Good work always has a long-term goal.
I’m thinking this week about long-term goals of mine, like acting to confront climate change and the assaults on knowledge by misinformation. Both goals are intertwined and both seem difficult if not impossible to impact. How can my actions advance either of these priorities?
I always have a lot on my To Do List, and my impulse is always to check off one big item and move on to the next one. Climate change and misinformation are big items. But then I remember that one of my jobs this time of year is groundskeeper. In the near acre around my home, I’ve learned the hard way to move away from bold, all-at-once kinds of goals like “give the whole place a haircut” to keeping my intentions smaller and closer to the ground.
Nature has forced me to become more modest when it comes to shaping its whims to my demands given the time, tools and sweat I can commit. I have more confidence than I used to that chipping away a little at a time will bring the landscape towards “what I have in mind” for this unruly plot in the middle of a city. Knowing that victories “only I can see” will eventually add up to the embrace of trees, hedges, plots and vistas in my imagination is what turns my job as groundskeeper into good work.
Groundskeeper lessons dovetail nicely with a couple of quotes from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark about even more daunting challenges and where we find the hope to confront them.
in Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners rescued people—single moms, toddlers, grandfathers—stranded in attics, on roofs, in flooded housing projects, hospitals, and school buildings. None of them said, I can’t rescue everyone, therefore it’s futile, therefore my efforts are flawed and worthless, though that’s often what people say about more abstract issues in which, nevertheless, lives, places, cultures, species, rights are at stake.
Of course, it’s that first rescue that seeds the hope to become a rescuer again: the first act making your next act possible. Solnit gets lyrical here:
You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant of our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we carry into the night that is the future.
“You row forward looking back”—even if only you can find anything worth celebrating in what you’ve done already—because you’ve turned what were once only good intentions into the on-going satisfaction of good work.
Whenever my values and priorities have me seeing the battle ahead as light versus darkness, I’ve had to re-learn the wisdom of Voltaire when he told me that “the best is the enemy of the good” and Aesop when he taught me why the tortoise beats the hare. They’re cold water on a hot parade every single time, but also the most sensible marching orders. Lately, I’ve been pondering how they should guide my “face-offs” with climate change and the ongoing assault on knowledge.
What actions will seed enough hope to fuel my next ones?
How does good work on both of these challenges get off the ground?
1. Confronting Climate Change
Celebrating the beauty and wonder of nature and reminders about the gorgeously nuanced ways that we used to talk about them (like Robert MacFarland does) reinforce those who are already believers in nature. Warnings based on the science or on what prophetic observers carry back to us from the frontlines also speak mostly to believers who were already open enough to hear the call (my recent post about Barry Lopez’s Horizon).
These celebrations and warnings only reach unbelievers when they’ve already made themselves available for persuasion—which is not often enough. Communing with believers can feel like a tent revival when most of those who need converting are still outside the tent. Given my experience as an advocate for clients and for new ventures in business and government, I’ve been looking for ways to persuade more of the unbelievers to come into the tent so they can hear the call too.
The challenge for would-be persuaders is enormous given our values (or “political predispositions,” since they are largely the same on an issue like this) and other priorities that we have as Americans. In a widely-read and research-intensive article called “Climate Change: US Public Opinion,” political scientists Patrick J. Egan at NYU and Megan Mullin at Duke describe Americans’ reactions to climate change as of 2016 from polling and other analyses they conducted:
The public’s level of concern about climate change has not risen meaningfully over the past two decades, and addressing the problem with government action ranks among one of the lowest priorities for Americans….Even liberals and Democrats who accept climate change science and express concerns about global warming’s affects rank the problem well below many other national priorities…In 2016, for example, Pew found Democrats prioritizing climate change lower than several concerns not traditionally associated with their party, including terrorism and crime…[So] the effort to slow global warming is additionally challenged by the fact that the issue has no core constituency with a concentrated interest in climate change.
It feels much the same today.
Features of climate change in particular have put the challenge of confronting it on a low burner. As examples, Egan and Mullin point to:
– our highly-politicized disagreement about whether there is really a problem with man-made climate change at all; as well as
-how a changing climate is difficult if not impossible for the average person to see;
-the difficulty of attributing events (like a particular fire or a storm) to the broader phenomenon; and
-the often-mentioned fact that the worst effects of climate change will happen in the future and be experienced someplace other than America.
Politics aside, the imperceptibility and remoteness of climate change make it difficult for most of the public to make the imaginative leap into actively addressing it.
I discussed one response that these authors recommend here last week. Within the conservative, libertarian and Republican “values” communities, formerly skeptical thought leaders who have become convinced that the threats of climate change must be addressed are perhaps the only ones who can enlist their communities’ support by “making hay” out of the same reasoning that persuaded them.
Egan and Mullin also identify two avenues for someone like me, who is already convinced about the urgency of the problem but is looking for a way to persuade the vast majority who, while not quite skeptical or politically-opposed, fail to see it as a priority that’s important enough to act upon. These avenues exist in places where the effects of climate change are (in all likelihood) being experienced already, or rely upon policy developments in states like California and New York where climate change has already seized a larger share of the public’s imagination.
According to the authors, the more that members of the public “correlate key weather events they have experienced with climate change,” the more important or “salient” the issue becomes to them. For example, those who experienced flooding in Staten Island or along the Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy may not be convinced enough by the correlation to support a comprehensive national climate change policy but they probably want to “adapt” to its likely risks and become more “resilient” in the face of future ones.
If the connection between extreme weather and climate change is strengthened, this may expand the national conversation from mitigation alone to adaptation and resilience. Even under the most optimistic emissions scenarios, infrastructure investments will be needed to reduce the harmful effects of climate change on Americans
Since this article was written, correlations between climate change and practical responses to its likely risks have also been made by Americans who were impacted by the recent wildfires around Paradise California and are regularly inundated by high tides in Miami in the absence of any storm activity. There are clusters of Americans along its vulnerable coastlines and in the more fire-prone West who are correlating climate change with risks that are no longer theoretical.
As people pay the costs of what is probably climate change, the core, underlying problem becomes more of a priority. The “good work” of persuasion is more hopeful when done in places and around events where meeting some of its likely harms have already been bought and paid for. These communities have, in effect, been opened to persuasion by climate-related impacts that seem new to them and out of proportion to what they have experienced before. That means my advocacy to enlist their further commitment to mitigate climate change itself (and not merely react to it) holds out the hope of bearing fruit.
Egan and Mullin also cite research that proves “the very strong correlation between state policy and public opinion” and argue that states like California and New York are already influencing the national policy debate by acting alone. While the authors don’t say, I’d argue that it’s harder for fence-sitters on climate change to continue to remain uncommitted when majorities in other states are investing their tax dollars in targeted policies. Those “watching but not yet acting” are also susceptible to committing more deeply if the advocate they’re listening to avoids the partisan bloodletting while persuading them with arguments that have already succeeded in these vanguard jurisdictions.
Like my groundskeeper or Solnit’s rescuers during Hurricane Katrina, each patient step of persuasive advocacy can build hope in the next step until the core constituency to confront climate change has been assembled and activated by my good work and the good work of many others.
(While I recommend it highly, the Egan-Mullin article is dense with charts and annotations. To make it more accessible, one of its many fans created a comic book version that’s also worth a look.)
2. Speaking Up for What I Know
These days, even what we consider to be “knowledge” (that’s supported by evidence, is worthy of belief, and is accepted as true) isn’t safe in a world of communication that’s dominated by information-sharing platforms like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube.
In the climate change debate for example, conclusions that are based on carefully assembled scientific evidence often seem to be given the same weight and claim of legitimacy as the arguments of climate change deniers. Egan and Mullin illustrate how media channels have regularly allowed deniers to create an equivalence between their ignorance and the fact-based evidence that scientists have been gathering.
As the public was learning about the [climate change] problem in the 1990’s, the mainstream media’s adherence to the journalistic norm of balancing coverage between two sides of a dispute resulted in misrepresentation of climate change science [and] understanding the scientific certainty about [the] human contribution to the problem.
Danah Boyd is a principle researcher at Microsoft. Her recent speech to a group of librarians arises out of the same vulnerability that all “knowledge” faces in the current media landscape. She aims her argument at librarians because “[y]ou all are deeply committed to producing, curating, and enabling access to knowledge. Many of you embraced the internet with glee” because it promised to make what is “not yet knowledgeable” available to more people while reducing overall ignorance. But today she asks them:
-what if the internet and its on-line communities are being subverted by misinformation instead of liberated by knowledge?
-what if this misinformation is being manufactured in order “to purposefully and intentionally seed doubt” and “to fragment society” instead of enabling honest debate and our ability to move on together when the debate is done?
In her speech, Boyd describes how misinformation that is designed to divide is being deployed and what people who are committed to defending knowledge can do about it?
One of the best ways to sow misinformation is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to access than evidence-based material. For example, she cites the gunman who recently massacred Muslims while they were worshipping in Christchurch, New Zealand. He exploited “the information ecosystem” we are all immersed in to ensure that his video recording of his killing spree was widely shared before content moderators could discover it. He filled “the data void” about his mentors and beliefs in a widely-reported counterpoint to those who condemned his actions, as if there were a legitimate debate about it. He “produc[ed] a media spectacle” by using the available channels to disseminate misinformation to millions who were susceptible to his disunifying message.
There are opportunities to provide misinformation whenever there is “a data void” created by the media’s’ (and the public’s) curiosity. Why did he kill Muslims? Why is climate change a hoax? One way to fill the data void is with words that are strategically created to muddle what we know and how we feel about it. Boyd talks about how Frank Luntz accomplished this with words and phrases that were designed to seed doubt around various issues. Luntz is a “public opinion guru” perhaps best known for developing talking points and filling the data void around Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.
In the 1990s, Frank Luntz was the king of doing this with terms like partial-birth abortion, climate change [or the even more muddling, global warming] and death tax. Every week, he coordinated congressional staffers and told them to focus on the term of the week and push it through the news media. All to create a drumbeat.
All to engender emotional dissonance if not quite rational doubt.
According to Boyd, media manipulators also:
create [information] networks that are hard to undo. YouTube has great scientific videos about the value of vaccination, but countless anti-vaxxers have systematically trained YouTube to make sure that people who watch the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s videos also watch videos asking questions about vaccinations or videos of parents who are talking emotionally about what they believe to be the result of vaccination. They comment on both of these videos, they watch them together, they link them together. This is the structural manipulation of media. Journalists often get caught up in telling “both sides,” but the creation of sides is a political project.
So if “the other side” is misinformation, what should defenders of knowledge do? Here’s the straw man that won’t work:
You will not achieve an informed public simply by making sure that high quality content is publicly available and presuming that credibility is enough while you wait for people to come find it.
And here’s invitation from Boyd that I’m accepting:
You have to understand the networked nature of the information war we’re in, actively be there when people are looking, and blanket the information ecosystem with the information people need to make informed decisions.
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Moving from best intentions to good work is the biggest and most important step of all. For me, it involves discovering where and how to take it.
This post was adapted from my May 12, 2019 newsletter. When you subscribe, a new newsletter/post will be delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning.