The Planetary Penumbra

Or, let your sphere hear you!

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.

Hello! Penumbra is a neat word, isn’t it? It sounds like Harry Potter spellery, a tiny incantation that Hermione would utter to make writing implements appear. Pen...umbra! Beyond its original, shadowy definition, the academics Andrew Gelman and Yotam Margalit propose a fresh meaning for this excellent word:

The political influence of a group is typically explained in terms of its size, geographic concentration, or the wealth and power of the group’s members. This article introduces another dimension, the penumbra, defined as the set of individuals in the population who are personally familiar with someone in that group. Distinct from the concept of an individual’s social network, penumbra refers to the circle of close contacts and acquaintances of a given social group. 

In other words, while an interest group may represent a small share of a population, the number of people who know someone in that group varies greatly.  They explain

To get a sense of this, consider three groups from our survey: the penumbra of gay people, the penumbra of Muslims, and the penumbra of women who have had an abortion in the past five years. These three groups are roughly the same size (3.6 percent, 2.4 percent, and 2.0 percent of the U.S. adult population, respectively) but differ widely in the size of their respective penumbras: according to our survey, 74 percent of American adults know at least one gay person, 30 percent know a Muslim, and only 10 percent say they know a woman who has had an abortion the past five years. 

What does this mean for climate? Well, I suspect the climate concerned penumbra would be more akin to the women who have had abortions penumbra than the gay penumbra. Why? We! just! don’t! talk! about! climate! Or at least not the way we vocally and visually display our reverence for Celine Dion or Ramadan.

I’ve written ad nauseum about the Dinner Party Planet Pooper (D triple P!). At a certain point, this individual (me! perhaps you?), gaining little purchase and lots of averted eyes, stops talking about climate in their wider circle and instead confines their climate convos to the realm of hospitable ears. They take action quietly (writing letters, donating to environmental causes) because the feedback they’ve gotten from the wider world is: stop talking about it, you are harshing my mellow. These climate concerned folks walk about the world with little more than a tiny button on their backpack to betray them. And the climate penumbra is the weaker for it.

This theory is new and the authors admit there’s much more to explore, namely what mere knowledge of a group does to attitudes:

It is also possible that the largest effect of entering a penumbra is to increase the salience of certain issues rather than to directly change attitudes. In this case, groups’ resonance in society may increase when its penumbra grows, without public opinion shifting in favor of group-related policies.

Fine! But I’ll take salience over unsalience any day! And this seems a clever way of going a step beyond “talk climate.” It’s more like, embody climate, identify as climate. Let it be a defining characteristic so that people in your sphere can recognize that these people exist among them. We know that familiarity breeds affinity, or at the very least dulls fear. Keeping our climate concern under wraps undermines the social efficacy we can have just by gently sharing who we are with our community. It makes me want to paint myself blue and green and shout climate from the rooftops. Or at the very least, wear a larger button.

This week:

Do people in your social sphere know of your climate concern, or is it something you keep on the DL? Tell me, pls!

Last week:

Read the useful news not the terrifying news. Adjacent to that, savour good news! I’m loving this newsletter by climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas. She writes, of last week’s ground-shifting happenings :

Celebrate the wins! But here I wanted to focus on celebrating the far-too-rare, fleeting, but still magical feeling of actually WINNING a climate victory that a small group has worked at for years, against seemingly impossible odds. 

It’s so easy to quickly assimilate wins and dwell on losses or criticisms. Let’s...not!

People dancing:

Thank you for reading! If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

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Have a beautiful weekend,