There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.
To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.
The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.
- from Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature
Seven years ago I gave the first of what became a series of about fifteen public talks about energy. I had been worrying about global warming since the mid 90s and was at the point where speaking in public felt necessary. I'm not a good public speaker, but improved with time with the question and answer sessions often taking more than an hour. Most of the questions centered on what could be done at the individual level. It became clear that many people lacked the background to sort out the costs and rewards of their actions.
I thought a short energy primer would make a difference. People seemed interested and some good conclusions could be made with a bit of a toolkit. The talk shifted more towards energy education, but still had global warming as the main draw. I thought I was making progress - there wasn't any rotten fruit and a few places even invited me back for a second talk.
It is probably true that you can get one or two concepts across in a one hour talk. The idea of a book written for the intelligent non-STEM reader began to gel. I partnered with a smart friend who could write, but had no background in science or engineering. Between the two of us perhaps we could find the right level.
Early on she made a very important observation about how people perceived energy. It struck her that no one thinks in terms of energy, but most of us have an intuitive understanding of power - the rate at which energy is being converted from one form to another.1 It was a great observation and gave us a foundation. Ask much as possible we would frame energy use in terms of power - something people often have control over - and we would try to keep as close to the human scale as possible rather than trying to impress people with the enormous scale of the system. After all, we were hoping to speak to individual actions.
I have the bad habit of tending towards fundamental explanations where a quick paragraph would probably do. It was difficult finding the right level and still be different from a hundred other good books. Not only was it difficult to find the right level, but it was also becoming clear that energy education, at least what happens in a book, wasn't going to have much impact. Another friend kept reminding us that anything aimed at a mass general audience probably had to be video - and probably short youtube pieces at that.
This was difficult for someone like me to grapple with. Putting together videos is far beyond what I could do. It was also a bit depressing seeing the growing pushback against science. There was overwhelming evidence. But that isn't important in a climate of unscientific doubt. Asking people to recognize the risk and make a change requires much more than understanding what has been learned. We dropped work on the book. A new journey was necessary. She proceeded down her path of working with people at the individual level and I continued to speak, but now I was spending a lot of time talking to social scientists, science educators and film makers. There was much to understand, but a few issues stood out:
Why do people ignore solid scientific evidence?
How do you communicate something this important that is also technical?
How does change happen?
How badly will we fail?2
The rejection of climate science appears to be cultural. Concern is high in sea level countries like Bangladesh and island nations that are impoverished and poorly shielded from disaster. Change is happening now. A few bad crops or a bad storm and that's it. But the abundance in wealthy nations allows us to distance ourselves from the immediate impact of Nature. A bad hurricane may kill a few people and destroy a billion dollars worth of property and raise prices by a tiny amount, but for the average citizen its something forgotten in a week or two. People living in a wealthy climate change conflicted nation like the US have several issues to deal with:
distance in time, space and psychology Many of the predictions are distilled to a sound-bite: sea level will rise by one or two meters by 2100. Even 2050 seems a huge step into the far future. Most new parents aren't thinking about their children's college education, let alone their retirement - events on a much shorter scale. Change is taking place in the Antarctica and Arctic, but they're physically far away and we don't see dramatic changes happening locally. We think of the others who are responsible as groups and ourselves as individuals. The distance between us and the problem has several dimensions and each component seems too large to be important in our lifetimes.
gloom and doom Most global warming communication aimed at the citizen is gloom and doom. The last polar bear standing on a shrinking piece of ice in the Arctic Ocean... It is well known that fear inducing communication instills makes people more passive. If you're feeling guilty you often compartmentalize and ignore problems.
cognitive dissonance Most of us are aware that that the use of fossil fuel is at the root of the problem, but we go about our lives flying, driving, cooking, eating meat and so on. When we try to think of solutions we have to deal with this cognitive dissonance and the default is often weakening the link .... It's mostly the Chinese who use so much coal. I don't drive much, but my neighbor has two SUVs, I know someone who flies 50,000 miles a year... Fox News tells me there is doubt among scientists that CO2 even causes global warming... It is so cold this Winter... We can ignore the problem because science will solve the problem without any effort from us...
If people intellectually partner with the doubters and minimizers, they have created a way to ignore their cognitive dissonance. Some political and corporate forces are skilled at exploiting this bit of human psychology.
denial It is convenient for some to outright deny the problem. In some ways this is a deepening of our psychological mechanism for dealing with cognitive dissonance. We are defining ares that we've chosen not to deal with. Curiously those who are well educated are often more skilled when it comes to denying something outside of their expertise than less educated people.
Another interesting bit of psychology is at work. If you try to get people to change by criticizing them, they often build a stronger resistance as part of their denial. I admire them. but I've come to believe a good deal of the messaging from self described greens has been extremely counterproductive.3
At one point I was speaking to a group of several hundred animators. I was expecting a lot of good questions and had some good examples on changing a lifestyle at the personal level and politics above. I thought I was communicating. Halfway through the talk it struck me I was in one of storytelling's sacred places. The entrance of the building had a three story soccer's hat. This was the place that produced Bambi. I didn't have anything important to say to these storytellers. I stopped with words and emotion took over. I hadn't thought about that film for years. Suddenly it was back. I had seen at a special time and, against all odds, my heart told me I could no longer eat meat. It wasn't logic, it wasn't science, it was just a flight my mind had taken while I was part of the story. It took about two minutes to regain my composure and I thanked them for changing my life and wondered out loud if they could do it again - this time on a more pressing problem.
If there is to be change we need great stories. Positive messages that go directly to the heart. I'm not a good storyteller, so I try and partner with those who are. Not everything we tried worked - making a film is expensive and can fail at many steps. But it is clear to me now that you must speak to someone's heart than their head.
Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.
Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.
Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.
I can encourage and partner with the storytellers, but there is another path. What if impactful change can be had by encouraging new behaviors that don't address global warming directly? Consider meat eating.
Making meat is enormously inefficient - corn to cow, under ideal conditions, is about ten percent efficient and that doesn't count the energy inefficiency and environmental impact of intense corn cultivation. A few people have meatless Mondays and a vanishingly small percent are vegan or vegetarian, but these are non-trivial behavioral shift. What if less impactful food was more appealing?
Worldwide it we rely on about 150 plants for food with about 70% of food energy coming from three crops - rice, corn and wheat. Nature offers much more - about 50,000 crops are edible. It would take time, but moving further into the space of the 150 known and beginning to experiment with what may be amazing flavor combinations in the great unknown may shift a non-trivial percentage of meat based meals back to something with a smaller impact on global warming. Maybe it makes sense to encourage outstanding chefs to experiment and create a desire...
There are so many other ways. In California a program of subsidized low income housing incorporates solar arrays. The power is not quite enough to cover internal use, but conservation is encouraged by a box with a few colors of light. If you are close to being a net exporter of power, your utility bill is $5 a month - otherwise you pay the full rate. People quickly become expert at conservation. It may not be cost effective now and there are questions about home solar arrays, but it is an example... You can say the same about automatic thermostats and those with utility overrides.
There is active transportation ... and so many other possibilities. You can probably sit down and make a different list on your own. It may be that serious opportunity for the environment as well as business lurk in such lists and some of it may not be technical. I remain very hopeful that change will occur, but have come to believe much of it will be done for reasons other than 'being green'...
In the meantime I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about power and energy. Education isn't the direct path to change in the short term, but it is still useful. Every once and awhile I'll probably write a bit here. Who knows. Perhaps there should be a podcast or a series of videos. Maybe it is worth trying...
1 Her analogy is energy is the gas in your car, power is what happens when you push down on the accelerator. A more technical explanation is power is the rate at which energy is converted from one form to another. In any event her point was we physically sense power by how we use our muscles. How much we need to eat is less immediate and more abstract.
2 Given the amount of carbon that has been burned and the fact it stays in the atmosphere for so long guarantees a temperature rise, and more importantly a swift rise, that we are guaranteed some pain. How much depends on mitigation. At the same time we need to sort out how to adapt. Wealthy nations will be able to afford some adaptation - think of it as a tax on our children based on our non-action. It will be much more expensive than a successful mitigation effort, but we're not paying. There will also be a lot of companies that get rich from the work. At the same time there will be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people who will lose. As we've learned in the past 20 years that may have consequences far beyond their local hardship.
3 It would be hypocritical for me to claim to be green. My personal rate of energy use is 6.5 to 7.0 kW. While this is low for an American, it is far from what is needed given the current energy mix I use. It was as far as I could easily go given my financial resources and resolve. I have a young friend in Cameroon who is probably under 0.5 kW. That would be green in my book, although she'd never call herself that. It is also an unfortunate way to be green.
There are many ways to go on this potato salad. It goes for olive oil rather than mayo and picks up much of its salt from olives.
° about a pound of waxy potatoes cut into inch-ish cubes - I like the skin, but peel them if you don't
° 1/2 pound of trimmed green beans cut into inch long pieces
° 1/2 cup of olive oil
° 2 tbl red wine vinegar
° 1 mined shallot
° 1 tsp minced garlic
° 1 tsp Dijon mustard
° 1/2 cup pitted olives, chopped. I used cheap black olives, but fancy olives would be better
° 1 pt of cherry tomatoes, halved
° freshly ground pepper
° Bring the potatoes to boil in a large pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Throw in a pinch of salt (1/4 tsp?) Lower the heat to just below boiling and cook for about 6 or 7 minutes until just tender.
° Add the green beans and cook until potatoes are somewhat tender and the beans are brightly colored - another 4 or 5 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water in a colander for about a minute
° Combine the oil, vinegar, garlic, shallot and mustard in a large bowl with some ground pepper and a bit of salt. Mix in the potatoes and beans along with the tomatoes and olives. Adjust the seasoning as necessary