Gutpunch postmortem

I’ll never underestimate the power of internet cat videos again.

About a week ago I wrote this post, which laid out a timeline for climate change and ultimately the collapse of human civilization. The piece really seemed to resonate with people…in addition to all of the publicly posted comments, I received many private messages containing strong reactions of all kinds. I got supportive emails that pointed me toward additional scientific analysis, and I got emails from people gripped with fear, pleading with me to tell them what to do or where to send their money. I even got a few emails calling me things like nutjob, alarmist, and Chicken Little (most of these came from fake email addresses, which is too bad because I took time to write up thoughtful replies). When the furor finally died down after several days, the post had garnered more traffic and likes than everything else on this site put together.

My theory is that this post got people talking because it went beyond cold scientific projections and spoke to personal meaning. It’s all fine and good to tell people the world is going to be such-and-such degrees hotter by such-and-such date. It’s a very different thing to tell them that their children will not survive to middle age and that all of humanity’s accomplishments will be erased. It makes sense that people have stronger reactions when consequences are spelled out, because if we take a moment to be honest with ourselves, we know that people don’t respond to facts, they respond to their guts.

(click to watch)

Lest you think I’m scolding people for bad behavior, know that I absolutely count myself among those who respond more to guts than facts. For years I knew that climate change was bad, but didn’t really understand the big picture until this TED Talk by Paul Gilding punched me square in the feelings.

After all, facts about climate change abound…the science has been mainstream for decades, and its effects are now all around us in the natural world. Living in the United States you cannot escape this information; we’re exposed to it every time we open a newspaper, turn on the television, or listen to a political speech. And yet in a world inundated with these facts, we are still unable to be honest with ourselves about the seriousness of the problem, much less move forward to craft serious responses. The world is full of people right now who understand climate change, have heard all the facts, and yet shrug and go about their lives as if nothing was different. No, if facts alone were going to carry us towards a true understanding of climate change, they would have done so by now.

Meaning, on the other hand, speaks to your guts. It bypasses your brain and tells you a story about what’s happening and why you should care. There’s a reason that Fox News has dominated the cable news landscape for years: every one of their stories is designed to hit you straight in the gut. Their secret sauce is that whatever the facts of the day might be, they take pains to position those facts inside a larger narrative that speaks to raw human emotion. That’s why Fox News viewers know that immigrants are stealing American jobs, they know that the U.S. government wants to take their guns away, and they know that Obama is a tax-and-spend socialist nightmare. These assertions might have no basis in fact, but the narratives are compelling and they confirm previously held biases, so people believe them anyway. If those examples seem too partisan, consider instead our presidential elections where many people care less about a candidate’s policies (FACTS) and more about that “would you want to have a beer with them” feeling (GUTS).

As such, I think that last week’s post is going to be a turning point for me and this site. Of course it will remain important to collect facts and present stories about the ongoing effects of climate change, relevant technological advances, and amazing scientific discoveries of all kinds. But if I want to reach people, if I really want to inspire them to go beyond understanding and act in their own self-defense, I need to make them feel the existential threat we now face. Thus the content on this site needs to be personal and speak to raw human emotion, both for me and for the reader.

Now I don’t mind telling you: this is definitely not somewhere I thought I’d ever end up. If you know me, you know I’m not exactly the most emotional person in day-to-day life. In fact my wife Sarah has accused me on several occasions of having “robot emotions”. What she means is that I don’t hit a lot of emotional highs and lows…I take a pretty calm, measured approach to most things and try not to let emotion cloud my judgement. It might sound a little cold, but it works for me and I like who I am. My eyes might not light up the same way when a puppy walks in to the room, but the flip side means I don’t dwell on disappointments and don’t stress about things I can’t control.

But in light of the reaction to last week’s post, I think it makes sense to tinker with my approach a little bit. And truthfully, if I can’t let emotions color my analysis of the collapse of motherfucking civilization, then I might as well hang it up because there wouldn’t be much of a person living inside this shell. So going forward, I’m going to do my best to short-circuit my robot emotions and speak to the real feelings I have about climate change and the meaning it has for regular people. My hope is that if we talk honestly and explore that meaning together, maybe we can make something happen.