TerreWEB-log: Randy Olson

Yes, it’s been a while, for several very personal reasons I won’t go into. But, I’m pasting here a blog post I wrote a little while ago on another blog I was working on  for a group I’m partially funded by here at UBC: TerreWEB. I’m discontinuing that blog because I’ve changed my thesis direction (more on that later), but I liked this post enough to keep it. It’s about when Randy Olson came to talk to TerreWEB.


Randy Olson hates An Inconvenient Truth. He says the 2006 climate film was rushed in order to capitalise (my word, take it as you will) on the disastrous weather events of the previous year, exemplified by Hurricane Katrina. Along with its lacklustre production, consisting largely of a PowerPoint presentation, Olson pins another communication sin on the film: an un-likeable personality, who is not completely trustworthy. Facts, says Olson, do not speak for themselves, but Al Gore probably isn’t the best person to tell their story either.

Randy Olson is a scientist (marine biologist) turned film-maker, and has a lot of things in his head. His talk in the TerreWEB seminar series was one similar to that he gave a few months ago at UBC, and much the same, one would assume, as one he’s been giving a while now: about how to make your science (or policy) into a story. How to captivate, spellbind, educate and above all, communicate. He tells the fundamentals of storytelling, and gave some examples of recent great science stories he’s heard – telling us ones he documented in a recent blog post from the Aspen Environment Forum. His talk is well planned and well executed.

But Olson has a lot of things in his head, and in asking him a question I got a dump of examples and anecdotes after which I really wanted to tell him he was allowed to breathe now. My question sprang from a reading suggested by Olson before the seminar, and which I would suggest to you: Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World. In it, Nicholas Kristof,co- author of the recent book Half the Sky, lays out a simple formula for bringing our attention to situations in Africa to the actual point of action to resolve them. While my scientific mind is wary of ‘simple formulas’, Kristof’s argument resonates in so many examples of communicating terrible news: make it personal, bring it down to a level people can actually visualize helping in, and provide hope:

If one lesson is the need to emphasize hopefulness, the second is that storytelling needs to focus on an individual, not a group. A classic experiment involved asking people to donate to help hungry children in West Africa. One group was asked to help a seven-year-old girl named Rokia, in the country of Mali. A second was asked to donate to help millions of hungry children. A third was asked to help Rokia but was provided with statistical information that gave them a larger context for her hunger. Not surprisingly, people donated more than twice as much to help Rokia as to help millions of children.

Considering the type of information I, and my fellow TerreWEB scholars are keen to communicate, this begs the obvious question I tried to pose (albeit poorly) to Olson: How can we ever do this for climate change? Where are the individual stories, of one little girl who wants to go to school, who we can help by buying a textbook? We can do it for conservation perhaps, saving one cute animal at a time, but climate change itself? Carbon emissions? What is further from a deeply personal, small-change solve-able thing than that?

Olson gave me a fun example of “non-lateral thinking”, where folks at the CDC, tasked with yet again trying to make people care about disaster preparedness in case of hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters,  came up with the idea of promoting “zombie preparedness“, which, coincidentally, requires all the same preparations. But, it’s a tough question really to answer. Some people try to humanize climate change by dreaming up nightmarish future worlds for their children, but people care surprisingly little about what world their children will face. We’re just not wired to think of a future that far-flung as a reality.

Programs like TerreWEB aim to train one scientist at a time to make his or her own work a story that people will care about, and maybe that is a sensible approach. But as with all gradual communication and eventual action on climate change – will it simply be too little, too late?


One thought on “TerreWEB-log: Randy Olson

  1. Hi H, Mr. Olson sounds like someone who is very much after my own heart if I’m honest. Indeed that Al Gore travesty did more harm to the cause of environmental issues than any number of aggressive AGW sceptics hurling abuse form the sidelines. However cutting to the core of his point and highlighting the phrase “try to humanize climate change” I think this is the problem isn’t it? It’s fine to create a fictional starving waif in some squalid fly blown hut to encourage the average taxpayer to open their purse but the real problem is the few thousand (and that’s all it really is) people who actually run the world. I don’t mean the politicians (although some do stick their fingers in) but the really top layer of the very highest earners and conglomerate board directors. The sort of people who look down on the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Gates and smile at their abject poverty with complete and utter satisfaction. These are the people who control what we all want, think and worry about. They drive commodities and in their world the environment, climate or even tomorrow mean absolutely nothing at all

    But here’s a thought. Can I speak to you for a few moments about a poor and neglected child? This person, who I shall call E had a promising start in life but circumstances turned against her and year by year she was robbed of her dignity and self esteem. Everything that you and I take for granted has been taken away and now faces a very uncertain future, stripped of every shred of dignity and self respect she is at a crossroads in life which, with the right sort of help, right now, could help put her back on to a path of recovery that might just lead to some sort of meaningful future, otherwise it is a journey down a twisted path of depraved slavery and abuse before a premature and very painful, lonely death. Before I forget, the name of this young person…. oh sorry the Earth. M

    >________________________________ > From: Hayley Dunning >To: mp.lloyd@btinternet.com >Sent: Friday, 2 November 2012, 4:40 >Subject: [New post] TerreWEB-log: Randy Olson > > > WordPress.com >Flakkarin posted: “Yes, it’s been a while, for several very personal reasons I won’t go into. But, I’m pasting here a blog post I wrote a little while ago on another blog I was working on for a group I’m partially funded by here at UBC: TerreWEB. I’m discontinuing that bl” >

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