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April 4, 2013

Communication and Location Action

, April 4, 2013

By Maria Bruno

We are now four speakers into our discussion on “Living in a World of Limits” and it is interesting to see how certain themes are emerging from these conversations. The one that struck me most as I read David Orr’s book Down to the Wire and listened to him speak is: how do we communicate the issues surrounding global climate change and how do we motivate people to do something about it? There are different proposals about how to deal with the problem, and they seem to shape how individuals communicate the problem to the public.

I can’t decide if it was a good or bad idea to have Michael Shellenberger come first! I can’t help but think of him and Nordhaus as I read Orr’s book (and as I read McKibben’s right now). N&S’s critique of the apocalyptic messaging especially keeps popping into my mind. I can’t decide if it’s there because of N&S, or if that it is a critique (or feeling rather) that I might have come to on my own? I have to admit. The gloom and doom is a bit overwhelming. Part of me just wants to stop reading, another part of me thinks that while the observable patterns are based on solid, tangible research, what is predicted to come is entirely very educated guessing. I’m still not entirely convinced that we can know what the “limits” are and what will happen when they are reached, mostly because these systems are so complex and we are examining individual components of them. Overall, it’s a very disconcerting feeling and makes me want to shut the book and think of something else! It also makes me want to walk or ride my bike everywhere, turn off everything electric in my house, and only buy food within Central Pennsylvania. Despite some of my own skepticism towards the “gloom & doom” messaging, I still (for some reason) think that changes in my own behavior might result in some positive change towards global warming.

This reflection on my own reactions and behaviors leads me to the challenge stated above: how do we communicate this mostly “invisible”, largely unpredictable, and, frankly, depressing problem to a wide audience and motivate them to change?

Nordhaus and Shellenberger took what they would claim to be an “optimistic” and “inspirational” approach. Yes, our globe is warming. Yes, there are rich and poor people who will be affected by it. Or maybe not! Some of their skepticism regarding the “limits” research might actually lead people to conclude that we shouldn’t even be worried. But, don’t fret! We are smart and have worked our way out of problems before! We will work our way out of this one as well with technology. What technology? We ask. They don’t know, they aren’t doing it themselves, but they believe someone else will. Thus, they bolster their “positive” message by letting the non-inventors off of the hook with regard to solving the problem. Not only should you not feel depressed about what’s to come, you don’t actually have to change anything you are doing! We just need (someone smart out there) to replace the carbon-emitting processes out there with newer, cleaner technologies. Meanwhile, we should continue to drive, shop, and eat just as we are now and encourage the rest of the world to follow suit. It’s true: this is very easy to listen to. It’s a “nice” message, but is it a realistic or productive one?

David Orr, on the other hand, takes what can be described as a “realistic” and “challenge” approach. Although some of his writing is most certainly doomdayish, towards the end of the book I think he is striving to take a more uplifting, empowering approach to communicating what needs to be done. He refers to great leaders such as Lincoln, FDR, and Churchill, who were faced with very gloomy scenarios. They did not sugarcoat the situation but were honest and straightforward about the reality and morality of it to the public. (Of course, much of the public was actually experiencing many of the negative consequences those situations, whereas, we are only sporadically dealing with shifts due to climate change, Although, this may change soon.) Yet, this approach believes that humans can be challenged and will rise to the occasion to meet these issues. They will even sacrifice what they are doing, ration food, plant gardens, help escaped slaves, in order to contribute to the change. In many ways, this is a much more optimistic approach than N&S because it assumes that humans do greater things when they are challenged rather than when they are comfortable. They can modify their behavior to make things better.

The question then becomes, how do we inspire this behavior in the general public when the problem seems so invisible and distant, and especially when it gets crowded out by what appear to be more immediate problems: gay marriage, guns, budget cuts.

It seems to me that perhaps Orr doesn’t think it is possible to convince everyone, so he’s decided to focus on his own community. The Oberlin Project not only creates “resilience” for when we reach the currently invisible “limits”, but the changes they are making to energy and food production also decreases their current contributions to global warming. Their changes may not be significant enough in the big scheme of things to actually reduce overall global carbon levels. But, they can at least feel like they are being proactive rather than simply waiting around for someone else to invent something that they might get access to someday. Perhaps more importantly, they are leading by example. How many other communities will adopt this approach? Even if everyone isn’t convinced about global warming, the prospect of more jobs and safer food for a community speaks to a wide swath of the public. In many ways, this resonates with what the Becthels advocated for in their developmental work in Africa. That is: starting from the ground up with the tangible interests of local communities that meet some immediate concerns but also contribute to larger environmental issues.

I’m not certain we have a clear answer to the above communication/motivation problems yet, but perhaps we are pointing in the right direction. I look forward to meeting McKibben and seeing what he will add to our conversation. I’m also looking forward to our own final conversation and seeing where, as one small academic community, we can take it.

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