Part one in a four-part series.
In the 2000 Coen brothers’ comedy adventure O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a bit of wisdom shared near the start of the movie applies to more aspects of life than we might like to admit. In particular, it has relevance for how we talk about the peak oil predicament in today’s media landscape.
We pick up the story when the three escaped convicts at the center of the film have narrowly fled for a second time, giving the slip to a bevy of cops hot on their trail.
Once in the clear, one of the fugitives, Ulysses Everett T. McGill, a silver-tongued dandy played by George Clooney, proudly flaunts a gold pocket watch that he swiped from the bureau drawer of Wash Hogwallop, his cohort Pete’s cousin with whom the trio stayed while on the lam.
Bragging that the watch is the key to getting a car, Everett plans to sell it. But Pete (John Turturro), rises up, angered that Everett stole from his kin. Everett offers a slick justification for taking the watch, an answer that Pete immediately dismisses as nonsense.
Undeterred, Everett replies, “Pete, it’s a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”
Peak oil communicators, take note.
When warming is cooling
We need look no farther than the global warming narrative to find a good example of what doesn’t work in trying to awaken the world, change the world, or just get anyone to listen.
The global warming / climate change / global climate disruption story, however relevant, has not succeeded in getting its message across in a way that has fundamentally made an inroad on consensus, policy, and in most instances in the Western world, behavior. Sure the issue has its cadre of hard-core adherents, but shouldn’t what scientists say is such a grave threat to civilization have gotten further with people, business and governments at this point?
Now, we can argue till the cows come home about what climate change activists are up against. Indeed it’s a formidable set of obstacles they face, beginning with basic human stupidity, then passing through interested persons (and personalities) with concerted disinformation campaigns and ending with greedy business types and their moneyed access to power.
But part of the blame has to go to the activists themselves, and their failure to properly reach and secure the allegiance of a mass number of hearts and minds.
“Logic is on our side”
Let’s face it, few people are moved to change because someone is telling them for the umpteenth time about the effects of so-and-so many parts per million of CO2 in the air and the radical tipping points that ensue therein. Even when it’s Al Gore.
Just look at when Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) mocked Gore by building an igloo during the great snowstorms of early 2010 and posting a sign calling it “Al Gore’s new home.” All Inhofe needed to say was “cold-y ice stuff ain’t warm” and he won the upper hand, eroding gains in the climate case. Logic, science and truth be damned.
The reality is that even among smarty-pants liberals, the emotional and irrational holds much more sway that the rational and logical, however much we may wish it otherwise. Research shows that we’re all much more moved by story and even stunts then we are by analysis.
That’s why Bill McKibben’s recent sojourn to the White House to urge President Obama to install solar panels did more for clean energy in the popular imagination than just about anything else this past year.
Scientists, thought leaders and the reasoned among us like to imagine that reason itself influences thinking persons and also turns the more distracted to our cause based on the self-evidence in a logical, sequential and well-presented case. Some mistakenly argue that anything less is “dumbing it down.”
But whoa, Nellie. What Kool-Aid are you drinking?
Why can’t they just listen to reason?
In the New York Times Bestseller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out that it’s not really reason that influences most decisions. It’s not a ream of logical inputs that drive choices. Rather, it’s the exact opposite. It’s expectations, hopes, wishful thinking, social norms and rhetorical techniques like peer pressure and fashion that convince us to think or act a certain way.
Add to that a society and culture like ours, glutted on a hyper-vast density of information, much of it nonsensical, superfluous and idiotic, where piercing the surface of that density is nigh impossible — even with life-and-death news — and you’ve got a real conundrum. Maybe more so with life-and-death news. After all, urgency feels a lot more critical when it’s say, a tsunami chasing you down the block.
When it’s the dire warnings of a very boring looking chart and graph of a would-be model some 50 years off, not so much. Even Al Gore’s contentious “hockey stick” seemed to get the attention of his critics more than it influenced his intended would-be supporters.
As George Clooney’s McGill said, “It’s a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” There’s the rub.
When warming is overheated
To be fair, climate change storytellers have tried to bypass logic to paint a picture of the looming crisis. Unfortunately they did so by going to the extreme of trying to scare the bejesus out of us. And while that may have seemed to be the most logical way to use irrationality to prompt action, it hasn’t succeeded.
I don’t dispute that climate change is one of the most potent threats to earth and all its species, including humans.
But I’m left wondering, Why, over twenty years after the first book on climate change for a popular readership—McKibben’s The End of Nature in 1989—polls show us that today fewer people are convinced that we must take immediate action to address ecological calamity?
What went wrong?
Alarmism and backlash
What was designed by earnest climate change advocates to awaken and engage people turned out to be too much too fast. And they told it too abstractly to boot.
However much you and I may care about shrinking glaciers, rising oceans, spotted owls and polar bears, most of us live in Madonna’s material world. To get most people to care about something, you have to get them where they live, which in most cases is neither an iceberg nor a tree-house.
Most Americans and indeed most Westerners (and more and more the whole world) care about living well and enjoying the here-and-now with all its options and opportunities, from frozen convenience foods to indoor skiing, from starting businesses to building one’s personal home-as-castle.
By not having secured popular opinion on the basis of something closer to the people’s hearts, lives, and livelihoods, and instead outsourcing it to the forest, a glen, a “habitat” or the vision of a New York underwater, climate change activists painted an outsized irrational picture that, however true or probable, lost its ability to convince by putting the cataclysm too far from our day-to-day experience. Too much, too soon, but never actually showing up, even if our crocuses do bloom in December.
And then, when New York wasn’t underwater soon enough and when Florida didn’t disappear right away, climate change Cassandras were ripe for looking like fools.
And all that invited a backlash.
Corporate antibodies attack
Like a swarm of antibodies encircling a virus to cut off its spread, corporate power and its political lapdogs have effectively debunked, bullied, mocked, and ignored climate change into near irrelevance largely using the simple counter-narrative of “Chicken Little.”
At least half the books available on climate change now tell the alleged “other side of the story,” drawing on a handful of dubious experts who say that climate change is bunk, that it’s not caused by humans or that even if it happens, it won’t be so bad.
Sure, a backlash would have occurred anyway, because that’s what greed does to secure its own interests — and political operatives will say anything for a .0002% bump in a poll. But a more accessible, more effective, less hyperbolic climate story might have kept more of the public on board when the evil genius counter-offensive hit. More public support would have better positioned climate activists and their allies in green business to win measures that address emissions and lifestyle despite the backlash from dirty corporations and their stooges in free-market think tanks.
Please, don’t mistake my meaning. I don’t think global warming activists should be made to look like fools. But the campaign to make them so has been formidably executed, with the kind of truth-free but effective double-speak found in a “Coke Adds Life” campaign. It makes no sense, but it sells. Global warming alarmism is now seen as wholly ineffective by more and more people. For climate deniers, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
For climate activists, it was like wearing a “kick me” sign.
And when you don’t get the results you want, however well intentioned, that’s a failure.
Gusher of lies
In some ways, peak oil activists should be so lucky to have a host of writers, analysts, Fox News personalities and big business types trolling out the debunking machine. At least it would be an indication that they’re noticing us at all.
There are a few books purporting to dispel peak oil concerns, such as Robert Bryce’s Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” and the work of David Yergin and Vaclav Smil. But in an oddly fortunate way for us their task will be more difficult than casting doubt on climate change. A hard and finite resource such as oil, even with tar sands as an understudy, is very difficult to dispute when almost all of us experience a direct relationship between the price at the pump and the pain in our wallet.
Regardless, understanding that peak oil is a reality, and one that will not be lessened by deepwater oil or tar sands or coal to liquids or iffy Saudi Arabias full of natural gas beneath the amber waves of grain won’t stop opponents from trying to cast doubt on the implications of the end of cheap energy.
The issue then becomes how we live in the face of peak oil. That is the challenge and the battle facing peak oil writers and commentators.
In response, do we keep trotting out the production and decline curves? Do we continue peppering every other sentence with the words collapse, imminent disaster, and apocalypse? Do we tell the story of our children—your children, their children— losing out on college and begging around for jobs as ditch diggers, if they’re the lucky ones? Do we talk about the idiocy of Americans for having ever bought into the suburban fantasy in the first place and then snort condescendingly at the prospect of them stranded in their mini vans scuffling over their last bag of Chips Ahoy 100 calorie packs?
I think not.
Once upon a time…
We do need to tell stories. Many of them. We each need to be translators of the facts and figures into visions of the possible and the practical with ample doses of hope rewarding the sweat of our brow with the continued harvest of many varieties. We need more storytellers. More visions. More ideas. After all, we’re asking the public to go eyes-wide-open into the greatest new experiment in living most of us have ever encountered. So we need ways of turning what we think we’ll lose into what we know we can gain.
But this is not textbook- and footnote-type stuff.
In addition to being first-stage researchers and analysts we also need to be translators of the story into narratives that connect with people in a way that draws them in, where they see themselves and their children in the story, and are inclined to action because they can understand the threat while still feeling empowered enough to take action in their own lives. And all this before it’s too late.
I’m afraid that we don’t have enough of these translators stepping up to the plate even as the stakes on peak oil ramp up by the day. Instead, we’re dominated by more graph-happy talks and more incestuous polemics than we can use in a lifetime. Yes, we peak oil communicators need to talk to each other, but we need even more to talk to Them Out There, the people who most need to hear this. And we need to talk in a way that they can understand and engage with us.
In the midst of this essay intended to be about communications I feel more inclined to go within the word, saying that what we actually need is more communing.
We need to go beyond the polemics, citations, cases and inward gazing in and among the peak oil community and instead gear up to go large.
We get it. Now let’s talk to others.
Myth: a powerful vehicle for truth
We need to draw on the myths of the past, the myths that have informed generations of people for millennia, and tell the stories in new ways, much as the Coen brothers reinvented O Brother as a riff on the Odysseus saga.
The journey. The obstacles. More seeking, fewer answers. Your own struggle. Your own uncertainty. Your story.
What if we all tried more immediate what ifs?
What if global warming were real right now? What would that look like in your family? In your town? What does it look like?
On peak oil, what if one day there was no more access to gasoline, or it was too expensive? Or it was rationed, first to the military, and then to the rich? What then? What if the lights went out not for hours, but for days or weeks on end? What would you do? Your community? What might you face? What’s the back-up plan?
What about the rich terrain of the ordinary? What was it like when you planted those first seeds as a member of a newly formed community garden? Or began selling your wares at the farmer’s market? What’s it like now that you’re a farmer milking the cow at 5am on a cold February morning when you’d much rather be in bed? What are the stories, the simple stories of daily life that happened along the way to the story you’re now living that’s still unfolding? Not as a how-to, but as a heart, as a life, as a soul.
Tell it. Tell that story.
Where are those stories? How can we commune? What might you share? What might we try?
Wisdom from a seer
I won’t begin to assume that I know even half of the kind of stories that might be shared in a world where voices began to rise, where the hidden circuitry of energy and our vulnerable connection to it is exposed in new ways.
But we might take a cue from a blind railroad man, the seer who gives a lift and some sage advice to the jailbirds at the beginning of O Brother Where Art Thou:
You seek a great fortune,
you three who are now in chains.
You will find a fortune,
though it will not be the fortune you seek.
But first…first you must travel a long and difficult road,
a road fraught with peril, mm-hmm.
You shall see things…
wonderful to tell.
You shall see a… a cow…
on the roof of a cotton house, ha.
And, oh, so many startlements.
I cannot tell you how long this road shall be,
but fear not the obstacles in your path,
for fate has…
vouchsafed your reward.
Though the road may wind,
yea, your hearts grow weary,
still shall ye follow them,
even unto your salvation.
And the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
Part two of this series is now out: My Brother’s Keeper, which looks at the dynamic of “us versus them.”
— Lindsay Curren