Death to Media
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.
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 disaster.
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. If the balance is up-ended.
At the close 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.
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 more warming. 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?
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. 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 in direct proportion to 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. The media appeals instead 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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