Aloof to Social Proof

and other rhymes

I should have a swear jar but instead of swears I’ll deposit a quarter every time I utter the phrase social proof. I use it way too often—whilst slapping together an impressive slide full of logos at work; when I see all the hip-hop stoners suddenly wearing Patagonia; basically any time anyone is doing something because someone important has given them the idea to do it.  

Social proof is behavioural-science gold. When you land it, you can convert a once peripheral behaviour into something normative. You can make a tiny sliver of early adopters (3.5%) swing a huge late majority into doing something almost unthinkingly (hello duckface!). Which is why it should be positively glee-inducing that the CEO of BlackRock is getting out of climate risk, right? And yet lots of smart business minds have been working towards divestment, and talking up their efforts accordingly. And it just doesn’t seem to take. It adds further ballast to my working theory that climate blowhards are aloof to social proof. By climate blowhards, I mean entrenched political and business leaders who refuse to move on climate. These types are not going to budge til you pry the coal from their cold, dead hands. BJ Fogg refers to these immovables as crabs. You target the crabs last in your behaviour change scheme, because a crab doesn’t care if everyone else in the animal kingdom is doing it.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t important that BlackRock wants to be GreenRock. It’s great to see them leverage their power to force a reckoning when it comes to how we measure for sustainability. And their disclosure work is a fantastic first step. But what would actually move a climate blowhard? You might think the only green they care about is money. But even money isn’t enough when you’re dug in to the wrong position, as a million studies show. So many of the worst polluting industries don’t make financial sense anyway, and are propped up by subsidy. 

Ultimately news of BlackRock’s move is most important to you and me as we lobby the people who inhabit the layers above us to make the shift. It gives us strength when we need to converse in a different vernacular. We can use it when talking to family members who only speak in bottom lines, or investment advisors who don’t listen when we tell them we want to divest, or detractors who relegate climate to a yes, but. So wield your BlackRock social proof with precision and care. And good luck. My jar runneth over.

The Hope Trope

What are you wearing? is to actors as X is to climate scientists?

The answer is What gives you hope? I’ve stopped collecting tweets from scientists saying they’re tired of this question. Of course the question is vexing. It’s an interrogatory offloading of anxiety. At the same time, hope hope hope hope hopedy hope hope. The best talkers suck up the unintentional crappiness of the question and turn hope into action, torquing the query into an optimistic checklist. Which is what we need. Optimistic checklists for the planet.

There’s been a batch of optimistic checklist articles of late, and I am loving them. This one is particularly crispy and doable.

The Ruin We’re Doin’

I can’t stop thinking about this fantastic article on political hobbyism. More particularly, its implications for climate action. The gist of it is that there’s a whole thinking class that reads politics for sport but does not actively participate. “I found that white people reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than black people and Latinos did, but black people and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations,” writes Eitan Hersch.

I spend a lot of time armchair activisting when it comes to climate — writing letters to elected officials and signing petitions — but my actions on the ground are spottier. I’ve planned to go to a 350 dot org meeting since we were at 250 ppm. Is there such a thing as climate hobbyism? I find it hard to believe that anyone would willfully chose climate as a hobby, but I concede there’s chasm between knowledge seeking and on the ground organizing. I wonder if this is partly because the climate crisis is a new-ish (in the moral arc of the universe sense) issue, one that doesn’t have the robust organizing structures of political campaigning. You can’t just sign up to canvas for climate emergency. But perhaps you should be able to?

THIS WEEK

Do you volunteer or do environmental political activism on the ground? Let me know!

Hopeful linkage

Love this idea of environmental work placements. It’s not dissimilar to post-war tree planting efforts. Thanks Alex!

Mending plastic. Thanks Helen!

The only shopping mall I can get behind. So cool! Thanks Julie!

Work With Me?

After much thinking about how I can be most useful in this, the most important fight of our lives, I’ve decided to take a job at Clean Prosperity, an organization that works on market-based solutions like the carbon tax. Are you a policy or comms whiz? We are hiring. In Canada. Please share with anyone awesome. 

Learn With Me?

I co-organize Toronto Action Design, and our next meetup might be right up your alley? Dr. Jiaying Zhao will talk about Psychology for Environmental Sustainability on Monday, February 3rd at the David Suzuki Foundation. If you can’t attend in person, we’re doing our first ever ZOOM chat, so RSVP from wherever in the world you are, and I will post the Zoom link shortly before the talk. I’ve been a fan of Zhao’s work for a long time. It should be good.

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Have a wonderful week!
Sarah

What Makeup Do You Wear for the End of Days?

Apocalypstick

This is not a post about the apocalypse, but it’s apocalypse adjacent. Like life right now. My friend Carla recently shared a piece with the headline The Banality of Apocalypse, and while the piece itself, a meticulously ordinary account of escaping from the NSW fires, was riveting for its relatable scariness, it’s the headline that keeps flipping around in my brain like a fish on a rock. The banality of apocalypse.

My friend Khristina says she can’t watch apocalypse shows now because it’s all too close to home. I’ve always felt this way. I don’t need to watch The Walking Dead. Mitch McConnell gives me nightmares enough. The news from Australia is apocalypse writ real.

But how to sit next to an apocalypse? How to enjoy breathing unsmokey air? How to write New Years’ resolutions? How to spend a week at the beach, drinking craft beers in cute cans? It feels callous and unseemly, like when companies accidentally publish their programmed tweets minutes after a disaster. But if I follow this line of thinking it can render me completely immobile. So I started taking piano lessons.

I take piano lessons because I have to think that life will go on. That there is still room, amidst the complete depravity of a world that chooses coal over koalas, to do something that exists only for myself for a few hours a week, to concentrate so deeply on something so micro, despite a macro gone berserk. For me, it’s hope manifest. The world is burning but I have to hope that we’ll figure it out. And even as I want to focus on ACTION all the time, piano is a way to take time to breathe. It takes me an hour to work out the fingering for just a few measures of Chopin. It takes me a second to curse my musical ineptitude. But if I have to sit next to an apocalypse, I may as well do so with a nocturne at the ready. Or at the very least, the theme song from The Office.

I’m in South Florida, which has always been apocalypse adjacent, but is even more so now that there’s an apocalypse-themed café in the mall. Every time I think this town can’t get more garish, it surprises me.

In my search for a piano that my family can grow with, I’m astounded by the range of free pianos available. No one wants a piano anymore. It reminds me of another article with a great headline a few years ago: No one wants your brown furniture. No wants brown armoires, not even the beautiful, solid wood pieces that have lasted generations. We’re in the particleboard epoch. This is a tangent. But it’s an apocalypse-adjacent tangent. Thinking about things that last a long time is comforting. Remembering that I’m a blip in a continuum makes it OK to play piano for an hour. As the world burns. 

THIS WEEK:

What do you do to stay calm and focussed amidst the relentless stream of koala fire photos? LMK

COOL STUFF:

Vogue Italia created an all-illustration issue, to avoid the waste of all those travel-heavy photo shoots. Beautiful and inspiring and about time.

Thank you Jenn for this beautiful hilarity:

Hope you are having a wonderful week!

As always, send me your thoughts, links, suggestions.

Sarah

Can I write a whole post about emissions without making a single fart joke?

(No.)

(Holiday card that was rejected by a client. I just can’t get enough of shine theory.)

To offset or noffset, that is the question? Some say offsets only perpetuate a high-carbon lifestyle and are nothing more than a modern form of indulgences. This newsletter and the frowsy-haired person behind it believe in small actions that reify personal belief and accountability, so you know where we’ll come down on paying a premium for personal pollution. 

I don’t need to fly very much but I can’t go more than a year without seeing my Europe-dwelling niece and nephew, Petunia and Bam Bam. If they are within 3,000 kilometres, I will travel to meet them. When people complain that not flying precludes them from seeing their family and making personal and professional connections with the world, I get it. It’s not our fault that life now requires moving across the globe for work, refuge, and Furry conventions. It’s not our fault that some evil genius figured out how to combine the words destination and wedding. But it is what it is. And our rapidly closing porthole of catastrophe-prevention doesn’t care that the modern condition has deposited friends and family across the globe. We just have to do our best to fly less. And not beat ourselves up when we do travel to that once-in-a-lifetime family reunion in Guam.

But despite my efforts to not make others feel guilty, and to not feel guilty myself, my upcoming flights are making me feel just that. So I offset. It doesn’t mean my carbon-emitting choices are negated. It doesn’t Get-out-of-jail-free my guilt. It does make me acknowledge the moment, and calculate what I’m doing to the planet as a human living life on earth right now. It makes me conscious of the nearly 4,000 tonnes of carbon it takes to ferry a family up and down the Eastern seaboard. Our trip to Florida is roughly half our yearly home heating carbon budget, despite my best efforts to put a sweater on it. You can take the girl out of Florida but...

The Better Offsetter

Carbon offsets used to get a bad rap, but have improved significantly over the past decade.

The Gold Standard guarantees a minimum level of management and efficacy. There are so many options, but I chose Less for our upcoming trip home to Florida, mostly because my super genius buddy, Andy, recommended it. Send me your favourite offsetters, please!

In Good Company

I cheer for large companies purchasing offsets because, at the very least, they are acknowledging the harmful effects of their own industry, and making a modest effort towards mitigation. Yes, there’s greenwashing inherent to offsets, but if Stevie and his bros are taking that flight to Majorca for the bachelor party anyways, better a well in Uganda than no well in Uganda.

Less is More

There’s lots of research that doing something less makes us appreciate it more. Savour it, says my niece Petunia. “When people cut back on something they enjoy, they are more inclined to savor it,” write happiness researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Jiaying Zhao. Our kids know that we plan to go to Europe every 6 years, which in their eyes is approximately once in a lifetime. But looking forward to a less frequent epic adventure is an opportunity to savour. And the fewer plane farts, the better. (Of course I had to. My son is literally walking in circles around me saying, ‘fart fart fart.’)

This week

Do you offset? Do you fly? Do you magic carpet? Do you have travel rules? LMK PLS.

This and that

If you only listen to one podcast about decarbonisation in your lifetime, make it this one: 

How to solve climate change and make life more awesome

Ezra Klein talks to the super smart and supremely sensible Saul Griffiths about what it will take to decarbonise. Spoiler alert: It will take everything we’ve got -- but the result will be a far better world for all of us. The podcast is framed around a blog post of Griffiths’ that got a lot of  traction. It’s great, but it’s also...long. So just listen to the 76-minute interview to get all the good stuff, delivered cheerfully and wittily in a gentle Aussie brogue.

I did a podcast with the lovely Jen Gale, whose book, Sustainable(ish) is out now. I just got my copy of her book, and so far so great(ish). 

• Good piece by my friend, Vanessa! Is Climate Art the Right-Brained Approach We Need to This Crisis?

If you like this newsletter, ❤️it. If you dislike it, tell me how to make it better!

Have a wonderful New Year! 

Sarah

Love in a Scold Climate

Come together, Right Now. Plus thoughts on cheese bowls.

I am reading Tim Harford’s terrific book, Messy (I mean, Brian Eno loves it!). In it he devotes much real estate to a pioneering 1954 social psychology experiment by the late Muzafer Sherif called The Robbers Cave Study. The Robbers Cave was Survivor before Survivor — a huge field experiment that sought to understand conflict by studying two groups of 12-year-old boys at a summer camp in Oklahoma’s Robbers Cave State Park. By engineering opportunities for both conflict and cooperation, Sherif and his researchers (a.k.a., “the counselors”) learned much. While it was easy to stir up conflict between the rival groups, the Eagles and the Rattlers, it was also easy to instill cooperation and, ultimately, friendship. After a truck broke down and both groups had to work together to fix it, animosity finally dissolved completely. Writes Harford:

“The self-segregation that had been such a feature of their meals quickly broke down as the boys mixed together to win their tug-of-war with the truck. Peace was beginning to break out; soon the tribal identities themselves were blurring. The two groups had agreed to take turns to cook for each other, but then everyone joined in to cook together. When the boys had to pitch tents and each group discovered missing equipment, they turned to each other and swiftly — almost worldlessly — exchanged gear so that both tents went up smoothly.

“The message of Muzafer Sherif’s work is that when you give people an important enough problem to solve together, they can put aside their differences.”

You can see where I’m going with this from a million kilometres away. And while I know everything in social psych has been tarnished by the replication crisis, I think the overarching premise here is fairly unimpeachable (ha!). I see it daily in my own children: If there’s one toy, they’ll fight over it. If I challenge them to complete a task together, they’re the cutest buddy comedy since DeVito and Schwarzenegger. 

When I’m appalled by the distance between me and so many around me on all things climate, it’s a tiny balm to tell myself that people can and do come together when circumstance demands. And if you think about the easy wedges that bad actors use to divide us (bots, trolls, and shitposts), think also of how easy it is for the same forces to unite us. I know I shared that I’m not entirely sure the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice (in human time), but I do think we can turn bad faith into good.

A few years ago my mom told me about all the neighbours coming together to share delicious food that was going bad after the latest power outage due to hurricane in Florida. Unlike my current Toronto street, which does a communal street party dinner with all the flourish of Burning Man, my Florida suburb never was much for middle-of-the-street gatherings, despite the fact that I lived on a flipping cul de sac. But a challenge can knock people into something that resembles community. Also, no one wants to see really expensive steak go to waste. (Unfortunately, everyone has since purchased generators, so no more impromptu food waste feasts. Which just goes to show how hard it can be to shake the habits of over-consumption and isolation.)

The climate crisis is the scariest horror movie multiplied by Nickelback times infinity, but it’s also a challenge that can invite everyone in, to cooperate and work together. We know that a true solution to the climate crisis requires a social justice and equity lens, and by default, many of the outcomes will be solutions that improve quality of life: decreased loneliness through more compact design, more sharing, less pollution, deeper community, fewer Instagram beauty influencers. Of course, this is a best-case scenario, but it’s also an only case scenario. A win-win-win-win-win, because we have no other choice.

My daughter just told me she watched a really great Hallmark movie at school and I rolled my eyes, but I know this post is no less cheezy than a bread bowl overflowing with Velveeta. At the same time...it’s the holidays. We need hope, we need cheer, we need to come together to SOLVE OUR GREATEST CHALLENGE. And we need rich people to pay a fartload more tax

This week

Make yourself talk climate with fam and friends over your bread bowls and shrimp rings. We know that one-on-one conversations (that focus on emotion, personal experience, and local examples) are the best way to bring people in. Cookies help, too.

This and that

Climate comms + behavioural science + Katherine Hayhoe = Yes!

The SPUGS were a group of women who fought useless gifting...more than 100 years ago.

Thank you to everyone who has read this strange confluence of frolicsome words and pics over the past many months. Thank you for all the feedback, thoughts, links, inspiration, ideas, GIFs, and spirit!

Have a wonderful week and a lovely holiday and New Year!

If you like this newsletter, tell a friend, 💚 it, yada yada yada.

If you have hot thots, send them to me pls.

Finn it to win it

On climate hope and the pace of change (and Finnish findings)

In 2015 I got to go to Finland. My group of journalism fellows was somehow invited to the national broadcaster on the eve of their election night, where we got to chat with the leaders of all the political parties. It was a wild and worrisome evening, as the country was bracing for a rise in seats for the far-right parties. If you look at all the candidates that ran for office in that election, you’ll notice one thing: they all have nice glasses. If you notice two things: they’re all men.

The election proved not as bad as expected (though the populist Finns did get the second-most seats), and we were able to enjoy the rest of our trip, becoming completely Findoctrinated: Don’t ask me about their amazing educational system unless you want a four-hour ramble on the merits thereof.* I also managed to stay in a hotel right on top of a Marimekko and Cos store for a week and a half and not purchase a single thing, so I considered the trip an abstemious success, except for the day where I drank a million beers and yoyo’d between an icy lake and cozy sauna.

Four years later, and everyone is meme-ing the all-female Finnish political contenders (and youngest world leader victor, Sanna Marin!), and holding the country up as a model of gender equity, among other merits. This is great for a number of reasons, but namely because it’s a fintastic example of my favourite narrative: quick change.

When we’re at our political, planetary, or social nadir, it feels as if things could never possibly change for the better. Each successive disappointment pushes us further into the hole, and the light grows dimmer as we descend. We imagine clawing at packed dirt for years, never getting out of the dark. But then someone tosses a rope and pulls us up with an instantaneous yoink, the speed of which often eclipses the lethargic pace of the languid descent, and all is ok. We’re loss-averse people. We fear losses much more profoundly than we anticipate gains. And the gains get normalized and forgotten all too quickly, while the wounds and setbacks of loss take longer to heal. But Sanna Marin shows me that positive change can happen, quick. And while I do fear that she’s getting glass-cliffed by being handed a debilitating strike as a welcome to office...she’s there. Kippis!

And now my Finn fandom is back full force. Do you want to know a great Finnish word? It’s raventola. Isn’t that so much better than restaurant?

*Or about district energy, which I can talk about for 37 hours. Here’s an ad for Helsinki’s district energy company.

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Cool Art for a Hot Planet

A few weeks ago I wrote about climate art and my vague distaste for it. Suddenly there’s climate art everywhere, and it’s bloody great. 

From a great Guardian piece on Art Basel climate art by my pal, Nadja Sayej.

This one needs no story, the visual alone is so striking, but here ya go:

Not art per se, but here’s a podcast with a talk I gave on overcoming existential climate dread if you have twenty minutes and some existial climate dread to do away with.

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Wishing you hope and strength and a constant reminder that situations and humans can pivot very quickly when they need to. Some can pivot in a millisecond, while offering up positive vibey typography, like my dance crush, Donté Colley.

THIS WEEK

Do you have a bad-to-great quick change story? Please share so I can share!

If you have ways to make this newsletter better, I’m all ears. If you enjoyed this letter please heart it below so the substack deities will shine kindly down upon me.

Have a beautiful week!

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