Love Love Love Love Love and Happy Friday!

Or, what 'I love lamp' has to do with climate communications

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.

I really liked this piece by Canadian climate superforce Cat Abreu about working on climate as an act of love, because I’ve long hated fighting climate change as a way of defining the discourse. I used to think it was because I’m conflict averse and wimpy as they come, but I think the truth runs deeper than my spinelessness - fighting feels like false framing. We come bearing flowers and dreams of a better life. (Lights incense, coughs, extinguishes incense.)

Writes Cat:

The truth is that working on climate change is not a fight: it is an act of love. Those of us who dedicate our lives to this effort, in whatever setting we choose to work (there are climate activists in governments and businesses everywhere), do it because we love our families, our children, the lake we swam in as teenagers, the communities we have seen suffer as weather gets more extreme and sea levels rise. We do it because we see the injustice and inequity and colonial ideology that both drives and is exacerbated by climate change, and we have to believe in a world liberated from these institutions of violence.

People see just about anything oppositional as a fight. But battling the status quo doesn’t mean you are fighting against something (fossil fuel jobs, pipelines, bechamel sauce) so much as fighting FOR something. And if you’re fighting FOR something it’s because you love it, believe in it, care about it. In which case, you don’t need the language of battle at all. You are advocating, championing, building, supporting, cheering, encouraging, spelunking, twerking, positively vibrating with love.

We often default to war metaphor when talking about the climate crisis, both because our challenge is epically daunting, and because war is one of the few arenas in which humanity has mobilized at the scale and timeline needed to address imminent threat. You’d have thought pandemics would be a close second, but...not so much. Regardless, it’s easy to see why climate communication defaults to battle lines and battle cries - humans are wired to appreciate drama and story, winners and losers, big challenges to overcome, and the obstacles that must be defeated to win the golden chalice. Or, you know, ensure a habitable planet for our progeny.

But it’s not that helpful, is it?

A long time ago I wrote about my environmental psychology prof Dan Dolderman’s framing of the climate crisis as ‘everything you love.’ I still love that language best. It’s not about fighting frackers, or conquering corporations. It’s about loving this giant mass of rock and rubble, and all the weird creatures who live and grow upon it. 

Of course, the warrior label is often slapped unbidden onto climate activists, who are accused of agitating, destroying, fighting against the status quo. But the framing of ‘I’m doing this because I love the world’ needs to be our armour against these arrows.  

How do you do this practically? By saying as much. By recognizing that those who’d label someone who wants clean water or green energy or foundational equality a fighter is someone who is threatened by what the shift to those things will mean for them. Even as they poke, we have to stay calm, and love. And strategize the hell out of the best way to reduce their threat response. And bring them over to the whole planetary salvation side of things in the language that will best resonate for them. Really fast. Easy, right?

A small note - this doesn’t mean giving in to defeat, or walking away from opportunities to push for change. It also doesn’t mean we can’t use the language of goals and challenges to inspire action. It’s just that instead of fighting to win we want to play to win. Peace.

THIS WEEK

How do you talk about what you’re pushing for? Are you fighting for climate? Advocating? Acting? Interpretive dancing? LMK PLS!

LAST WEEK

On normalizing climate talk in pop culture, Sally puts it perfectly: 

Yes, it bothers me! And that’s too mild a term for the jarring dissonance I feel when this so-important topic is just…not there. I think that cultural products have a lot of influence in people’s ideas of reality, and this absence of the existential adds to the social mindset of climate disruption as ‘not there,’ since nobody seems to be acknowledging it except the weirdos. It’s so difficult to raise it, and talk about what to do about it, when the crowd confirmation says there’s no fire burning -- even though wisps of smoke are starting to waft through even our privileged air.

PEOPLE DANCING

Good gosh, Gregory Hines and Steve Martin tap dancing in white suits is the triple time step I needed right now. -

 My editor has been communing with nature this week. Pls forgeeve all my typoes. Hope you are happy and healthy and full of big love,

Sarah

Talk Climate to Me, Andy Samberg

Or, Sarah discovers television

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.

I am that person who still hasn’t watched The Wire. Ever since I had kids and began reading about feedback loops, there just hasn’t been time for TV. When I do find a moment, I’m always a beat behind the zeitgeist. Unsurprisingly, no one wants to talk to me about Fleabag a year after they’ve bagged the show. So, finding myself with a bit of staycation time this week, I decided to push newer stuff to the top of my to-watch list. I’d be au courant, if only for one week of my AV life.

I loved The King of Staten Island, mostly enjoyed Palm Springs, and am savouring my way through Normal People. And yet I was hit with the same feeling I have when I watch anything now - where is climate

I know people don’t generally speak to the issues of the day mid-movie. I don’t expect characters to break the wall and turn to the camera, a la Frank Underwood, to talk to me about BLM or income inequality or climate or Kanye. But there’s something about a piece of contemporary art that doesn’t acknowledge the existential, in even the most abstractly metaphorical of ways. Yes, books and films are written and shot well ahead of time, but not that well ahead. This stuff is in the air (literally). I just want Andy Samberg to make an aside about how he’s lucky to be caught in an infinite loop because...climate change. Is that too much to ask?

Of course, this is one of my thought grooves, something I come back to the way other people muse on whether they’d be embarrassed if they were found dead in their current state (eating a bag of cheezies, wearing a regrettable muumuu, watching Nailed it). Instead, I wonder what people will think when they comb our cultural artifacts. They were living through the 6th extinction and all they did was tweet jokes about Goya beans

But if this is a rote thought path for me, The King of Staten Island sparked a slightly novel detour (thank you, Pete Davidson!). It’s a twist on the Finite Pool of Worry, or the idea that there are only so many pressing problems we can focus on at a time. What if the issue is not that we’re overloaded with mammoth, existential woes aplenty, but simply that mere living these days (with more work, more responsibility, and less social support) precludes us from thinking very much beyond ourselves? Just getting through the day, even with a loving family and good friends, often takes up all our bandwidth. Which explains why Pete’s character smokes a lot of pot and listens to Kid Cudi. Despite non-life threatening emergencies, it takes all his energy just to get by. Of course the warming of the planet doesn’t figure into that mindscape. It’s a more human take than ‘people just don’t care.’ Pete’s just got everyday crap to deal with, like what to do with his life.

WHICH BRINGS ME TO WHAT I AM REALLY TRYING TO SAY

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cognitive burden of climate, and how upstream policy change would lessen it. Despite literally having all the time in the world (Palm Springs is basically Groundhog Day set in the desert), Andy Samberg doesn’t have time to think about climate. And, in some ways, neither do I. When I buy groceries, I don’t want to perform mental calculus at each decision point - trying, with limited knowledge, to guess which option is least harmful to the planet.

I’ve recently been revisiting Sheena Iyengar’s famous jam study and Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice in search of clarity on choice overload, and while there’s not much research on environmental decision fatigue, it’s easy to see that layering in another variable (carbon footprint) only makes life EVEN MORE IMPOSSIBLY COMPLICATED. I want policy to figure out the best way to solve that problem, so I can live my life like Pete Davidson. Minus the ill-advised tattoos.

The less government policy does, the more we, as citizens have to do on our own. With climate change, the burden of action has fallen, unevenly, to individuals. This, when simple mechanisms like a price on carbon, better public transit, and the incentivization of deep home retrofits and EV purchases would dramatically reduce consumer burden, and mental fatigue. 

A term I dance back to over and over again is human flourishing. It’s when we’re being our truest selves, flowing. But it’s hard to get to human flourishing when you have to slalom through systemic oppression, deep inequality, and the myriad impossible life and consumer choices that have been offloaded to the individual. No wonder we’re all exhausted. 

THIS WEEK

Do you think about the presence of climate or lack thereof in the culture you consume or the convos you overhear? LMK!

LAST WEEK

Writes Saara: “I liked the newsletter! I even liked you being angry for BP, that was for a good reason. But I sort of disagree that the concept of carbon footprint was bad and only guilt tripping. I think it has now grown bigger than that.” 

Saara is totally right. I didn’t mean to say that caring about carbon footprints aren’t important. It’s bigger than spin, and I still believe that the little ladders up to the big. And also that we feel good when we do right. So there are numerous reasons to turn down the thermostat.

Also, helpful thoughts and good context from Laura:
”Thanks for this eye opener. The Mashable article is a good reminder of how insidiously and ubiquitously the fossil fuel industry distorts useful concepts. However, it's a bit misleading. BP may have originated the "carbon footprint" propaganda, but they can hardly be said to have invented the concept. It goes back to the "ecological footprint," which was conceived much more broadly than as a tool for individuals. As I recall from my first encounter with it in the 1990s, the inventors described it mainly in terms of cities, showing that a city's impacts are much larger than the land on which it sits or even the downwind/downstream areas it pollutes. Mathis Wackernagel and the Global Footprint Network still emphasize nations and communities in their ongoing work to foster this kind of systems thinking.”

PEOPLE DANCING

Solid moves:

GOOD STUFF

Vox overview of Biden’s climate plan. Worth a listen!

Hannah on living with less!

Hack bias with veggies. (Carrots FTW!)

My partner in life and letters suggests hitting the HEART at the top of this post is algorithmically important, so if you like this newsletter, please do so!

Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world,
Sarah

They'll steal your shoes and blame you for your footprints

Or, blame-shifting

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.

I’ve long fretted about the personal change/system change debate, worried that the weight was unevenly born by individuals even though I strongly believe the former is a necessary catalyst for the latter. But maybe I’m J.K. Rowling-level wrong. Maybe we can skip the skipping straws and go straight to table-flipping the system. At least, that’s how I feel this week, after learning that yet another term I use quite frequently is actually BP propaganda, designed to push responsibility for the burning of the planet onto consumers, onto the already overweighted side of personal responsibility. That phrase: carbon footprint.

I’ve long known that oil was behind messaging to shift carbon emissions from their effing problem to our collective challenge, but the fact that BP literally designed the metric by which we measure our personal emissions is deepwater insidious. “It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet,” they said. All that extremely important work done by well-meaning organizations to make people consider the emissions in their daily lives is somehow covered in the slick of nefarious spin. Yes, there are other words that big polluters and their PR trolls have forced into the vernacular, but this one feels, well, personal. It’s literally my carbon footprint. How dare a shill have made it up and stuck it inside my brain?

Perhaps the bigger issue is that the phrase has burrowed deep in our soles. It’s so successful. We’re all constantly and unscientifically toting up our emissions — the thermostat too high, the flights too copious. Somehow we all feel that the crisis is our fault. We feel hot shame and deep guilt when, in full knowledge of the crisis but without much power to stop it, we partake of indulgences like travel, or overconsumption. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t reduce our own emissions and eschew waste (of course we should!). It’s just that this is the father of all guilt trips, actively foisted on us by an industry that has the power to do so much more than we, as individuals, can. 

In a sense, the deck was ever stacked. Original sin. We have been told we are weak and imperfect creatures time and time again. Of course we burn fuel as we fall prey to our desires. Yes, I bought some yellow clogs I did not need.

We’re in this together is the collective Big Oil ethos, now permeated across media and minds. Except we’re not. Fracking firms fail us, and their CEOs get huge payouts. Their calumny is so great that they’ve punted the responsibility onto us and we’ve barely noticed that sly shirking. And now, as the tides turn in every way, from polls that speak to overwhelming public desire for green recovery to studies that show green fiscal stimulus is the most viable way out of this mess, the bailouts continue, largely unchecked. 

What’s an average, carbon-farting human to do? Light that burning pile of foisted responsibility and toss it back over the fence. If I sound irate, it’s because I am. Just kidding, I meditate now. 

THIS WEEK

Have you internalized responsibility for it all? What spin have you absorbed, and what do you do to push back against it? Please, tell me about it!

PEOPLE DANCING


Hope you are safe and healthy. Have a wonderful week,
Sarah

PS If you like this email it, share it if you are so inclined. Or heart it. And if you hate it, tell me how to better it. Thank you thank you!

A weird little storm in comic form

The principles of uncertainty

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.

THIS WEEK

Are you finding it hard to make decisions? Are your thoughts clear or muddy? Are your decisions strong or nonexistent? As always, lmk! I hope you are happy and healthy and weathering the current volatilities with gusto and resolve and strength and passion.

PEOPLE DANCING

They are just the best!

PS. Does this newsletter go to your promotions folder? If yes, can you let me know!
Have a lovely week,
Sarah

Bold moves can't lose

or, The Valley of Political Death

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 survive this valley of political death...then support starts going up again.
- Jonas Eliasson, Transportation Director, Stockholm

I learned about the Valley of Political Death from the environmental economist Robert Frank, who wrote about Jonas Eliasson’s efforts to get Stockholm to adopt congestion pricing in his latest book. The idea is that if a politician or government can NOT DIE in the early days of a hotly contested policy change, they might find passionate support for that change when they come out on the other side. The concept applies to so many partisan political issues, from climate change to defunding the police to pineapple on pizza. 

Writes Frank, “when policy makers have succeeded in implementing Pigouvian taxes, the community has generally been quick to recognize their efficacy.” In other words, people complain vociferously for a week, then realize things are fine -- and hey, maybe even better -- and go back to their breakfast sandwiches. If you can make it through the complainy part, you’re all good.

The news has been depressing of late here in Toronto. Despite widespread mobilization and public support, our city council failed to support an amendment to cut the police budget by 10% and divert the money to much-needed community services and health supports, and specifically to professionals better equipped to tackle some of the work that police are often ill-advisedly sent to deal with. I know I’m in a bubble, but I’d thought the vote would have been closer. For many of the conservative-leaning politicians, the support for the status quo was unsurprising. For the mushy middle who should have voted courageously, it seemed like preemptive fear of electoral blowback.

If we can dispel this fear of the valley and highlight the salvation on the other side, politicians might be inspired to act more bravely. In the case of defunding, the numbers are on our side. A large majority of Americans and Canadians support moving funds away from police and towards community services. Fear of the valley is not only cowardly, but often irrational. Since losses loom larger than gains, the pitfalls of political misstep appear bigger. The safest course seems to be stasis (see: status quo bias, do no harm principle).

If we can push our politicians to think about the future, maybe we can also push them to braver action (or, failing that, elect braver politicians).  

Robert Frank writes about the Valley of Political Death in terms of consumption taxes, which politicians insist their electorates hate. Our elected officials therefore avoid taking the plunge, despite ever-increasing evidence and polling that the public can indeed get behind taxing pollution. 

Meanwhile, those who attempt to long jump over the great, gaping chasm of political vulnerability often find that it’s not so bad. It’s like when you take forever to jump into some cold lake water, only to realize the shock is temporary, and you’re blissfully used to it in an instant. 

Increasingly, valley-averse politicians are also just misreading the room. Most Canadians get that taxing pollution is the fairest, easiest, and quickest play when it comes to tackling the climate emergency. Even in the United States, the latest polling indicates majority support for taxing pollution. 

As polling and support grow for a once-contentious issue, the valley shrinks to the size of a pothole. You have to be very, very small to fall into a pothole -- so what does that say about the politicians who desperately fear them?

THIS WEEK 

How can you solve for political courage? Write/email/call your elected officials and remind them that now is the moment to be brave and lmk about it! I like how Joseph Stiglitz puts it: The public has a right to demand that companies receiving help contribute to social and racial justice, improved health and the shift to a greener, more knowledge-based economy. These values should be reflected not only in how we allocate public money, but also in the conditions that we impose on its recipients. 

Also, if you’re looking for something fun to do on the daily, join my Buy Nothing Challenge! More info here.

LAST WEEK

Writes Vicki: Not sure what planet you live on, but comparing a 4000 sq ft house as large to a 2000 sq ft house as small puts you in a rather elevated ivory tower reality. I raised a fairly lower middle class/working class family in a CA house of 960 sq ft and gave it up after kids were out as being way more space than I needed. And that doesn't even touch on the majority of the world living in houses of far less space.

Vicki’s comment stuck with me, because she made me realize I’d been caught up in thinking about the average new build these days (2400 sq feet in the US!). In point of fact, both sizes in my equation are rather huge, regardless of how much home sizes have swelled over the past quarter century. My argument is stronger when I use 1,000 and 3,000. And of course, 1,000 is plenty of space to raise a family. If only we could get Toronto to build family-sized apartments. Thanks, Vicki!

PEOPLE DANCING:

Still a most solid jam!

Hope you are happy and healthy,
Sarah

SOURCES + READING

Congestion Pricing and the Valley of Political Death
Read Under the Influence by the great Robert Frank (listen here!)
Yale Climate Comms polling
Carbon pricing is coming to a large, complicated country near you

LISTENING

A better playlist for this 4th of July, curated by the ever-awesome David Byrne: Contemporary Gospel

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