I have been working on a book, loosely related to a TEDx talk I gave last year.
Shortly after the talk, an Antarctic ice shelf about the size of Los Angeles broke into pieces and drifted off to sea. While the two events are unrelated – I don’t think I can be personally blamed for what transpired on the coast of East Antarctica – they were similar in one way.
When an ice shelf collapses, it appears sudden. That is because we see what happens on the surface. Like any iceberg, most of the mass of an ice shelf – the floating extension of a land-based ice sheet – is hidden below the surface. Down there, warming ocean waters have been slowly melting ice, chipping away at the foundation of the structure, and setting the stage for the collapse.
The book I’m trying to write, like the TEDx talk, is also about what lies beneath.
The message in that talk is that climate change is a failure of the imagination. Ancient ways of thinking and outdated systems, things rooted so deep in our collective psyche that we don’t even notice them, have been holding us back. To solve climate change, we need the guts to imagine a different future and to chart the path there.
Why am I writing this now? I’m exploring these ideas further while working on the book. The process has me thinking of the gap between what we experience every day, especially in today’s social media obsessed world, and what lies beneath.
Any packaged product of one’s labour, be it a simple tweet, a Tik Tok video, a scientific paper, a TEDx talk, or a Marvel movie, is the tip of the iceberg of the actual work. Without a “making of” story, the audience only receives a small representation of the immense work required to create that product. Imagine if you access the full background of the information and images you consume. Granted, even those “making of” stories, posts, and videos often have an unreal, glossy finish.
In the case of the TEDx talk, getting to the day of the talk required preparation that was visible only to my immediate family, my fellow speakers, and our coaches. Viewers at home see the final 12 minutes of this work. They don’t see all the self-doubt, the coaching sessions, the rebelling against the coaching sessions because I can be a stubborn and uncoachable person, or the early mornings wandering the neighbourhood muttering my script to myself.
With a talk, a book, or a film, that might be OK. The invisibility of the work is part of the point. The objective is to tell an efficient and well-crafted story in hopes of engaging new people in a subject, without burying them in the subsurface technical details.
Swimming among icebergs, however, can often be dangerous. They can tip over, and take people down with them.*
Libraries and classrooms could, and should, be filled with treatises on the dangerous effects of only seeing the polished finished product, from Instagram’s and Tik Tok’s contribution to body image issues and depression among teens, to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with Amazon’s just-in-time package delivery system, to the misinformation and disinformation jeopardizing the democratic process.
At some fundamental level, rising anxiety, mistrust of expertise, embrace of conspiratorial thinking, and threats to western democracies may come from living in and relying on systems more vast and complex than anything in the history of human existence. When systems we don’t understand break or don’t work to our expectations – the package doesn’t arrive, the social media post doesn’t get attention, the candidate my neighbours and I voted for doesn’t win – we don’t know who to blame. That can make it tempting for some to believe that a few bad faith actors are pulling the strings on a puppet show, rather than the reality that the world is so complex that linear cause and effect relationships cannot explain your daily experiences.
The invisibility of the subsurface processes is also accelerating the consumption of information and material stuff, creating its own runaway feedback process. We could not buy, watch, or listen to as much stuff if buying, watching, and listening required physically and mentally engaging with the processes required to produce and deliver the stuff you are buying, watching, and listening.
Understanding what lies beneath the surface is necessary to tackle massive collective action problems like climate change. As I discuss in the TEDx talk, research indicates that slowing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be a net winner, in terms of human health, jobs, the economy, and the environment. To get there, we need transformational change in how we generate electricity, power our vehicles, and heat and cool our homes.
Such change can’t happen if we only grapple with what we see on the surface, the daily back-and-forth that dominates social media, rather than all the deeply rooted systems and ways of thinking which need to evolve.
I won’t claim to have an easy solution. For now, I’m diving into deep cold waters and studying what’s down there, in hope of being able to report back on what I see.
* Shout out and apologies to everyone that knows me well enough to think this post would be about me literally swimming among icebergs as part of some charitable event. That does sound like something I would do.