Friday, October 6, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Two.

As I said in the preceding entry, scientists need to tell visceral, compelling stories if we are to have any chance that the public will notice the Truth that we Reveal. We have yottabytes of information about global warming, but Senator Jim Inhofe can simply say that God told him there is no global warming, and that settles it. (He vaguely refers to the Bible for support, but misquotes it.) We scientists are the Revealers of Truth, at least as much as any group of humans can be. We need to get our story out. This is part of the message I get from Randy Olson’s Houston, We Have a Narrative, which I introduced previously.

But how can we get a compelling, visceral story out of global warming?

The best stories have a single protagonist and often a single antagonist, good vs. evil. It is not as successful if you have a whole population of protagonists or antagonists. Stalin said that the suffering of an individual is a tragedy, while the suffering of a multitude is a statistic. He knew a thing or two about causing such statistics. I remember a church play when I was a teenager in which two girls were chattering away while a boy was agonizing over the suffering of the world. When he said, “My grandmother died,” the girls immediately stopped chattering and came over to comfort him. Then when he said, “Not really, but a million other grandmothers died,” the girls went right back to their chattering.

The protagonist need not be perfectly good or the antagonist perfectly evil, but they need to be there. But with global warming, the protagonists are the thousands of scientists and environmentalists who are trying to lead the world toward an atmospheric carbon balance that will avoid catastrophe. And the antagonists are everybody, including many scientists, who simply consume too much energy, directly or indirectly, by driving vehicles that are bigger than they need to be, using the air conditioning more than we need to, etc. Corporations are also antagonists, but they are responding to our demand. Oil companies could not make money if we decided we don’t want to burn as much oil.

But maybe here we have the kernel of a good story here. Let’s start building a plot. The antagonists are two gray-haired men who just happen, by merest chance, to resemble the Koch Brothers, mega-giants of the oil industry. And in their bored-room, they are depressed, because they have seen all the economic analyses that show that demand for oil is decreasing even while most economic growth and jobs are in wind and solar. Renewable energy is good for the economy, but not for them. Oh, wait, this is getting good. Into the bored-room comes the daughter-in-law of one of the men. She cries as she sees the charts on the smart-boreds. (I can do even better. Got it!) She is holding their little granddaughter. She says, Daddy, you promised me that oil was the key to a golden future for our family, but all around me I see climate disasters, and I just know that my daughter, your grand-daughter, is going to grow up in a cataclysmic world of climate disruption. Oh, Daddy, how could you do this to me? To her? Then, of course, you need the morally-conflicted son who finally decides to leave his high-paying oil job and join Earth First! and sabotage bulldozers. And then...

You get the point. You can see why this kind of fiction might never get published and would never become a movie, since there is so much money and political power (are there any politicians who are not wholly dependent on industry money?) against it. Now, meanwhile, there is a protagonist. A climate scientist who just happens to look like Michael Mann is driving out in the countryside at night, headed into New York City where he is going to fly, at the last minute, to France, where he will be warmly embraced by President Emmanuel Macron, who has invited American climate scientists to move to France (this part is real). He has just said goodbye to his father, who happens to look like James Hanson. But, in a scene that I am shamelessly stealing from the movie Silkwood, somebody forces his car over to the side of the road...

At the last minute, it is the son of the oil magnate who rescues the climate scientist...

This would be a dangerous narrative to promote. Corporations would not like it one bit, and when they don’t like something, watch out. We are, therefore, left with the complex, less visceral narrative, not just because of oil industry money, but because the oil giants are not the only antagonists.

The climate denialists could come up with something similar. A novelist and screenwriter could come up with an evil, secret organization of environmentalists who want to kill the one, heroic climate scientist who knows the truth that global warming is a hoax. The evil environmentalists drive around in blue Priuses looking for their victims. The Antarctic ice isn’t really melting; it is the evil, evil scientists who cause the glaciers to fall apart by blowing them up with bombs. And the evil, evil scientists also issue false weather reports so that families with smiling, playing kids will have picnics in river valleys all unaware that a gigantic rain event is going to flood them to their deaths, over which the scientists will drool in glee. Of course, this kind of book is so stupid that it couldn’t get published.

Wait. The above paragraph is pretty much a summary of Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear. Millions have read it and think it is pretty much a true picture, with the names changed to protect the guilty. But while oil corporations could sue the ass off of anyone who would write the first novel idea I proposed above, even with the names changed, who has ever sued Michael Crichton for his novel? At least, a Google search turned up nothing. And he’s dead now.

The narrative that the oil companies are spreading is:

  • The oil companies aren’t in it for the money. Oil executives make thousands of times more money than any climate scientist, but this does not, of course, color their perception. They are totally free of the love of money.
  • The oil companies want to make the future more secure for you, your children, and your grandchildren. They could not possibly be sacrificing your future for short-term gain.
  • The oil companies are the only ones who can save us.

With this kind of narrative, you can see why scientists like Michael Mann get death threats. People who buy into the oil company narrative see climate scientists as, practically, killers.

You can see the problem. Climate science explains things, while denialists simply accuse everyone else of being evil. The denialists have the thriller-story.

This is the same problem that almost any scientific topic has. Take diabetes. (You can have it. I have it, not too badly yet.) How can you tell a story that has a single protagonist and single antagonist? You cannot start a story with someone suffering multiple amputations or something; that would be too depressing. It would be better to start with someone who has just experienced his first, and frightening, diabetes-related event. He’s driving along in the country, and he happens to look like me, and drive a car like mine (a bright green Prius), and he suddenly starts going blind and has to pull over and park. It isn’t really blindness; it is an ocular migraine, in which a small gray circle like a solar afterglow spreads across the whole field of vision, breaking the visual information apart into twinkles and scrambling it. In fifteen minutes it is all over, the man’s vision has returned, but he realizes he should have taken the earlier warning signs more seriously. This is scary without being depressing.

But the antagonist? What would it be, a pancreas? Or would it be...ah, I’ve got it. The antagonist could be a pharmaceutical corporation that wants to charge one hundred billion zimbabwean dollars per pill for something you have to take twice a day. The protagonist is a botanist who studies a rare species of tree that has a phytochemical that can control diabetes, but the pharmaceutical companies know about it and are hunting him down to get him from threatening their multibillion dollar glucophage and insulin industry. Now, I wonder where that idea came from? Actually, I discovered a plant extract that kills bacteria, and a small pharmaceutical company was investigating it, but a big company bought them out and stopped the research. I imagine that it was because the chemical in my extract remains active even at high temperatures and after sitting on a desk and drying out for months, and would thus be very cheap to transport onto the battlefield and into the jungles... But, of course, I do not know any of this.

My point is that the only way to make major scientific topics such as global warming or diabetes into gripping narratives would be to do things like this to them. Or maybe some very creative person could come up with a middle road between boring and overdramatized that would work. We’re still waiting for that to happen, and it can’t happen soon enough.

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