HOW TO EXPLOIT SOCIAL MEDIA TO ADVANCE YOUR NEFARIOUS PLOT TO SAVE THE WORLD

or, five quick tips that really do work!

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, please subscribe. And tell your dog to as well.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that there would one day be a company that owned all my most useful communication tools and knew everything about me and most of the world and had the power to torque elections and incite genocide and that its most vocal critic was Borat, I...would have said I’m not really into sci fi.

And yet, here we are.

I’ve done the social media diet before. The one where I abstain from everything. The problem is all the tools and resources and information that I miss out on. How would I know when to next inflict my violin playing on the local klezmer jam? How would I know about the latest nimby happenings in my neighbourhood? Many people are wrestling with deleting their social accounts after watching The Social Dilemma. And I sometimes wish I could do likewise. But I need my socials for work and niche neighbourhood news.

If you need your accounts for work, life, or maintaining contact with your far-away aunties or special communities, you accept the good and bad of these platforms. But there are ways to try to use these spaces to push for change, and to make the experience richer for yourself and those around you by sharing valuable climate information, which is severely underrepresented on social media. The goal is not to try to swell your social following. The goal is to try to swell climate’s social following.

We know that Facebook and Instagram algorithms prioritize a certain type of engagement: enragement. It amplifies the emotional, like angry Trump rants or a cute baby dance. What does this mean for someone who shares climate content? Lots. 

Climate content is often downvoted because it’s not exceptionally engaging. This isn’t because people are evil and don’t care about the world. It’s because they came to Facebook to look at their second cousin’s new sailboat with the tasteless name. Not to be confronted with an article about the world’s rapidly exhausting carbon budget. 

Herewith, Five tips for Planetary PR: 

1. Be a first-rate curator (without ever referring to yourself as a curator)

Share the most thoughtful articles. The ones that don’t front load APOCALYPSE. Share beautiful pieces with good data and great art and resonant ideas. Amazing stories of magical plastic-eating enzymes, hydrogen trucks, game-changing forest regeneration techniques, the rapidly dropping cost of solar. Share these things not to hide the dire, but to get people to be able to see our possible future at scale - the world where life is actually better (less pollution, less inequality, more dancing). Add thoughts (RT with comment!) about why you’re sharing what you’re sharing, and what you want people to take away from it or do. Highlight the most salient bits for the time-deprived (everyone). (More last week on what kind of positive news to share.) And look for stories that bridge divides.

2. No Smug Prescriptions

Do NOT I repeat DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT share content that talks about lifestyle changes we have to make in a hierarchical or judgy manner. I learned this firsthand when I posted an article about reducing air travel, and then took a six-month break from Facebook because I disliked the conversation I had kickstarted so much. People get defensive about the idea that we might need to change our ways (hello, loss aversion!). These articles send people into games of gotcha with the science or math on offer, IE engaging in tradeoff thinking: Well, I don’t drive a truck, so it’s okay if I eat hamburgers. This is extremely unhelpful because we are actually very horrible at tradeoff math, aka carbon numeracy

It’s also not helpful because a lot of these ‘Stop doing this, you bad person’ pieces are predicated on the narrative that we have to sacrifice. Much research shows that this is simply untrue. Decarbonisation does not mean we all have to suffer through frigid winters eating only rutabaga (has anyone ever eaten a rutabaga?). 

Plus, a lot of these pieces take a core ideological belief (we should not eat animals) and dress it up with emissions-reductions facts, belabouring individual action with no thought of how unfeasible it is for so many. Indeed, behaviour change is necessary, but only as means of catalyzing systems change. Needless to say, your uncle Joe didn’t come to FB to hear that his steak and his truck and his steaktruck (mmm…) are killing the planet. Nor does your under-resourced friend need to be harangued with impossibly expensive and time-consuming lifestyle swaps. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you’re looking for climate articles that support a pre-existing belief you already have (hello confirmation bias!). I know I’m deeply susceptible to stories that gel with my worldview and always want to share those in ALL-CAPS with all the emojis and some jazz hands too.

If you ARE really interested in carbon literacy (me me me too!) there are lots of great tools that you can share that help people learn about their footprint on their own terms. A key climate communications (and life) truism is to ask people questions so they can reason out the answers for themselves.

3. Be a generous amplifier

Climate invariably gets less engagement on social, but we can subvert this by liking, commenting, and supporting this content with our best GIFage. Sometimes, I’ll like the same piece of content a dozen times. It’s about amplifying and supporting climate so that it will get more eyeballs. A key benefit of doing this is that it pushes the poster to continue sharing their climate news and views. Which is really important, as people often stop sharing climate content when it gets no social love. It’s hard enough to put challenging thoughts out there, harder still when you get zero response to your serious climate shares. Reward this brave vulnerability with a bit of your time and attention if you can.

4. One for you, one for Zuck

Despite no concrete proof of this, my anecdotal research tells me that you can tweak the algorithm by alternating your energy. If I post a silly meme or adorable malapropism by one of my children that garners much engagement, my content gets shared more widely. And then I can post something substantive about the state of the planet, and tank my algorithm once again. An alternating current of earthly delight and despair.

5. Don’t take it too srsly

Be honest, and be yourself. This video speaks to my soul and communicates my existential grief with humour in ways that a serious post about trying to deal with climate emotion never ever could. 

Sharing (intense and important content) is caring. It’ll never get the most love and engagement or win you friends and fans, but honestly who the eff cares. We have a planet to save and every little micro dose of climate information helps. So don’t despair. And don’t feel bad if you get it wrong now and then. I invariably learn new things and hear new perspectives when I do. There’s always another side to a story, and good-faith commenters often help me get out of my privileged and blinkered silo.

Bonus

And if all else fails, amplify the methane out of positive social norms!!!

THIS WEEK

How do you share climate content on social media? LMK

LAST WEEK (well, a few weeks ago!)

I wrote about a few very important and positive global climate indicators. Then I heard a great episode of The Energy Gang where they go very deep on the significance of all of these BIG CLIMATE COMMITMENTS, if you’re interested!


People dancing

Hope you are happy and healthy.
Have a wonderful weekend,
Sarah

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Gooooooood Friday!

The importance of good news, and what constitutes it, and how to get more of it!

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

The idea of ‘cheerful news’ makes me want to dunk my head in a vat of soup. When John Krasinski launched Some Good News at the onset of the pandemic, there was no bowl of bisque big enough. I know I’m being a churl, but there is literally nothing more grating than bad good news. I don’t want to hear cloyingly uplifting emotional stories. I want the good news to be usefully good. I want it to be good news that points at greater news, and not a false dash of aberrational cheer amidst the bleakery. 

So needless to say, when my hometown hero (he has a tenuous connection to TO, I swear), David Byrne launched Reasons to be Cheerful a few years ago, I was not so sure. But he’s the real deal, so naturally his criteria for good news makes dashingly good sense.

I think what grates about most good news outlets is their number 4ness. Isolated good deeds are rarely repeatable. As DB says, “we’re not all billionaires. The idea needs to be scalable and replicable.”

Indeed. If you can avoid the toxic ‘good vibes only’ strain of positive news, there is a place for rosy tales of things gone right. At work we share positive energy transformation news on our social channels, in an effort to help illuminate a greater narrative of change, across a thousand micro and macro inflection points. The goal is not to artificially elevate the good (at the expense of biodiversity falling off a cliff, and myriad other terrors too great to type without giving myself a panic attack), but instead to chart a course forward. And given the range and quantity and slant of news being reported, and the difficulty we have in parsing it, the stories we choose to highlight are meant to help pull out key events that are worth noting, significant milestones in an epic collective narrative experiment that we hope will have a happy ending. These positive stories support a pragmatic approach to climate. I’m a cautious climate optimist, because there’s really no other choice.

The idea of course is not to share climate news based solely on its goodness, but instead to illuminate the meaningful good news. An interesting solar project is cool. But a huge solar project in the middle of oil country, with a ridiculously low kw/h cost, is meaningfully good. Often it’s about deep context and scale. What is the significance of a large multinational company’s surprisingly ambitious net zero commitments? 

This is all a grand wind up to share a feeling that I’ve been harbouring for the past week. Which is that the meaningfully good feels suddenly imbued with a deeper validity. In the past week alone, China has pledged carbon neutrality by 2060, The UK has pledged to ban gas vehicles by 2030, and California has offered to do likewise by 2035. Yes, all of these pledges could be stronger. Yes, all of these commitments have wrinkles, snags, and very valid questions of viability. Yes, things are pretty dark and there’s no guarantee that we can stave off the feedback effects of warming oceans and melting ice. And still. This is kinda huuuuuuggeeee.

I write about the flip so often in this newsletter that I’ve probably given you whiplash, but the importance of all these big commitments is that they are flipping the norms. And as these norms flip, the language changes, and the pieces on the global board of climate chess move quickly. It’s naive to think climate isn’t a key part of this fight for supremacy, and I like the transparent gamesmanship of it all, because there isn’t time for anything else:

Of course these maiden bold moves are focused on emissions not intersections. And I’m sympathetic to the argument that a world that is exactly the same as the one we have now except decarbonized will still be superbly shitty. But I’m also optimistic that the things that need to change to catalyze the same sort of table-flipping when it comes to social change could likewise be a few bold moves away. And also, there IS some seriously important not just emissions stuff baked into Biden’s climate plan. Good, good, good. 

THIS WEEK

Talk positive climate, and tell me how it goes! I’m lately out of my habit of posting positive climate news on my FB, but this week I will be back at it.

LAST WEEK

How are you taking care of yourself as we head into Winter (sorry, I know this prompt was a bit Northern Hemispherist!)

I love this winter plan from A:

First of all, I have a cat named Posey, and she is always finding ways to snuggle up and get cozy so I am looking to her for inspiration. Right away that means more warm blankets, naps and snuggles in the sun. I am nine months pregnant and one week into maternity leave with my first baby, so I am very aware that we are headed into what will be a particularly challenging winter and am trying to be proactive to combat postpartum/COVID depression.

As an overall approach, I have been able to frame some amount of isolation as a positive. While it would be great to know we could spend this winter seeing friends, bopping out for errands and going to storytime at the library, the idea of having fewer social engagements and being more present with my newborn is also appealing. Less visitors, less shame in slow days and a messy house.

I am also going to buy a new cookbook all about cookies (my favourite dessert), so I can try out some delicious new recipes and give some away as gifts. I am going to make sure I have cozy nursing clothes, including socks, and plan to put out a call for new-to-us puzzles since often you really only do them once but they can be such a great non-screen activity to pass the time.

Books, babes, banter?

I’ve signed up to organize an All We Can Save circle (book club). The book is a beautiful compendium of climate writing by women, edited by the powerhouse team of Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. If you’re a lady in Toronto (it’ll be mostly online, but I hope we can meet in a park in spring!) and would like to join our circle, we’ll read a little bit of the book and meet online every week or every other week to discuss.  I’m thinking it might be fun to do art together while we draw, though this is not required. If you’re interested in participating, please drop me a line. Hoping to start in a week or so!

 People dancing

Hope you are happy and healthy,
Sarah

PS. Does this newsletter go to your junk mail? Please drag it from promotions to your primary inbox!
PPS. Like this newsletter? Tell a friend?
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Can I get a glimmer over here?

A Climate, COVID, Cozy, Canadian, Caring Communication

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

It’s all playing out exactly as expected here in Canada: Inaction and ill-preparedness leading us full-speed into a second wave that will neatly coincide with the onset of cold weather, drastically cutting off social opportunities and sending people back to their sourdough and sour moods. Harrumph.

After reading a great Vice piece on how to make this cold reality more bearable, I’ve been looking at vintage ski suits on eBay (what is a ski suit but a jumpsuit with benefits, really?) so that I can romp in all seasons with impunity. The piece talks about all the little things you can do to get ready for a few months that may be less than ideal. Writes Rachel Miller, “What small-ish things do I wish I had done in January 2020, that I can do some version of now?”

Miller’s examples include little gems like making sure you know how to cook a favourite meal, and have cozy socks.

Do you have a plan for how to get through whatever the next few months may throw at us, with climate and COVID piled on top of the feeling of impending chill? I make snide comments about self-care but only because I still can’t scrape the last vestiges of cynic off my person. (Maybe there’s a spa treatment for that?) In truth, I’ve been working HARD to become someone who doesn’t roll her cucumber-covered eyes whilst taking care of herself.

Taking care of oneself can be as simple as recognizing the guilt you feel (for me it’s the propane firepit we bought to prolong our outdoor hangs, and the weekly takeout) and giving yourself some grace. Yes, I’m trying to not be wasteful. Yes, I’m also trying to stay healthy.

Taking care of yourself can also be as simple as working to eke out a bit of time to take stock of where you are and how you are feeling. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all checking in a lot — frontloading meetings with mental check-ins, calling old pals to see how they were holding up, Zooming our second cousins twice-removed. Now that we’ve acclimated to the low hum of threat, some of these important check-ins have been lost. It would be great to reintroduce them to our daily personal and work lives.

(this tweet from @realsarahpolley is forever in my brain)

I’ve been seeing many a climate activist displaying their anguish on Twitter of late. Which is normal when you’ve watched the world sleepwalk into tragedy. Many of these activists are scientists, scholars, and writers who have been covering all of this for decades. The pain of seeing their predictions comes to light (and fire) so forcibly has only illuminated their grief. If you are likewise feeling such grief, I hope that you are taking the time to find the help and strength you need. 

Climate and COVID have both exacerbated the need for mental health supports. Are there resources in your part of the world? I hope so. 

While hope is a trope, I would love to end this newsletter with some bright starts, because despite IT ALL, I am lately full of more hope than I’ve had in a good, long time. Why? Because BIG THINGS ARE HAPPENING. I’m going to devote next week to positive climate news, but here’s something big to chew on: China has committed to peaking emissions by 2030. And these guys don’t screw around when it comes to commitments. 

Life is rarely like that movie with the last-minute plot twist. And then a global superpower and the U.S.’ most populous state make huge climate moves, and you think maybe, just maybe, we can turn this thing around. If not, at least we’ll have comfy socks.


TALK CARBON WITH ME

At work I commissioned a few polling questions to get a better sense of how Canadians feel about emissions labelling. Spoiler alert: they are into them to the tune of 71%. I wrote a comic for Huffington Post about carrying the weight of individual decisions and why carbon pricing helps shift the burden back to producers. It is MUCH EASIER to explain carbon emissions and externalities with pictures. As always let me know your thoughts!

THIS WEEK

What are you doing to stay cozy? Please tell me! (And if you’re in a different hemisphere. (Hi Australian readers!!), tell me where you’re at as well.

PEOPLE DANCING

(And the world’s most beautiful bougainvillea).


Hope you are happy and healthy,
Sarah

PS. Does this newsletter go to your junk mail? Please drag it from promotions to your primary inbox!
PPS. Like this newsletter? Tell a friend?
PPPS. As always, lmk me how I can make it better!

Sunsetting Sunset Lit

Or, how to keep it ugly beautiful

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

(The light is Maxfield Parrish pretty right now because of bad, bad things. It’s easy to forget this.)

Last year I devoured Anna Weiner’s book about Silicon Valley in a gulp. Not only was it dishy (did I just use the word dishy? Yes, I did. I am a bubby in a tracksuit eating a bagel on the beach.), but every page seemed to contain a caustic turn of phrase that fairly yet mercilessly reflected the stupidity of the way we live now. Weiner is a fantastic writer. And this piece about the worst things happening in California right now is beautifully observed in so many parts. I mean, they took selfies in the tangerine light.

But.

It doesn’t include climate. Yes, the headline writer tacked on the words ecological crisis, but it’s a piece about a mood, about feelings, and about the air. My worry is that this kind of writing, however lilting, tells the wrong story. Because just as news reports NEED to include climate as a causal force behind extreme and extremer weather, deeply observational writers need to reflect this in their dispatches as well. Conflating all the bad things that have plagued California into a soup of equals is not the story. Writes Weiner:

Some are saying that these crises are too much to bear; that the collision of public-health issues is unsustainable; that California will soon become uninhabitable; that people will flee. But the state has always offered its residents reasons to leave: earthquakes, drought, heat, fires; political and economic cruelties. A certain degree of volatility is part of the pact. It seems just as likely that people will adapt, as they always do, until adaptation, by will or necessity, turns into retreat.

Just as we need Biden to make ambitious climate moves normal, we need to make clear that climate-induced extreme weather is NOT NORMAL. Political cruelties are not the same hurdle as being increasingly on fire, forever. 

The reframing reflects our natural human impulse. We this is fine everything. I asked an old friend who lives in California how she was doing, and she said she was fine, except for all the smoke. Another friend relayed that her California pal said they couldn’t go outside, but other than that they’re ‘okay.’ A fire is burning down my state while I fix dinner, but I’m okay. Cool cool cool.

Writes Linda Solomon Wood in the National Observer:

It must be strange to be young in this world. I live with a household with 3 teenagers. Yet I still can't wrap my mind around what it's like to be them, coming of age during a pandemic, explosive wildfires, racially-based murders, rising extremism, polarization, and above all else, to be aware of mass species extinctions and the mounting dangers of climate change. Scary. And normal. And that's the scariest thing of all, how normal it is beginning to seem.

Every piece of writing should subvert or make transparent the normalization and acceptance of climate crisis, even if it seems rote or obvious or repetitive or political. Because it’s actually none of those things. To make vivid this abnormality, you have to ACTUALLY WRITE THE WORD CLIMATE. It’s table stakes. If you don’t give climate the head nod when you enter the room, you’re that dude.

The amazing work of the group End Climate Silence is all about making sure disaster reporting connects to climate. But I’m also deeply worried about the less overt omissions - about writing that just rolls climate into an evitable fog of adaptation, a poetic exploration of our human capacity to just go with it. In a dire list of conceptual traps we may fall into in our effort to eradicate COVID, the Atlantic’s Ed Yong cites one that is a distillation of everything I’ve just written. It even comes with a scary, catchy name: The Habituation of Horror:

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

Let’s unhabituate the horror. Let it find no place of rest in our normal hearts. This is not the perfectest metaphor but it gets close enough. Do you have a better one? Please send it to me.

THIS WEEK

Find the stories that need to be connected to climate and gently suggest to editors and writers that this is not fine. You can even suggest stories to End Climate Silence by dropping them a note.

LAST WEEK(S)

This, from Ben, is me every day -

I’ve been thinking a lot about the things you’ve written in there about balancing the forever climate change with what am I gonna eat for breakfast today.

PEOPLE DANCING

Hope you are happy and healthy,
Sarah

PS. Does this newsletter go to your junk mail? Please drag it from promotions to your primary inbox!
PPS. Like this newsletter? Tell a friend?
PPPS. As always, lmk me how I can make it better!

Life is more in tents these days

Toronto catches up with the rest of the world (in a bad way)

I got to visit Seattle last May and it was glorious. I hadn’t been to the Pacific Northwest since I was ten, so it was a gorgeous novelty to me - the coffee, the trees, the vibes, the ubiquity of only mildly pretentious vegetarian food. What shocked me was the homelessness. Yes, I know, it’s a naive privilege to be shocked. But shocked I was. Homelessness was pervasive there in a way I had not seen in Canada. Until...now.

Of course homelessness is a huge problem here: our shelters are often at capacity, our system is patchwork at best, we are moving much too slowly. Yet when you don’t see homelessness daily, you don’t think about it daily.

Right now a wave of increased homelessness is rendering the invisible highly visible here in Toronto. There are tent cities all over our city. I note them growing as I slow jog through Toronto on my runs. Three tents one week turns into a dozen the next. Two new encampments appeared between last week and this one. It all reminds me of the climate window. Once again, we are ALIVE NOW at a moment when a problem is going from deeply wicked to unfathomably wicked. I am witness to the normalization of rampant homelessness in my city. If I wondered how people could sidestep homeless people sleeping on every square of sidewalk in Seattle, now is the moment where we are seeing this normalization come to Toronto.

Homelessness is escalating because we are failing to challenge the seismic shifts in income inequality, build affordable housing, and address the social determinants of health and lack of social supports that render people homeless in the first place. COVID is merely an exacerbator and a visualizer. 

The visual metaphors have piled up here in Toronto over the past few years - people dining in vulgar plastic pods while tent cities are raised, people doing yoga in vulgar plastic pods while tent cities spring up all over the city. It’s always been here, but until you see it with your own eyes, it’s hard to believe. I still think of the Toronto that I moved to almost twenty years ago. I forget that the city is now a monstrously expensive place where a coffee and croissant combo costs $8. I feel like an extra in my own city as I run by a class of beautiful women exercising in Trinity Bellwoods Park, a sea of tents behind them. 

I feel like we’re on the edge of a precipitous reckoning. The choices we make, not just on climate, but on everything, will determine the fate of our human experiment. We know so much about how to mitigate the pain and suffering. And yet we’re moving too slowly. 

Listening to one of my favourite humans, Dr. Kwame McKenzie, speak beautifully on Piya Chattopadhyay’s new CBC show, the parallels to our existential climate threats are too obvious to ignore. “Poverty is expensive,” he said. Just as with climate, the cost of solving problems now is much cheaper than it will be in the future. The longer we wait, the more expensive that croissant becomes. Eventually, there won’t be enough money in the world to pay for it, forget about the turmeric latté.

The economic term for all this is discounting. We’re discounting everything, present-biasing our way to a future that will be bleaker for everyone. 

I’m bullish on Toronto. People who threaten to move away or talk shit about it annoy the hell out of me. Leave already, I think, when people complain about Toronto. But I don’t want people to leave. I want them to stay, to help, to make the city better, to keep the spirit alive. Railing against gentrification is like spitting against the wind. Flippers are gonna flip, boring monied types will buy the artsy apartments we used to live in and turn them into single homes, BlogTO will write clickbaity pieces about the closing of Sneaky Dee’s. But charcoal ice cream is also...pretty damn good. And there’s a way for us to make it work. To find the money to make this city liveable for everyone. To be decent. To be kind. To build good quality housing for all the people that need it. To be Toronto the good. But, like, good in the Raptors BLM way, and not the puritanical, self-righteous, boring way.

I can't get the yoga class tent scene out of mind. I appreciate that it’s not adversarial, that people are sharing the park. But also, how did all of this become normal in just a few weeks?

The city’s (Shelter, Support and Housing Administration) report goes to the planning and housing committee on September 22nd. Let the City know you support increased leasing buildings for housing. Let the Mayor know your thoughts. With all the other worries in the world, this issue just doesn’t seem to be finding traction. Let’s change that.

I really like this quote from MP Adam Vaughan:

A homeless person is just a neighbour without a house. When you house them, they turn into neighbours.

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