When I lived in Boulder, I had a great dentist, and my dentist had a great poster. It was taped to the ceiling, where it was the only thing I could see when I was lying there, vulnerable, in his reclining chair, surrounded by his instruments of torture.
It read: “You don’t have to floss all your teeth! Just the ones you want to keep.”
!!! Truly wonderful, on several levels. First, the message was exquisitely phrased. It seized advantage of my tendency to feel lucky, to fantasize that while others might have to floss their teeth, or do the job carefully, I didn’t. And then, having hooked me on that thought, the poster exposed it for the hallucination it is.
Then there was the next level down. The dentist was not telling me this out of any self-interest. There would be more business for him – more calls for his services – if I didn’t floss. He was genuinely trying to save me pain and expense.
The message made me laugh. It made me think. It made me like the dentist.
And it made me floss.
Maybe the analogy between climate scientists and the dentist hits a little close to home.
Surveys keep telling us that scientists are highly regarded and trusted. Yet many climate scientists don’t feel the love. They feel beset and beleaguered.
Why? Perhaps it’s because although politicians and scientists have the same interest – innovation – that the innovation accomplished by climate scientists [or environmental scientists more broadly, for that matter] is of a mostly unpleasant sort. The materials scientist or her friend the engineer get to tell you that whereas your old television was rather clunky and had a cathode-ray-tube (if you’re in the younger demographic you probably didn’t even know that CRT meant something, did you?), your new one can be huge, almost any size you want, and hi-def, and cheap. The doctor gets to tell you that even though your mother died of her breast cancer, you’re going to survive yours. The chemist gets to tell you that while your parents’ colored clothes ran, and therefore had to be separated from the whites when they did the wash, your colored clothes are colorfast, and all your clothes can be washed together. No sorting necessary for you! Or he gets to tell you that whereas your mother was brunette, you can be blonde. Get the idea? Every other scientist gets to bring you good news. Look what’s unprecedented! Look what’s easier! Look what’s cheaper, and now available to everyone!
But Geo-scientists? Earth scientists? Climatologists? We get to tell you that you used to think such-and-such a process of natural resource extraction was okay, but now we know it harms the environment, and people downstream from your mine or well. We get to tell you that while you thought you were living outside the floodplain, you’re really in flood peril after all. We get to tell you that cheap fossil fuel use, which has brought your life so many benefits, really should now be put to an end. We get to tell you that those winters you saw as part of the unchanging rhythm of life might be quite different for your children, and different again for theirs.
Just like that dentist. Ever notice that when you leave work early, and announce the reason (fill in the blank), that your co-workers are almost universally envious?
But! Tell them that you’re leaving early because you have to see the dentist – and you hear groans of sympathy from your friends and catcalls from your rivals. Suddenly, another couple of hours’ work doesn’t seem so bad to your colleagues. They’re realizing they don’t have it so bad after all.
But we can learn from our likeable dentist. Here’s how.
Often when we deliver the gloomy environmental message – resources are going to be harder to come by, the environment is more fragile than you thought, the Earth is far more dangerous than you realized, we follow it up with this closer: and you should be investing even more in my work so I can give you even more bad news, and give it to you sooner and more often.
But suppose we replaced this closing thought with one that would clearly result in less business for us, and more for the next person – or better yet, the hearer. Suppose our closers looked more like this:
– The planet is warming, and therefore you get to buy that really interesting, high-tech hybrid car that caught your eye, and feel good about it.
– Fresh water supplies are dwindling, but don’t give me more money; invest in all those new filtration technologies that are so cheap they could be brought even to the poorest African village and used to start microbusinesses. You could become rich while making other people’s lives healthier and happier!
– Food supplies may be compromised by coming cycles of flood and drought, so go into agronomy. Increase crop yields with drought-resistant strains of grain and you’ll make a mint.
– Malaria and other mosquito-borne disease might be on the rise, but not if you join up with Bill Gates and others to make netting available to the masses, or develop medicines, or find ways to sterilize mosquitoes instead of kill them with DDT.
– Mining rare earths harms the environment, but you can be the one who discovers the substitute, and I’ll help you sell the need for such research to the Congress.
These aren’t the greatest examples, maybe, but you grasp the notion. Take some time. Come up with your better ones!
Like my dentist, we can shift the focus from ourselves, empower our listeners, and show them an array of positive, profitable, self-interested steps they can take.
They’ll laugh. They’ll think. They’ll like us. And they’ll follow through.
“C’mon Bill,” you’re thinking, “the truth is, people do need to invest more in hydrology, and atmospheric chemistry, and climate modeling, and all the satellite and other measurement technologies that are necessary to our work. We need this stuff! And it’s getting more expensive. In this constrained, contentious social climate, who’ll look after us if we don’t?”
The answer is easy. All those folks we helped get started. The renewable energy crowd – and even Big Oil, for that matter. The transportation industry. Agribusiness. Insurers. Many others. They’ll be huge fans. They’ll make our case for us.
Remember my dentist. He knew that some, maybe many of us would floss, and convert our trips to the dentist from bridgework and crowns and oral surgery to mere teeth-cleaning that his dental assistant could do. But he also knew that he’d still have more than enough work. He knew he could still afford the office upgrades – to that better x-ray equipment, to the 100,000 rpm drill from the 50,000 rpm drill, and eventually even to the laser-based technology.
You don’t have to make all your industries, and your cities, and your life’s pleasures sustainable! Just the ones you want to keep.