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.
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.
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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!
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