Everything I need to know about climate communications I learned from spending the blackout of 2003 with a human robot
Or, pause before you cause
Twentyish years ago, in the heat of summer, I found myself wandering New York City in search of a place to live for grad school. I met Carrie Bradshaw wannabees with Manolo shoeboxes to share, Australians bunking eight to a loft over a bar that may or may not have been called Wallabees, and two Vanderbilt frat boys who almost convinced me it would be a good idea to live in a windowless, triangular room in their West Village apartment. So I was most desperate when my cousin Yaron stepped in to save me. “You can live with my old friend, Adi. He has a huge place in the East Village. Just don’t speak to him or go in the common spaces when he’s there. This won’t be a problem because he’s never there. B’seder?”
True to Yaron’s words, Adi was never there. He rollerbladed to his dotcom in the fashion district at 5 a.m. and didn’t return til after midnight, if at all (it worked out for him in the end, as he now owns a billion-dollar tech company.) I had the run of the 4,000-square-foot former speakeasy almost to myself, except for Adi’s secret-gardenesque bedroom, a two-story affair that had ivy growing over its interior walls. The only strange thing was that random houseguests would often appear without notice to inhabit Adi’s guest room for weeks at a time. These were usually characters of great intrigue. And it was in this way that I came to spend the blackout of 2003 wandering the Lower East Side with Dr. Rich, inventor of the first artificial language processing bot, A.L.I.C.E.
Dr. Rich was a brilliant but emotionally illiterate guy who saw the world in 0s and 1s and needed a way to respond to humans and their messy, at times incomprehensible, communications. And so he’d become a devout fan of the enneagram, a system of classifying people into nine personality types. Through a series of rapid questions, Dr. Rich would quickly determine a person’s enneagram (I believe I was a four - individualist/artist, and given to temperamentalism, wtf!), and use it as a blueprint for engaging with them. In a sense, he was the OG message marketer — a human computer who just happened to have the ability to hold a Cambridge Analytica quantity of data slices in his brain and use them to his advantage in his daily life.
While not everyone is capable of personality processing on the fly, it’s interesting to see how Dr. Rich’s way of interacting with the world can be simplified to some basic heuristics, especially where climate is concerned. For so long, we pummeled all people with the same generic and ineffective planetary hammer, a fearguiltshamedeprivation mallet. In recent years, we’ve become modestly more strategic, but we still have soooo far to go. Hello you’re a bad person and straws and turn off the lights because the planet needs us aaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!!!!
Don’t be verbose. Diagnose
Rather like the enneagram, behaviorally-informed work like moral foundations theory is starting to point us towards tailored messaging and frames that will make climate messaging land better. If you can assess where a person is coming from with the lightning proficiency of a Dr. Rich, you can reframe your pitch accordingly. This means not approaching a conservative with a collectivist-framed climate message, but instead opting for a safety and tradition lens. And vice versa.
Behaviorally, this is about framing for where people are at, mirroring emotional levels, and reducing cognitive burden wherever we can. We wouldn’t join a rollicking conversation at a party to drone and intone, Ben Stein-style (unless we are me, circa 2003). And we wouldn’t lobby a group of methodical bean counters with an interpretive dance (unless our initial diagnosis led us to believe this would be the right framing for them.)
We do this intuitively in so much of the rest of our lives - talk to mom softly when she is annoyed, talk to Garth slowly when he is confused. But climate activates our emotions, which often preclude us from pausing before lobbying. Our System 1 response overwhelms all else, and we run at efforts to persuade with the tools that are most available to us, when stopping and taking a beat is the best way in.
Stop, Look, Listen
Of course, this is easier said than done when you just want to scream your profundities at the nearest idiot. But, not an option. The best way to think about this is to examine what happens when we do the opposite – running, sans strategy, into that climate chat with our Trump-loving second cousin twice removed. We say the wrong thing, and the backlash induced does long-lasting damage. Better to pause and plan, crafting the messaging most likely to resonate with our intended audience.
Much has been written about how to talk to people across party lines, and everyone would do well to read everyeveryeverything Katharine Hayhoe has ever written, tweeted or rapped on the subject. But a broader lens is to deep breath it before we talk to anyone. It’s not just Trump Uncle who doesn’t respond well to tirades in the key of F minor. Which is why we need the pause before we pounce with…all.
The cynical thought here is that it’s craven to become the human version of an algorithmically-optimized ad campaign. But we are working toward the larger goals of getting people to do the things that matter. And also, towards the larger goals of the things that are fun. (Yes, I will make you stand on my deck and sing with a live band even if you have not done so before. And you will be (mostly) glad for it.)
At my old job I had a communications glossary of terms that grew to 40 pages, replete with the precise words to use for every flavour of political persuasion and worldview. Rather like Dr. Rich, I programmed myself to use the right words with the right people. I mean, why would I say ‘climate emergency’ to a conservative, and have them turn themselves off to every word I’d say thereafter? Not a good use of my lung power, time, or tap dancing. Which is not tenable, because there’s no time for do overs. We’ve got to get it right the first time.
Thanks to Dr. Rich’s continuing work, robots are much better at talking to people. Maybe too good. But people are about the same at talking to each other.
This planet: Pause for effect.
How do you calibrate what to say? And how has it gone? Let me know!
Last planet: Humidity and thee!
Thank you! For all your gorgeous responses. From an old friend, Paolo:
Oh my gosh, so much yes to this! Summer, humidity (provided it's not 100%), warm breezes - I love them all! I cannot stand air conditioning, and usually only turn it on during the most sweltering of days. Even then, I might not turn it on during the day, and only run it at night so that I don't sweat through the mattress while I sleep. :)
I think it's my Italian background. Italians generally hate AC and REALLY hate drafts, which are known as "colpo d'aria." There's a saying in Italy about not letting the breeze catch you! I even wear a scarf (in my own home!) every day from November 1 until spring.
From lovely Stacey:
While I’ve lived in Toronto for 30 years (how did *that* happen?), I grew up just outside of Windsor, home to very volatile summer weather and close to Canada’s thunderstorm capital.
Watching thunderstorms were a summer tradition for my dad and I, sitting on the covered porch on lawn chairs. My youngest brother was born directly following a pretty bad tornado in 1980 (that one we watched from the basement!)
While we’ve had a sliver of swampy weather this summer, the thing that has stood out most of all is the dryness.
We have two pollinator gardens and raised beds for veggies and I always cross my fingers that I won’t have to water. No such luck this year.
We’ve had so little rain here in Toronto for the past few months (far lower than historical averages), yet Essex County (full of agricultural land) has it even worse.
My mom jokes they can count their rain not in inches or millimetres, but in drops.
We Canadians are greedy for clear, sunny, warm summer days but it makes me sad that we don’t worry about the erratic rainfall.
Contrast Southern Ontario with Kentucky and St. Louis. Will drought be a longer term trend here? Will we end up with little rain except for the occasional torrential downpour, most of which won’t be able to be absorbed by the very dry ground?
Even with the Essex County background, I really don’t like unrelenting humidity or unrelenting air conditioning. I just like a sunny, breezy 23C or maybe a day-long drizzle: the former is better for hair but the latter for the garden. I wilt when it gets to 30C and shudder to think of what’s coming for us all.
A little less stuff than usual, as I’m on vacation this week at my favourite place. Here’s a newsletter I wrote about the beautiful insanity that is BALKAN CAMP a few years ago. I hope you are finding some time to relax as well. While my version of relaxing involves staying up dancing til 2 and still getting up at 6 (Joel, if you are reading this, I! DID! CHILL!), I’ve still found time to see things anew, and learn fresh language to express how we live in the world. Said my friend Layne, a resourceful artist, musician, everything savant who manages to live on very little, “We make do. We’re airatarians.” Be an airatarian this week?
No people dancing, instead I’ll leave you with my fave meditation, the tuba bath. Long-time readers may remember previous tuba baths I have known. This is an old one, as I haven’t had time to upload yesterday’s, but reader, I will.
I hope you are happy and healthy. Have a lovely weekend!