What do an uninhabitable planet, decision making and storytelling have in common? Everything, if you read The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis and The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Callo in quick succession.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock — of which there may only be a few left after the massive climate change coming our way — you have heard that our planet is rapidly and radically changing. This is not the sort of change that will seem minor, where wine and chocolate become rare commodities and avocado toast a relic we read about in history books, but the “we’re totally fucked and we have no idea the extent” kind of change. Or as Wallace-Wells puts it, “an ‘existential crisis’ — a drama we are haphazardly improvising between two hellish poles, in which our best-case outcome is death and suffering at the scale of twenty five Holocausts, and the worst case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction.”
So, there’s that. Which is what you’d expect from a book titled The Uninhabitable Earth. In searing detail, Wallace-Wells lays out the myriad ways we’ll be suffering in a not-too-distant future. Heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, loss of fresh water, dying oceans, deathly polluted air, plagues, and economic collapse will be just a few of our problems. The first part of his book explores what warming means to the way we live on the planet and then he delves into the “convenient cognitive bargain” we have chosen: to consider climate change only as it will present itself this century, and no further. In the second half, Wallace-Wells veers into incredibly interesting discussions about how and why we tackle climate change the way we do.
And this is where the other two books come in.
For centuries, probably thanks to the Greeks and the rise of rhetoric and all, we believed humans made decisions in a careful, reasonable manner. That we took facts and objectively balanced them against each other to come to a brilliant and natural conclusion.
According to the Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis, we couldn’t be more wrong. Humans not only subsist on stories, but we use these stories to make judgments and decisions. Lewis’ book is about Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two Israeli psychologists who bashed down previous ideas about how people make decisions. They learned that no one has ever been convinced by a number, but instead that we humans need a story to give numbers meaning. A story gives our minds context and the stories that stick are the ones that carry emotional weight. For example, does it galvanize you to donate to environmental causes when you hear about the ice melt that raises the sea levels x number of feet, or do polar bears drowning because they no longer have the thick pieces of ice where they can rest open your wallet?
If The Undoing Project is mostly about why we make the decisions we do, The Storyteller’s Secret is a more of a nuts-and-bolts “how-to” on crafting the stories that start movements and sell millions. The book is a simple case study of dozens of storytellers, from Steve Jobs to Adam Levine, and how they used different tools of storytelling.
Within it are included nuggets like these:
A compelling story with an emotional trigger alters our brain chemistry, making us more trusting, understanding and open to ideas.
We have a built-in radar to protect ourselves from dishonesty and falsehoods, which is why the more specific a story, the more evidence we have against which to measure a story’s truthfulness.
Which brings me back to The Uninhabitable Earth.
Wallace-Wells states that humans believe “the roots of these [environmental] crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. The myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from nature…[which are] more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.” This makes dealing with the challenge of climate change difficult because “we’re making stories up rooted in our memories, effectively replacing probability judgments,” which lie in the realm of numbers. You see, we predict by making up stories, and ultimately our stories predict very little but explain everything, according to Lewis.
One of the things we know about tackling climate change is that we will have to make reforms. But as Lewis states, reforms always create winners and losers, and both sides will fight to maintain their advantage. So, how do we get the losers to accept change? We need to identify the reasons for their resistance and address them. I’m guessing that is easier said than done, but if we understand our mission, then perhaps we can use framing tools which could be as simple as changing the description of a situation and making a gain seem like a loss, which could cause “the losers” to completely flip their attitude toward risk and turn them from risk-avoiding to risk-seeking.
There will be a number of tools at our disposal to deal with climate change, including social media, which Callo reminds us “is the gateway drug to awareness, and never intended to host comprehensive long form content, but rather to seed your interest with just enough information to grab your attention and serve as a gateway to full material.”
The Undoing Project’s title comes from the tool our brains use to deal with our imagination and make sense of a world with infinite possibilities by reducing them. A world where our existence is under attack in a number of ways almost begs for our brains to undo the one thing we believe has created this crisis. However, according to Lewis, the more items which must be undone in order to create some alternative reality, the less likely the mind is to undo them. For example, there is the idea that if you could change one historical event would it be to kill baby Hitler, or keep him from failing as an artist? Both seem straightforward, and our brains can wrap around the subsequent changes. But what if Hitler was born a woman? The ramifications seem too intricate to be able to wrap our minds around the implications.
According to Wallace-Wells, “widespread alarm will shape our ethical impulses toward one another, and the politics that emerge from those impulses, is among the more profound questions being posed by the climate to the planet of people it envelops.” How we tell the stories will determine whether we ensure our survival as a species, not only on a macro but on a most intimate and personal level.