems like the per­fect anal­o­gy. The world is a smoke-filled room, and there are more peo­ple in the room now than ever. We’re all just wait­ing for some­one else to solve the prob­lem. But there is a prob­lem with this the­o­ry too. There are lead­ers tak­ing action on cli­mate change. Peo­ple just aren’t get­ting on board. All the train­ing ses­sions, movies, pre­sen­ta­tion, treaties, march­es and Papal encycli­cals have had no real effect on actu­al CO2 lev­els.

Maybe all these things com­bined – pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, dif­fu­sion of respon­si­bil­i­ty, reli­gion and futil­i­ty – are togeth­er fuelling human apa­thy? And yet all these things are only con­structs of the human mind.
And then it clicked.

EVOLUTION AND DEVOLUTION

Under­stand­ing the nature of anthro­pogenic warm­ing is part chem­istry, physics, palaeon­tol­ogy, astron­o­my and geol­o­gy. But under­stand­ing the threat of inac­tion is pure anthro­pol­o­gy.

Fer­mi asked “where is every­body?” The corol­lary to that ques­tion is “why are we here?”

Every species faces chal­lenges to sur­vival in the mil­lions of years it takes to evolve: changes in cli­mate, food scarci­ty and migrat­ing preda­tors. ‘Darwin’s finch­es’ dif­fer based on the food sources on the var­i­ous Gala­pa­gos Islands. Long beaks thrive on islands where there is cac­tus pulp. Big­ger beaks sur­vived where there is only meat. But if you change the food source, a bird will try to change its behav­iour first. And some­times it will live. Genet­ics and behav­iours are a cou­pled sys­tem.

In much the same way, human adults were once lac­tose intol­er­ant. Euro­pean humans began strain­ing the whey out of cheese, because lac­tose made them ill. Those who could also drink the raw milk thrived when oth­er food sources ran out, and even­tu­al­ly lac­tose intol­er­ance was bred out of Euro­peans – and still remains high in Asia, Africa, the Mid­dle East and Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians. To sur­vive, ani­mals have to change what they do. The options are depen­dent on phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, but also shape them: The quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty of behav­iours are defined by genet­ic equip­ment – agili­ty, strength, cog­ni­tion, enzymes, beaks, or thumbs. But behav­iour changes faster than genet­ics, in turn open­ing new genet­ic exploits. Apes demon­strate many of the more advanced social behav­iours that also make humans suc­cess­ful, but don’t have the genet­ic equip­ment to ful­ly exploit them. You can teach an orang-utan sign lan­guage but with­out vocal chords you can’t teach it to speak. Basi­cal­ly, nat­ur­al selec­tion favours bio­log­i­cal ‘hard­ware’ and some­times the learned ‘soft­ware’ loaded by par­ents and peers. The ani­mal with the best com­bo of genet­ics and behav­iour wins. A key dif­fer­en­tia­tor is the nature of the threat and whether the ani­mal has time to change.

Our human ‘soft­ware’ is stored in our prim­i­tive lim­bic brain, as well as our new­er frontal lobe. Sex, diet, and urges like fear and anger most­ly oper­ate out of the old Cyn­odon­tia rat-lizard part of our brains. Dri­ving a car and fix­ing stuff is con­trolled by the new­er part of our brain, also respon­si­ble for com­plex rea­son­ing. Some­times not doing any­thing at all is just as much part of our pro­gram­ming. When a poten­tial threat emerges, we have an ini­tial fear reac­tion. In suc­cess­ful herd ani­mals, threats are com­mu­ni­cat­ed to oth­ers. If the threat doesn’t cause pain, we stop wor­ry­ing. In ani­mal behav­iour it’s called ‘habit­u­a­tion.’ Think of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’

Dif­fu­sion of respon­si­bil­i­ty, momen­tum, fight-or-flight, habit­u­a­tion and accli­ma­ti­sa­tion, all of these behav­iours have made pri­mates suc­cess­ful in the past. Our acquis­i­tive nature, trib­al­ism, even our super­sti­tions have played a role in our sur­vival. The prob­lem we now face is that our pro­gram­ming is obso­lete. These very same behav­iour run counter to nec­es­sary action on cli­mate change. Genet­ics may allow a hand­ful of peo­ple to sur­vive cat­a­stroph­ic glob­al warm­ing for a time. The last humans will migrate to cool­er, wet­ter climes chas­ing food and water. But we’ll nev­er out­run it com­plete­ly. Some of us may become tol­er­ant to the heat, but we can­not sur­vive the inevitable lack of foot, water and oxy­gen. Phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es will allow a hand­ful of humans mar­gin­al longevi­ty. How­ev­er, owing to the rapid time­line and the sever­i­ty of the even­tu­al threat, only a change in behav­iour will save us.

There’s real­ly only one ques­tion.

How fast can we shake 150,000 years of prac­tice?

Cli­mate change is a unique threat in that it is col­lec­tive. It is the first major threat to our species requir­ing a behav­iour­al change in most peo­ple for any­one to sur­vive.

Nor­mal­ly, a change in envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions leads to new behav­iour, lever­ag­ing a genet­ic exploit, or nat­ur­al selec­tion, that thins out those not suit­ed to the new envi­ron­ment. Some­how, the human species must car­ry those not equipped to change their behav­iour, while also con­vinc­ing those who don’t want to change to do so. We need to defy nat­ur­al selec­tion in a very spe­cif­ic way. We need to change our baked-in think­ing, fast. And we need to include peo­ple who don’t want to change.

So, in fact, the only behav­iour­al change that will effec­tive­ly pre­serve our species is the abil­i­ty to con­vince oth­ers to behave dif­fer­ent­ly.

Which brings us full cir­cle back to the role of the media.

The pur­pose of the media in human soci­ety is to broad­cast infor­ma­tion. The real val­ue of any par­tic­u­lar media organ­i­sa­tion is a direct prod­uct of the qual­i­ty of the infor­ma­tion it dis­sem­i­nates. It is for this pre­cise rea­son that sto­ries of social haz­ard – war, crime and dis­as­ter – are so appeal­ing to audi­ences, and there­by attrac­tive to jour­nal­ists. I will com­pose a sep­a­rate arti­cle on the psy­chol­o­gy of ‘the boy who cried wolf’ but sim­ply put, the media appeals to a prim­i­tive part of our brain that is lit up by threats of dan­ger.

The risk of course, going back to the ear­li­er top­ic, is that this new threat requires a change in that very pro­gram­ming. We must set aside imme­di­a­cy in return for longevi­ty, replace the fear of the per­son­al threat with con­cern for the com­mu­ni­ty.

In the same way humans must now adapt our think­ing in regard to cli­mate change to earn our own sur­vival, so too must The New York­er change, along with every oth­er main­stream media out­let.

Or they too will become extinct.

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