Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cecil, Job, and Climate Change

Ugo Bardi has an interesting article about climate change communication over at Resilience.org

In it, he reflects on what it takes for a "meme", a conceptual unit, to "go viral" - to replicate itself exponentially in a "conceptual space" like Facebook.

Bardi identifies three characteristics of a "supermeme": a simple narrative, a clear villain, and a reassuring message.

For instance, the story of Cecil the Lion meets all these criteria: simple tale (man kills lion),clear villain (evil hunter), reassuring message (our moral outrage proves that we are good). 

Bardi continues
From these considerations, we can probably understand why it is so difficult to create effective climate memes that carry the right message: climate science is not simple, the villain is us, and the story is disquieting, rather than reassuring.
In essence, we like to share ideas which feed our natural tendency to binge on self-righteousness. (Being on the receiving end of these ideas, on the other hand, may not be so pleasurable.  Anxiety leads the recipient to try also to establish their self-righteousness by passing the meme on again - hence its exponential power.  If I understand correctly, this is one of the basic ideas of Rene Girard's mimetic theory.)  But climate change, fully understood, does not feed that tendency.  We are not motivated to share a meme which will so easily give rise to a tu quoque response.

Where can we find hope that difficult, uncomfortable, self-implicating memes like climate change can be shared and heard?  One place we might look is in the Hebrew scriptures.

The  book of Job tells the story of a virtuous man who is stricken by a series of bizarre calamities.  His riches, his social standing, his family, and his health collapse, and he plunges from a position of wealth, honor and respect to the lowest of the low, scratching his sores as he hangs out at the city dump.  The question which propels the book is: why has this come about?

One narrative arc of the Old Testament - what scholars call the "Deuteronomistic" theology - has a simple, powerful meme in answer to this question.  The simple narrative of unexpected catastrophe has a clear villain: Job himself.  He is - he  must be - being punished by God because of his sin.  And note - while this may not be reassuring news for Job himself, for the reader (who is not Job) it is indeed reassuring.  Even in Job's terminal decline, I the reader see an affirmation of the moral order of the universe.

The book of Job is a forty-two chapter long shout of protest against the Deuteronomistic meme.  Job does not accept its simple narrative.  He cries.  He protests.  He demands an audience with God.  (And the spokespeople for the meme, with the exasperating patience of the morally superior, explain again and again why this is not appropriate.)

In the end Job gets what he wants.    Job is vindicated.    God speaks.   To the 'righteous', God says
You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has (Job 42:8)
What I find encouraging here - beyond detailed exegesis - is just the fact that, thousands of years ago, this ancient culture valued a story which deliberately flouts Bardi's criteria for a "supermeme" highly enough to enshrine it in their scriptures; in the writings which, on a long cultural view, may be the biggest meme of all time.

Could the same happen to the narrative of climate change?

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