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SUMI: All planning, interviews and recording for this episode have taken place on Ngunnawal Country.
This is The Grass Ceiling, a guided tour of sustainability. Sustainability is ever-changing and complex, so join us as we break it down and figure it out. I’m Sumi, one of the hosts –
NICK: – and I’m Nick, one of the other hosts.
SUMI: We’ve talked about some philosophy in the episodes before this, and something that came out pretty prominently was the importance of communication. Sustainability’s something that’s kinda hard to wrap our heads around, because of the massive time scales and physical scales on which it operates and exists. So, how we talk about it can make all the difference.
We had a chat to someone who did her PhD in this very topic. Her name’s Elizabeth Boulton. Well, Dr. Liz Boulton, actually. When this interview was conducted, she was still doing it, but she’s since submitted it – congratulations to her. Our conversations touched on some really interesting and important things about neuroscience, psychology, and communication. Check it out.
Elizabeth Boulton is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society. Her work looks at how humans perceive climate change, threat and hyperthreats, and the need for a change in framing for a more adequate response to this potentially catastrophic phenomenon. She’s joining us today via Skype. We’ve had a couple of technical issues so far, but we’ve all gotten this running …
Hi Elizabeth! So, if you could just give us the quick backstory to your research: what interested you in this topic?
ELIZABETH: I guess career-wise, from 1994 I’ve been working in the field of emergency logistics, and it wasn’t until 2004 that I read a book that really alerted me to climate change. In my memory, a particular experience that really sticks in my head was: I was working in South Sudan, among those camps for the severely malnourished. So when I heard about the descriptions of some of the impacts of climate change – terms like food security, infrastructure fail – I had a really visceral response. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve seen some of the impacts and what that actually means.” To think of that, the prospect of that happening on a much larger scale … I undoubtedly saw that as a devastating threat in my own mind.
So that really led me to this big question of: Why aren’t we responding to something that’s going to be that devastating, with the same sort of urgency and resourcing that I had seen the security sector use for other sorts of threats? I’ve seen how we mobilise quickly – we can really turn things around so quickly when we think that there is a threat. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have a similar response to the climate.
I suppose that’s the first step. Once I was obsessed with that question – why aren’t we responding to this threat? – that threw me into this whole area of neuroscience. As it turned out, in the climate space, they’d started investigating that same question, as to why aren’t we respond to this. At the same time, there had been a real advance in neuroscience, where we were really starting to discover more about how the brain makes decisions and the role of the subconscious, and so forth.
There was about a ten-year body of research in that area, that points to the idea that our deep frames – which are these neuron pathways – form a sort of “cognitive software” in our brains, sort of a philosophical worldview, which influences us from the subconscious level and is formed over a lifetime. What these scientists concluded was that we didn’t have a software package that allowed us to understand that this was a threat, and that this was the main problem. My research focuses entirely on how to solve this problem (that we don’t have the right software).
SUMI: You talk about the idea that we have software, and neuron pathways … I don’t have a background in neuroscience or anything, but could you give a run-down, if that’s possible, of what you mean by “software”?
ELIZABETH: I should say that I’ve got a literature background, I don’t have a science background either. One of the scientists, David Eagleman, he investigates human sensory systems – sight, sound, hearing, and so forth. What he’s said is, something that’s different between the human species and a lot of other species is, as a baby, we’ve born with what is called a very “mushy” brain, in that we haven’t formed our software – or neuron pathways, which are electrical signals that connect emotions to sight, sound, and so forth.
For example, when a horse is born, within a few minutes it can stand up on its own and walk. All its brain functioning gives it a concept of how to walk, which allows it to send electrical signals down to its feet and the hooves can move. But for a human baby, our neuron pathways which tell our bodies how to react and think aren’t actually formed. We have to even learn how to use our eyes, and that’s why we have all those little things for babies to work out depth perception and so forth. The reason is, Eagleman says, the thing that makes us unique is that our software is designed to be built in response to our environment, into the signals we get from it – that’s why it takes a long time to build. This is our main survival feature, and this is why we can work out how to live in an Arctic environment or a desert environment. We’re very adaptive.
These neuron pathways, I view them kind of as fingers; they take a while to grow … If you think about how you learn to drive a car, or learn the ABC – it’s repetition. You learn the ABC though a lot of repetition and hearing and seeing the sounds, practising them and so on. Gradually, as you learn the ABC, a neuron pathway – like a physical thing, like a finger – forms in your brain, that helps you to know what the ABC is, or how to drive car. It take a while to develop these. Once we know them, like we know the ABC, then it goes into our subconscious. It becomes an automatic thing, we don’t have to think everyday, “What is the ABC?”, you just naturally know it. In the way that we’ve learnt the ABC, we’ve learnt the concept of threat and a concept of of how we live and exist, that sits in the same way in our subconscious. It’s a sort of operating system of how we think and of how we see the world and how we perceive threat. So I like to think of them as a whole lot of fingers with electrical signals that tell us how to feel, and how to perceive things.
I’ll give you an example of a simple neuron pathway: when we watch a movie and we see the hero saves the victim, we feel happy. That’s a storyline that we watch again, and again, and again. Hero saves victim, feel happy. Or it could be, see fire, feel scared. That becomes very sophisticated, there are millions of neuron pathways intertwined, and that’s our worldview. What we used to think was that we just know stuff, we didn’t realise that we actually needed to have these neuron pathways to be able to know something.
The knowledge that climate could be a threat, we don’t have a neuron pathway for that yet. Say, we see a cyclone that damages to a food crop. We don’t have an embodied experience to go, “That means starvation.” We just go to the supermarket to buy food, so it doesn’t really affect us. We don’t have what’s called an embodied sensory understanding of the threat.
NICK: One of the things quickly worth unpacking is a word she used, subconscious, and she uses it in a way that maybe isn’t fully intuitive with the way you might think she means. So, she talks about this idea that we’re very adaptive, and that we learn these skills … She uses a really good example – kind of useful example – of learning how to drive a car. Takes a while to develop a skill to learn how to drive a car, but once you know it then it goes into your subconscious, as she says. Maybe subconscious isn’t the right word for that, because it’s more of like, it’s just not conscious. Subconscious maybe comes with a lot of baggage in psychology. I think – again I’m not an expert on this – I think it’s invented by Carl Jung, or was popularised by him, and is a somewhat contested idea.
Regardless of all that, it’s an idea worth thinking about because, to go back to the example of driving a car, there exists this thing called highway amnesia, which is where you’ve been driving from A to B and you have no recollection of doing it. Could have been like a three hour long car drive, and you can’t really remember anything of the drive there. Or this can happen while you’re walking, or while you’re riding a bike, and so on. The point is, as you’re walking along, it’s become such a learned skill at that point – subconscious, as she describes it – that you can do other things, while you’re walking around. You can think about how you look today, or something like that.
That’s interesting to think about, like, how our cognition works, and how our cognition hides those basic things from us – and how it kind of has to, or there would be so much noise in our everyday life, just thinking, “Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out.” It doesn’t work that way. Well, it can, but it’s not very efficient.
A lot of what’s become subconscious, or invisible, to us and to our cognition, which is a big theme in her work, is driven by these ultimately evolutionary processes. It results from us, at the end of the way, being biological beings subjected to these evolutionary pressures. The point of all this being that it may not be that optimal to work in that way, and to have a cognition that functions in that way.
SUMI: Another thing I wanted to bring up really quick was an example that she brought up just then, and it was a cyclone damaging a food crop. We aren’t able to perceive of that damage, because we just go to the supermarket and buy our food, therefore we’re not cognitively able to think of what the effects of increasing cyclone activity due to climate change is, and things like that. But a part of that may not necessarily have to do with the fact that we, as humans, our brains can’t thing about it. Rather, with the system that we’re in, you know, you and I, we go to the supermarket to buy our food. If we’re a farmer or someone who grows our own food, then we would have a very different relationship to cyclones, we’d have a very different relationship to food production. So I did just want to bring that up, that it may also be about context, and the way our societies function, as well as, if not instead of, cognition.
NICK: All of this stacks up to pain a picture, basically, that human cognition is very limited. Not just biologically, there’s not just biological constraints, but there’s societal constraints as you’re kind of saying.
What you’re describing there seems to dovetail nicely into another concept in your work, which is hyperobjects and hyperthreats. These are threats that exist on timescales that human cognition isn’t evolutionarily adapted to understand very well. Is that a fair summary, you would say?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that’s a great summary! In academic terms, this object is a bit of a fancy word for “thing”. So, a hyperobject is like a hyperthing. The philosopher, Timothy Morton, with his concept of hyperobjects, got the idea that we can’t really sense this threat, and can’t make sense of it. So what he’s tried to do to help us get over that hurdle is to try and materialise climate change to turn it into something physical. He describes it as a massive thing, and has a whole book that describes all these different ways that this thing moves and feels and how it operates. It’s a thing that humans have never seen before. So, like a kid in school, it takes us quite a bit of time to go through all the facets of this thing and how it works. If you’d like, I can describe a couple of those metaphors, because it helps us understand what this “thing” is.
NICK: Sure, that sounds great. Tell us what climate change looks like.
ELIZABETH: One of the metaphors refers to those Russian dolls, do you know them?
NICK: Matryoshka dolls, yeah.
ELIZABETH: A little doll in another doll, in another doll, in another doll … Morton says that humans are the littlest dolls, encased in all these bigger dolls of this “thing”. One might be a water system, one might be a nutrient cycle, these are all planetary cycles and stuff. But because we’re just a tiny little human, we’re encased in all these big cycles. What this means is that we can’t even get out of the problem, to be able to see the problem. So the Russian dolls metaphor is one part of understanding our relationship to this thing.
SUMI: Just a question about that metaphor. You have one tiny doll, and then you have a doll that’s a bit bigger, and another doll that’s a bit bigger. One thing that that metaphor may not lend itself to is the idea that rather than having a doll within a doll within another doll, you might have several dolls that all overlap, and that we’re within all of them. So, for example, you might have different ecosystem cycles and processes that do interact with each other, but its not necessarily a linear or vertical relationship between those things. So, are there other metaphors that address that?
ELIZABETH: Morton’s got five distinct things that he describes. That particular dynamic that you were just describing then, he calls that “phasing”. A simple way to understand phasing is, you know how we see the cycle of the moon? it goes from a quarter moon to a full moon and so on, and depending on what phase we’re in. Similar to what you’re saying there, he says, this thing operates on so many phase cycles – like maybe thousands of them – that we never know what phase state we’re in, or which part of the phase state we’re seeing.
Another one that’s quite interesting is the concept on time. He says that it operates on a system that humans can’t understand, so you’ve really got to think like a planet. As for the the way that a planet would think … We’ve got to use a lot of metaphors here, because a metaphor means that we’ve already got the cognitive software, but we just apply it to a different thing. If you can imagine a pile of bananas on your kitchen table, in our lifetime we can easily see how, if they’re left there, they start going black and they go off. For a planet, to understand how rubies develop from being a rock and turn into a ruby stone, it’s the same for them as us understanding a banana degrading on the kitchen table.
Change that takes place on planetary time frames, we struggle to get our heads around. So we have to think at a different scale, which is a hyperscale, and “think like a planet” – which is the catchphrase here.
NICK: You wrote about an example of that in your article in The Conversation, the one about 60,000 artists. You described a project in which somebody stands still for five minutes, and then they see how far the earth has rotated in that time and essentially carried them. Is the point of these projects to build those neuronal pathways, so that we can start thinking differently?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, exactly. The guy behind that – in fact – is an Emeritus Professor at the ANU School of Art, John Reed, and that was exactly what he was trying to do. One of the big criticisms of Morton is that he has all of these dark concepts, saying that it’s like being buried alive, and it’s very pessimistic. What I love about the human spirit – and I was reminded of it by you guys doing your technical problem-solving at the start of this interview – is that, the moment we realise that what we’re facing is a hyperobject, and we know how it moves and operates, once we get the software in our heads of what we’re dealing with, we think, “OK, we’re not done an dusted yet, now we can think at a hyperscale.” And we can come up with ways to deal with it. This has been a big thing for me in my research, and it’s something that many of these artists are doing. They’re saying, “Oh, we can’t perceive this thing. So let’s get to work and think of ways to start helping us to do so.” That’s the gift of this concept, it opens up a whole lot of pathways that allows us to get into problem-solving in a different way. The key message is, if we keep thinking of it with our old software and keep trying to solve it that way, we’re never going to get anywhere. We have to build a new software, and once we’ve got it, I think we’ll have the potential to harness this incredible problem-solving ability … Which you guys just demonstrated at the start there.
SUMI: … with our technical issues!
NICK: I want to talk, in a roundabout way, to just reinforce what she was talking about so far, by talking about video games and art and narratives more generally, and the role that they can play in building that new software, that new kind of thinking. So she talks about, for example, learning to think like a planet. Arguably, there are some video games out there that could help you achieve that in a way that a book never will, a YouTube video never will, and so on. And that’s because unlike pretty much every other narrative medium out there or artistic medium out there, video games allow you to become part of that world and that becomes an interactive, two-way process. To an extent, this does exist in other mediums, I’m not saying that, but it’s really pronounced in video games in particular.
Through being part of that experience, you can have that visceral reaction to it. To open this whole interview, Elizabeth talked about what sort of got her to understand climate change, which was experiencing it. She was in South Sudan, she was seeing people who were malnourished and so on. That experience grounded her perception of everything, in a way that without that experience, she wouldn’t think about it in quite that same way. Video games can develop those experiences very easily, very quickly, very cheaply, compared to a plane trip to Sudan. You could just buy a game for fifty bucks or five bucks, or whatever.
SUMI: Or even having to lose your house to a flood before you recognise how devastating a flood can be.
NICK: Yeah, absolutely! As a vehicle for delivering experiences, I think art, more generally – we won’t just talk about video games – as a way to deliver experiences is really important, and can shape our cognition of things. There’s probably many good examples throughout history of art creating moral panics. There’s that Matt Broderick 1980s film War Games – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, it’s so old school now – it’s wonderful. It’s set in that Cold War, atomic age era, and he’s hacking into the United States Defence Department main frame and launching all the nukes and stuff. He’s just some 14-year old kid who thinks it’s all just a video game, but it’s all really happening.
After that movie, everybody started freaking out about hacking into nukes and stuff. There’s probably a million other examples of this. It can capture our imagination but it can also reframe our perceptions of things, whether they’re threats or opportunities or whatever. A lot of what she’s saying supports this. Pointing to art in particular, she literally says, “It’s something that many of these artists are doing. They’re saying, ‘Oh, we can’t perceive this thing, so let’s get to work and think of ways that can help us do so.’” That’s a really confronting and counter-intuitive conclusion to draw, that art has a massive role to play in helping combat climate change. It’s just not part of the mainstream discourse, when we talk about combatting climate change. We talk about recycling and plastic and straws, we don’t talk about a deeper philosophical problem of our very old school approach to thinking about this.
SUMI: I guess art makes us feel things, and when things touch our emotions then we’re probably more likely to act. Because we don’t like the way that, say, seeing how many coffee cups we use in a day, you know, it makes us feel uncomfortable so we’re more inclined to do something about it. Whereas seeing a graph and just seeing numbers may not necessarily invoke that same reaction.
NICK: Absolutely. One of my favourite speeches of all time, this guy delivered it at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and he was saying to the incoming students who were going to be learning music and going to be doing music for a career, “I want you to treat this really seriously, because just like someone’s going to stroll into an emergency room at three in the morning with an appendix that needs fixing, somebody’s going to come to you with a soul that needs fixing,” or something like that. And he talks about how music can put into feeling and capture something that is invisible and unable to be vocalised in any other way. It’s like a way of expressing ourselves that no other media provides, and that’s art and culture and a big part of humans in general, I think.
It’s getting kind of far from what she’s was saying but I guess the core point here is that it’s a bit of a problem that art has such a huge role to play and doesn’t play it, and there’s so many different reasons for that. Looking at this as a STEM problem, not a humanities problem, is a big part of it, I’d say.
SUMI: Yeah but at the same time, I think about how important climate modelling is in our urgent policy reforms for addressing the impacts of climate change or preventing it or whatever it is. One of the most impactful ways of presenting the findings of climate modelling is through art, through imagining what things are going to look like. Maybe it might be a painting, or something that really shows, this is what your city will look like, if we don’t address climate change or something like that.
NICK: National Geographic did that, you know. They created this great map of the world after it’s flooded and stuff, so Australia has an inland sea –
SUMI: Yeah, I saw that.
NICK: You’ve seen – so you know the one I’m talking about. So we’ve both seen it. It goes far and wide when they do that visually. Storytelling.
SUMI: And in some ways, climate modelling is kind of like those video games you were talking about. Because you create these scenarios, you manipulate a simulated world, and then you see what happens. So they kind of have very similar principles. You have to have both art and science in order to create realistic simulations, whether in video games or in climate modelling.
NICK: Nah, that’s true. And that’s actually a very funny point, where the industries, the economies, the disciplines really do dovetail – and dovetail hard – is in that simulation emulation kind of environment.
SUMI: I have a question about what you’re saying about we need to build our software so that we can problem solve and think in a way that we haven’t before to address this problem that is way bigger than anything we are capable of dealing with, with our current capacities. If it’s so big that we’re unable to conceive of it until we make a change, how do we know that the strategies – or even instruments – that we have to problem solve are going to be sufficient as well?
ELIZABETH: It’s like a survival drive for us to get over all those hurdles that you described; this is actually how humans have survived all through our history. Humans have always faced dangerous and chaotic things that we didn’t really understand, but we keep problem solving and thinking and debating and interrogating stuff until we work it out. And then we adapt and change. I think we have got the capacity to overcome all those hurdles.
SUMI: A practical question on this whole idea: we’ve got organisations and institutions that may be resistant to changing policy to allow society to adapt to climate change. In order for this so-called shift or development of new software to work, given the existing institutions that are embedded in our society, we’re going to need to convince some very powerful people to accept that they’ll need to rethink the way they see the world. How can we see people who are so stubborn to change being open to all this?
ELIZABETH: That’s one of the things that stands out in the framing research, is that we’ve been dealing with communication in a very basic and simple manner. For example, the concept now of communicating to people via facts, when you understand how the brain formulates and so forth, there’s no way people can understand a fact if they haven’t got all this software in place. The research on framing shows that you have to address these issues in a very sophisticated, multi-layered way, including a whole discussion about people’s philosophy, their social identity, their human identity, their understanding of existence, their narrative components to build those storylines … and there’s also what’s called “effective understanding”, which takes place at an emotional and sensory level. That’s one of the key things that’s come out of neuroscience: the wrong approach is to go straight to the cognitive side, because you need the senses and sensory signals before you can form the cognitive pathways.
NICK: So again, this is just reinforcing that earlier point, that experience, sensory stimuli, is so critical to formative opinion changing, paradigm shifting, changes in how you view or perceive something. And it has to take place, as she says, at an emotional and sensory level. Your average infographic or news article or – dare I say it – podcast probably isn’t going to achieve that. She says, we’ve been dealing with communication in a very basic and simple manner. It’s not an approach that is well-adapted to how the brain actually works. Also, she kind of reinforces your point earlier, that you make, about how context is so important, how it’s not just the biological constraints on cognition but also the societal ones as well. God, it’s going to be so complex, just trying to communicate sustainability with all of that different thing in mind. [sighs]
ELIZABETH: Basically, to that question you had then, we have to approach this in a far more sophisticated way and harness the very best of our communicative skills in our society, which is our best film-makers, our best orators, using metaphors to have a comprehensive communication strategy – it can’t just be a report with a couple of facts. The reason that some facts work with some people is that they may already have a framework, having come from a family or community which already values environment and grew up surrounded by that. But for someone else, who comes from different framework, where perhaps economics is more viable at that particular time, it’s going to be more difficult.
One of the solutions that I come up with is that we need to have a “hyperconversation”. It’s so multilayered, making this threat tangible and real. We have all these intelligence agencies, and we could use them to help us make sense of this problem, and make it more mainstream. To illustrative the importance of claiming the narrative: recently, since the Paris agreement, we’ve been seeing these reports from so-called new influence organisations on how the fossil fuels sector has spent over a billion dollars in narrative strategies to dissuade the population, saying that it’s not that urgent, and that they’re doing their best to transition to renewables – which, in fact, they’re not, because it’s only three percent of their budget. So they’ve invested one billion dollars in trying to shape how people perceive this problem. But if we look at the climate sector, have we invested that level of effort to help people perceive and understand the problem?
Ultimately, what I’m trying to point to is how big the task is. It’s got to be bigger than just a few dot points on a brief.
NICK: That ties nicely into that The Conversation article again, where you lamented the fact that we were assembling these huge teams of 60,000 scientists to look at the physical dimensions of the problem, when those are already pretty well-explored depths and avenues. Instead, we need 60,000 artists and poets and philosophers to come together and start communicating that in an effective way that people can understand. The question that I had, when I read that, was, is it also possible that we should bring scientists into that side of it too? It’s not just that the artists that are missing from the equation, but also that we’re not using scientists and people in STEM more broadly as the communicators. We’re not encouraging them to think beyond measuring and modelling, and instead to look at community psychology and communication and so on.
ELIZABETH: Undoubtedly, it has to be an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary thing. Leaving the burden of communication entirely on scientists is not the smartest thing, because telling an effective story through art requires a lot of skill and particular talent. If you’ve seen the statistics on how many people write novels a year, and how may actually get published – it’s millions of books that people write, and they think they’ve got a great story to tell. But only .02 percent of books get published, and only ten percent of those published books go on to sell over 5,000 copies. What that tells us is that there’s only some people who have the ability to be those great storytellers and write those Harry Potter books.
NICK: J.K. Rowling?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, not everybody is a J.K. Rowling.
Some people have got a real talent or expertise at communicating things – and they don’t have to be an artist with a paintbrush, they could be someone like Waleed Aly or those media commentators who can distil stuff into ways that resonate with people. They’re very sophisticated communication skills or writing skills or imaginative skills. Not everybody’s a Steven Spielberg, not everyone can make a blockbuster film. Of course, we can bring scientists in – who’ve spent their lives growing to become great scientists – to suddenly have an idea about creative communication. Some people are great scientists and great communicators, but a lot of them won’t be and they simply won’t have that skill. So it’s about using the talents that we’ve already got across our whole society.
NICK: I think it’s a really good point that she’s making there, that we all have different skill sets, and not everybody’s going to be a J.K. Rowling or something like that. But it’s also worth pointing out that in the context of what we’re talking about, which is combating and reversing climate change, and rising to the challenges and opportunities of other sustainability issues, not everybody needs to be a J.K. Rowling. Like, success here is defined a bit differently than we’d probably define artistic success in other contexts.
So a win here is not necessarily fame or recognition, but understanding and changed attitudes or beliefs or behaviours, even. And that’s worth pointing out; that’s kind of not the usual approach or the usual context you’d see in narrative, or entertainment, or anything in this kind of field. Usually the goal is financial and artistic success, rather than societal improvement and deeper understanding.
It’s funny, because when you see games, or media, or movies that try to have that deeper moral theme, they’re usually insufferable. They hit you in the face with the sledgehammer with it, with their moralising or whatever. Or it’s like the movie, which tries to be educational, and it’s just like lame or boring.
SUMI: I didn’t come here to see a documentary.
NICK: Yeah, exactly. Still thinking about different ways to communicate stuff, and it’s just interesting, what’s she’s talking about. And also makes me think of another thing. There’s this science fiction writer, who used to be a scientist, in a past life. He brought all of that experience and knowledge from his science background, and with considerable natural talents for creative writing, created a really beloved cult classic science fiction book, that is shedding new light on cognition, consciousness, neurophysiology and stuff. This is Peter Watts, who I think we’ve talked about before – a guy who asked a question, not “What is consciousness?” but “What is consciousness good for?” And by trying to answer that question, took us down to completely new paths, and he did that in a weird hybrid mix of science and science fiction. STEM and humanities, if you want to think about it in that dichotomy.
Not everybody has that skill, just to reinforce what she was saying. It’s mind-blowing, reading that book, and it comes with – almost as long as the book – an addendum at the end, with links to scientific papers that explains this, that and the other thing, and how he thought, “Should they work this way or that way?” and his thought process in designing these things. Oh my god. It’s mind-blowing, the world building. It’s like J.R.R. Tolkien building the Lord of the Rings level of detail. Not everybody can do that, but the people who can, and who have that specific skill – she describes Waleed Aly’s ability to explain really difficult concepts… Peter Watts explained consciousness in a way that was so simple to understand, and just terrifyingly scary concepts, the way he delivered it was beautiful and perfect. That’s something that scientists can’t do, and a thing that we need artists to do. I know I’m kind of just repeating myself again and again with the theme of this episode, but it just seems to be like such a huge overlooked part of the whole sustainability formula.
SUMI: Just like not all of us can be awesome communicators like Waleed Aly, or Peter Watts, or J.K. Rowling, or Steven Spielberg, not all of us want to be communicated to in the same way. Rather than thinking we should put all of our resources into getting these people who have obvious success and an obvious talent, also thinking about different ways to approach communication, noting that maybe some people like reading, whereas other people like watching movies, and other people like video games. Kind of having a multi-pronged approach to it.
NICK: She says, “God, it’s so multi-layered,” or something like that. Nah, absolutely.
ELIZABETH: Let’s get JK Rowling, let’s get the very best that we’ve got – just like we’ve got the best people doing science – on this communication problem. Because it’s a phenomenally difficult problem, and not something that just anyone can turn their hand to. We’ve been struggling with this for twenty years, I think we should have some respect for how difficult the issue is. And that means mobilising the very best people.
NICK: It’s interesting you say that, because it reminds me of the documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, where they’re trying to communicate various environmental or sustainability issues, and the people they bring onto the show are storytellers! – famous actors, comedians, and so on – not so much the environmental scientists, who might get five minutes of showing in the show. Do you think that sort of thing is indicative of the sort of direction you think we should be going in?
ELIZABETH: Definitely. Possibly the person who’s had the biggest breakthrough in global communication of climate change was Al Gore. Because he is a masterful communicator, and I don’t know if you remember that film and his presentations –
NICK: An Inconvenient Truth?
ELIZABETH: Yeah. He walked up that step ladder to present graphs, and used stories himself, growing up, I think, on a tobacco farm, from memory. He used a lot of those good communicative skills, because he’s a politician so he’s got that sort of skill. And he was able to have that break through. He’s an example of that sort of thing.
Another thing – and it’s quite a basic thing – to go back to talking about learning our ABCs, the repetition thing … If people just see one really good film once, but then they go back home and are swamped with a whole lot of other material 99 percent of the time, no matter how good it was, if the messages aren’t being reinforced regularly, they’re not going to have as much salience. So that comes down to that sort of volume thing.
SUMI: Another thing that just came to me is that there is an opportunity here for religion. We talk about sustainability about something that has to do with science, that is supposedly undisputed, like 97 percent of scientists believe that climate change is real … I don’t know, is it at 100 percent yet? Anyway.
NICK: I hate that stat.
SUMI: This can be your major world religions, or it can be the spiritual belief systems of Indigenous peoples. Whatever it is, religion and spirituality is something that is very closely tied to the decisions that people make – those who believe in them. For example, if your religion believes that you shouldn’t eat animals, then people won’t eat animals. In a similar way, if religion and religious leaders were able to get in on this idea and this movement of sustainability, to basically say that, you know, there is a thing and maybe they talk about how God relates to sustainability. Possibly there is a sphere of influence that scientists may not be able to access at this current point, because sometimes science and religion seem to be opposed to one another.
NICK: What about Indigenous Australians and their spiritualism towards the land and Country?
SUMI: Exactly, that’s what I mean!
What sorts of platforms and resourcing do you think are needed to make this creative presentation of these urgent issues happen? What’s it going to take – do we need more grants, do you think it’s a much bigger thing than that, like global collaboration?
ELIZABETH: It’s really multi-pronged, and I’m not just saying this because I think so. People have actually studied how to grow these neuron pathways, and what they understand is it’s a whole bunch of things that contribute, it’s not really just one thing. But, one thing is social identity. Humans have this thing where they really like to think the same way as their social group, and there’s actually a whole lot of subconscious feelings about safety around this, because if you think differently from your tribe, there’s this idea that you can be ostracised. You could lose job opportunities, you lose connection with family and friends … There’s a lot of very significant risks of thinking differently from your tribe, whatever your tribe is.
If we understand that people are very scared to go out on their own from their social group, and the way that tribes change their thinking is that they all have to move together. So from that there has to be group discussions, and the whole group has to go together. And leaders in those communities have a very key roles. Rather than having experts talk at people, then, you work with groups, in sessions where they’re able to discuss. The opportunity where where people can come together in groups, be presented the problems and have these discussions, with their community. That’s just one part of the prong.
Another is dealing with emotions like fear and threat. Initially, there was a big thing about, don’t use a fear narrative, because you’ll be accused of being alarmist and people get put off by fear narratives. We now have a much more sophisticated understanding of the role of fear, and again this comes from evolutionary psychology. Fear is a helpful thing, because it triggers a lot of things in us which help us escape danger and go into active problem solving. If we don’t get a sense of fear, it doesn’t precipitate those sorts of reactions.
SUMI: Like a fight or flight response, and those kinds of things?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, but it’s not necessarily always a bad thing. Sometimes it just allows us to really focus, and get into a really serious problem-solving mode.
So yeah, it has to be a hyperconversation, but those community conversations need to be facilitated by really clear graphics of how we’re tracking so that we don’t infantilise people with the problem, by not telling them how bad it is. We have very clear graphics can show that by 2020, this is what the IPCC is saying, we have to have a very dramatic, steep reduction in greenhouse gases. If we give that problem to everybody and we say, “For the City of Melbourne or this region, can we achieve such a steep trajectory?” and we have a whole lot of problem-solving forums, keeping it really simple and not complicate it with 3,000 facts on soil salinity or millions of disparate little facts that confuse and overwhelm people.
If we had very simple metrics that every community and city were able to quickly look at and see where their town’s tracking in terms of that deceleration, they could almost get competitive and excited about it … We could bring in people like sport psychologists, who know how to motivate people to persist on a really difficult goal. This is our goal: to keep these the emissions down, so how do we keep that goal in mind and motivate people to keep persisting with a difficult goal? We know that people like to track a goal and see how they’re performing, so some sort of metrics to help us understand how we’re progressing, honestly, I think would help a lot.
NICK: Again, harping on these same points, but interesting how they’re central and recurring throughout the whole interview. There’s this idea of metrics that track your sustainability score, and you becoming competitive with that, with maybe a neighbouring town or your friend, or scale it up or down how you like. That’s something called gamification, and it really works to change social behaviour, we’re discovering. It’s just goddamn addictive, it taps into some real lizard brain cognition stuff. Stuff that’s just really basic human nature, so to speak. We like to compete, we like to compete not just with other people, but with ourselves. And compete not just in a zero sum kind of thing where it’s like you and I lose, but also we both win, but we both push each other.
I’m really interested in this idea of gamification of sustainability. There was an example, I think it was in Sweden, where they turned good, safe driving into a game that was tracked via an app, or something. It halved the speeding fines in the month after it was introduced.
SUMI: Oh, wow.
NICK: Everyone was getting on it. It’s kind of like, your passenger rating in Uber, or your Amazon seller rating, where it’s just these little competitive, status-y, prestige-y things.
SUMI: Like Duolingo, the language learning app?
NICK: Yup, that’s gamified learning personified, a really excellent example of it. A really famous example of gamification. I love it. It’s a fun little app.
Another question for you is: when you look at and talk about threats, is it climate change that you’re focused on, exclusively, or are you also looking at others? Part of the reason I ask is because, in my own studies on sustainability, every now and then I come across an academic or someone else who’s saying climate change isn’t the real threat – and then just pick your pet issue about what it could be about. It could be water, it could be biotechnology, it could be artificial intelligence, it could be runaway technological progress in some other area … You spend a lot of time looking at threats and fears around threats, how do you think it’s helpful to think about the range of threats?
ELIZABETH: You’re right. I guess the approach that I’ve taken acknowledges that climate and environment things are all intricately interconnected, so I’ve just put down climate and environmental change as one threat, acknowledging that they interweave in so many different ways. That’s probably just the short answer there.
NICK: I’m thinking about the idea of the hyperobject, and climate change as an example of that, because it extends on these vast timescales that we’re not really used to thinking about. Conversely, we have threats that are almost exponentially fast. If you look at how quickly some technological progress can sweep across –
Can I interrupt myself? So, another point here –
SUMI: You just interrupting yourself?
NICK: Yeah, interrupting myself. We talk about the limits of cognition in terms of the perceptions of time. You’ve got to think like a planet if you want to think on geological time scales, and understand the change patterns in climate change. You’ve got to think like a planet. But that’s how you deal with, say, climate change. But if you’re dealing with some other existential threat – potential existential threat, we’ll say – like, artificial intelligence or anything like that, it’s not a like a planet you’re got to think about, you’ve got to think like a self-teaching, rapidly accelerating artificial intelligence. You’ve got to think in a completely different paradigm. You’ve got to think in terms of exponential change, where on a day-to-day basis, there’s not really much of a change, it’s only in the eleventh hour, fifty-ninth minute, fifty-ninth second that everything suddenly doubles. And that doubling of things leads to a graph where change is really imperceptible for the huge majority of the time and suddenly it’s all, “Oh, crap. Things are changing rapidly and profoundly and, potentially, irreversibly.”
SUMI: I guess that means we’ve got to train ourselves to think at a variety of different scales and in a variety of different ways –
NICK: – to deal with a variety of different threats. Yeah.
SUMI: That presents a really big challenge for communication. Wow.
NICK: This is part of the reason why, I think, we focus so much on climate change. Because we’re just like, okay, look, this is obviously a really big deal, we need to deal with it. There might be some other really big stuff, but we’re a pretty one-thing-at-a-time kinda species, it feels like.
SUMI: And that might be the reason for our downfall.
NICK: It might be. But, who knows. May not be.
I’m thinking about the idea of the hyperobject, and climate change as an example of that, because it extends on these vast timescales that we’re not really used to thinking about. Conversely, we have threats that are almost exponentially fast. If you look at how quickly some technological progress can sweep across. You have a past in the military, you’ve probably seen some military applications of this – say, the proliferation of land mines or something like that. We have, there, a really negative outcome driven by technology, where the threat has come in on very human timescales, but is still significant.
ELIZABETH: This gets into the later part of my research, where I do apply some of those military methods for analysing threat. So, step one is defining this climate and environmental threat – which is multi-faceted, but putting it together here. Step two is to consider that threat in the context of other threats, and how they interact with each other. A couple of things come out of that. One is, the narrative that goes out to the community as a collective for us to evaluate ourselves, what is the greatest threat? Again, this is something that humans have done since the dawn of time. Part of whether we survive is our ability to correctly interpret the range of threats that we face, and choose our response to all those ranges of threats.
So, then, you have to consider, like, let’s compare a cyber threat to the threat of climate change – and its different dimensions. This decision about how we’re going to compare these kinds of threats has implications for us in terms of resourcing and prioritisation. My assessment is: if you line up climate change alongside a whole bunch of other sorts of threats, it is far more destructive than the others have the potential to. Even something like cyber warfare, or, dare I say it, nuclear warfare, which may be one of the worse ones out there … Even with nuclear, there is some possibility of remediation – although it’s very messy and yuck, and could take a long time. But for dangerous climate change, there really isn’t any remediation possibility.
NICK: So just to be clear, you’re saying it’s the difference between looking at sub-optimal future and one in which we’re annihilated entirely.
NICK: What I’m teasing out there is Bostrom’s framework, essentially. His definition of existential risk, which went one of two ways: you’ve got annihilation, where you’re just splat, boom, bug on a windshield; and the other one is drastic curtailing of our potential. So rather than everyone dying, it’s like we’ve got nuclear war and now we live in nuclear sludge. We’re still here and we endured it, but we’re never going to fully recover from that.
ELIZABETH: I think it’s the time for us as a community, to look at these ranges of threats and say, well, which is the biggest and which is the most important, and we have to prioritise. When you look at all of them together – this is what I’m discovering – through us addressing the climate and environmental change one, we ameliorate some of the other threats. Some of those other threats that you’re describing … Say, for example, we start getting a real scarcity of resources, and people then want to go to traditional warfare. The reason they’re going to traditional warfare is to get these resources. So if in the first place, we make sure that the resources are secure – and I hate to talk about the environment in that way, because that embodies the idea that the environment is only good for resources for human use, which I don’t like. But just for the sake of this argument …
Let’s have a look at Lake Chad in Africa. This enormous lake that used to provide livelihood for 81 million people. It’s shrunk dramatically over the years through not just climate change but poor environmental management, irrigation, etc. No surprise, we now have Boko Haram and a massive human security problem in that area. Because the environmental has fed into that scarcity, which has then exacerbated other security problems. When we think of the climate threat and addressing that versus other threats, we have to actually understand that if we don’t address the climate threat, it’s actually going to exacerbate the other threats.
NICK: That’s a great point. Sounds like you’re doing some fascinating research, truly, you’ve touched on about six different topics that we were going to cover ourselves.
SUMI: This reminds me of the example that you gave of The Handmaid’s Tale in a previous episode, where you were talking about how everybody was trying to save the planet, or do something good, but then that had this really dystopic outcome.
NICK: Right! I don’t know if I’m being really obvious here in saying this, or if I’m tapping into something a lot of people don’t realise about the show; I really have no idea. When I watched The Handmaid’s Tale – and, you know, I’d read reviews about it, and they all talked about it through the lens of gender and dystopian literature and stuff, and it’s this horribly violently misogynistic world. I saw all that in the show, that narrative, and it isn’t what really messed with me, what baked my noodle and kept me up at night. It was the little snippets of the world beyond the walls of this hive of misogyny. It was this idea of a dying world out there. And this horrible world that they’d built was a response to an even more dire threat, so it was in some ways justifiable and more desirable than the alternative – which is what the other countries were doing, which was dying.
SUMI: The lesser of two evils.
NICK: The lesser of two evils, but man, some serious evils. I guess what I’m saying – and I’m not sure if this is a really obvious point to be making or if it is kind of subtle – to me it seems like Atwood is telling this beautifully subtle, gut-wrenching, visceral story about climate change or sustainability more broadly, and how we respond to it. Allowing us to see how we could mess that all up, create a really bad system, and that could be worse than everybody just starving to death.
It’s so obvious and weird to say, but the environmental problems we see aren’t just going to pose environmental problems or the impacts of them aren’t going to be felt just in environmental ways. Sounds so obvious to say it, I know, but … It’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to watch it as the show unfolds, or to read it going through the book. Again, I think, returning to that same point of art’s ability to capture the imagination and allow you to change your perception of something. Think like a dying planet. [laughs]
SUMI: I was just talking to a friend yesterday about how there are actual bunkers being sold for millions of dollars, basically for people who are trying to save themselves from climate change. There are these underground bunkers, fully stocked with like, I don’t know, 20 years’ worth of food and things like that. The fact that the only people who can afford them are the people who can fork out millions of dollars … But on top of that, within those bunkers, they’ve only stocked up 20 years of food. What happens as you come to the tail end of those stores? The one thing that I thought of was, yeah, maybe the people who couldn’t afford the bunkers would be fighting for our lives and struggling way before any of these people in the bunkers had to, but it’s going to come to that point anyway. Because you’re still going to have those same issues of scarcity. So it’s kind of a stop-gap measure. For them, they’re just prolonging the inevitable.
NICK: There’s a fantastic article about all of this, and it makes a couple of pretty cool points. The first is: you look at the zombie movies, and that’s us, in the climate apocalypse with the faceless, nameless, seen-on-screen-for-two-seconds thing that gets mowed down by the person riding past on their motorcycle – the person on the motorcycle is the rich person, you know. On a helicopter flying above it all, to their little bunker.
The second thing that’s interesting is this whole siege mentality. You’re exactly right, it’s a stop-gap measure, and maybe there isn’t anything that won’t be, but typically it’s like, here’s a bunker for me and my family. And then you read, in this article for example, about the more elaborate plans, and they start to build a community. Instead, it’s a doctor and a security team and a school and medicals and police and … Well you’re just building a whole society now. This is Noah’s Ark type stuff for the rich. If you know anything about genetics and population bottlenecks, and minimum viable populations to maintain genetic diversity and stuff, it’s just like, this is not a good approach to resilience whatsoever!
SUMI: This is the kind of scenario in the world that’s presented in another Margaret Atwood book, Oryx and Crake, which I strongly recommend, it’s a really good book. Basically, they had these massive communities, but within those communities there were gated complexes, and people lived in their own safe bubbles and they had these tube trains that would go from one rich community to another rich community. But between them, there was just the world out there, which was a world of conflict. You had these two worlds coexisting – in some ways we can say it already does exist in the world that we’re in, but it was just very pronounced. No child from the rich world would be allowed into the other world, or anything like that.
NICK: She’s very good at capturing class-based identities, societal class-based commentary wrapped up in a whole environmental dystopian literature. Not everyone can be a Margaret Atwood, sadly. But she has that role to play, right, and I think it’s a really important role. Underrated role, supes underrated.
SUMI: All the topics that your research focuses on seem pretty meta, pretty large-scale, and – like you said – the whole point of it is that it’s hard for us to conceptualise. How do you navigate that yourself, in terms of your everyday life? I guess my question is, does it mess with you in any way, and how do you deal with that?
ELIZABETH: I have to say, I’m in a state of excitement at the moment. I think I’ve got through that phase of coming to terms with a hyper threat, because I’ve been immersed in it for so long, I think I’ve built some of that software package. I feel immense hope. It’s like as soon as I’ve got this new software package, or as soon as I’ve put these new glasses on that can see, I suddenly see a whole stack of amazing opportunities, and solutions and pathways out of this problem. I’m now thinking at a hyper level, and all I feel is this sense of urgency. I think it opens up a whole lot of ideas we haven’t even touched the surface of. There is vast potential. Occasionally when I feel overwhelmed or exhausted … I’d have to say, the school kids striking has filled me with a lot of inspiration.
My memory of that woman I’d met in South Sudan, who was severely malnourished, and – to describe it, I’m trying to pass on a visceral understanding of what starvation and food security is – like a skeleton but the skin’s like cellophane but the eyes as moving. And you honestly can’t believe that you’re talking to a human being that’s alive, because everything you understand of what a human being looks like is not there. I remember having a conversation through an interpreter with this woman, who was very close to dying of starvation, and I’ve been very haunted by that conversation and that woman ever since. Often, I think of my nephews and my nieces and I think of that woman, of that image of the savagery of starvation, and it gives me quite a lot of drive.
Even at the worst point, I would think: if you frame it as a threat that we’re up against, there is sort of a sense of human fighting spirit that comes out. And you think, well, even if we are up against this phenomenal monster, I would rather go down fighting, and I’ll fight ‘til I die.
NICK: Rage against the dying of the light.
ELIZABETH: Yeah. Because it’s the only honourable thing to do, in terms of the future generations, and generations in the past have fought to the death for us, essentially. And now it’s our turn. I guess it rallies my fighting spirit.
SUMI: Cool, I think that we might wrap it up there.
NICK: That’s a beautiful way to end it, I think. I just think you’re touching on so many important points, Elizabeth. It’s a shame you’re not a lecturer here at Fenner, because you could teach a very interesting and important course. There’s a bit of what you’re getting at missing from the education I’ve got so far.
SUMI: Leave Bendigo, just come to Canberra!
ELIZABETH: Well, obviously I’m looking for something to do after my PhD, so …
NICK: Yeah you can pop into academia!
ELIZABETH: Whisper in anyone’s ear that you want to!
NICK: “The Grass Ceiling podcast is hosted by me, Nick Blood –“
SUMI: “– and hosted and produced by me, Sumithri Venketasubramanian. Thank you to Elizabeth Boulton, for taking the time to chat with us and for bearing with our technical issues! Our project supervisor is Dr. Edwina Fingleton-Smith. The Grass Ceiling is made possible thanks to the technical support of the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. As always, a big thank you to the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society for all their support in helping make this project happen. All music used in this episode was produced by Jackson Wiebe. For more TGC content, including articles written about some of the topics we’ve talked about today and in other episodes, check out our website at www.thegrassceiling.net.”