Kurt's Blog: Conversations Around the Fire

Since 1994, Kurt has offered contemplative kayaking retreats in Alaska through Inside Passages. His work as a mindfulness teacher now includes regular mindfulness retreats and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes in the Seattle area. Kurt's book "The Circumference of Home", and other essays and writings, are also available on this site. He periodically updates his blog reflections on this page, "Conversations Around the Fire".

May 14 2013

Joe Brewer on “Why global warming is a lousy meme.”


Joe Brewer at Whidbey Institute Climate Conference
Jim Carroll photo

Joe Brewer is a policy analyst with Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle, and co-founder of DarwinSF. He is an energetic speaker who loves what he does and knows how to be serious and have fun at the same time. Recently Joe joined forces with a Hungarian colleague named Lazlo Karafiath to found the Climate Meme Project. He spoke about their groundbreaking work at a recent climate conference on Whidbey Island.

According to Joe, “Memes are the genetic code of culture. They generate ideas and thoughts. Memes are viruses that replicate and spread throughout society. They activate across social networks to change human behavior. Cultural evolution comes about through the generation of new memes.”

The first photos of earth from space, for example, were powerful memes that redefined us as interconnected passengers on “spaceship earth”, and helped launch the environmental movement. Memes often function beneath the radar of conscious awareness as they drive our thinking and behavior toward new forms of cultural expression and understanding.

While global warming is arguably the greatest threat to human well being of our era, it has remained a niche concern, and has so far refused to spread virally. Joe and Lazlo started the Climate Meme Project when they realized that “global warming is a really lousy meme. It does a terrible job of spreading. It is really hard to get people to think about it and act upon it, it is really hard to get people on their own to feel compelled to tell stories about it, or to bring it up at cochtail parties.” Their research shows that the global warming meme has infected the minds of at best 5% of the world’s population. And given the scale of the actual thread posed to humanity by climate destabilization, this failure of the climate meme to infect our culture, and move us toward large-scale behavioral change, is a really big problem.

Slide from Climate Meme Report

The Climate Meme Project is creating an ecological map of the memes that have arisen around climate change – both positive and negative. What Brewer and Karafiath have found is that “a gloomy outlook pervades the whole global warming meme landscape. Choosing between extinction and a long-shot at basic survival is not appealing to the masses.” Memes that capture this feeling well include, “I don’t want our pale blue dot to be a brown smudge.”, and “Climate change is humanity’s ‘mission impossible’.” We tend to develop a culturally immunity to memes that make us feel helpless or overwhelmed.

“The food of memes is human attention”, and memes that are not nourishing to our sense of possibility and well-being starve from lack of attention.

Joe Brewer at Climate Conference
Jim Carroll photo

Examples of more effective memes include those that elicit a sense of agency, personal power, and the capacity for joy; “We can change really fast when we want to.” “There are so many solutions that we haven’t even thought of yet, that could be game changers.” “A fossil-free future is totally possible, here and now. And our lives will definitely be made better by it.”

Joe and Lazlo have identified “symbiotic” memes as especially promising in this regard. These are memes that move our behavior in the same direction as climate memes, but without the baggage and negativity associated with gloomy climate thinking. These would include entrenpreneurial thinking around the new energy economy, social media that connect us in lively and joyful new ways, aiding the rapid spread of new social memes like the local food culture, the new bicycle culture, and new, more effective forms of political and activist engagement.

The Climate Meme Project helps underscore how deeply this crisis is rooted in human perception, and how important the science of perception will be in dislodging our culture from its fossil fuel addictions. A synopsis of the current climate meme landscape, and how we can change it for the better, is presented in their new report. Learn how you can help Joe and Lazlo build and spread new climate memes based on collaboration, creativity, innovation and love.

Slide from Climate Meme Project


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Jan 15 2013

Training as warriors of the spirit

To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous strength and courage, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place for this warrior strength is in the heart.”  – Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart 

After lots of rain this fall, we’ve had clear, cold weather for almost a week here in Puget Sound, which has been sweet. The mountains are plastered with snow, nearly to tidewater, and the skiing in the Cascades has been fabulous. I love the clarity of clear winter days after so much rain. The fresh scent of the air and the feeling of a moist, palpable cold on the face is invigorating. We even had a dusting of snow yesterday, which never fails to stir an old childhood longing in me for the kind of real winter that rarely reaches us here in the Puget lowlands.

Such days offer an all-too-brief refuge from the bigger picture on climate that is so “taking the world by storm.” Even as I enjoy the respite of a winter day that ties me to comforting childhood memories, I am never quite free of the burden of knowing the larger inconvenient truth. As it becomes more clear that the ship of climate change has already arrived at the dock, our human focus is shifting from prevention to adaptation. By any measure, this past week has offered unusually grim reminders that climate disruption is here to stay. How to live with it, and to navigate the difficult emotions it arouses, is critical now.

Let’s start with the breaking news. Here is some of what has come down the pipes in the last week alone. The Seattle Times carried a piece last Saturday entitled “Climate Change Moving Faster Than Expected.”   It highlights the newly released National Climate Assessment report, which states, “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer.”

While mountains of scientific evidence alone have failed to convince many Americans of the seriousness of these trends, we tend to believe our own eyes. The monster heat waves of the last year got our attention. Hurricane Sandy certainly got our attention. Monster wild fires across the midwest got our attention. Temperatures are rising fast, rainfall is more intense and erratic, drought more severe, and rising sea levels and storm surges are increasingly threatening our coastal cities. It’s in our face now.

The NCA report came just days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its annual State of the Climate Report, declaring 2012 the hottest year on record in the United States, exceeding the 20th Century average by a whopping 3.2 degrees fahrenheit.

Also this week, the heatwave gripping Australia is so intense that the Dept. of Meteorology has been forced to create new colors on its weather maps to depict temperatures now climbing between 122 – 129 degree F. 170 wild fires are raging in New South Wales, and the fire danger there is currently rated as “Catastrophic”. An intense dust cloud (image at left) caused by extreme drought and high winds, moved offshore into the ocean near Onslow, Australia. Nothing like this has been seen before. It is new under the sun. Australia’s bizarre climate extremes are seen as a harbinger of what will soon become common in other parts of the world as well.

This is no longer a reality, in other words, that we have any prospect of escaping. Nor is it a reality that lurks in some abstract, indeterminant future. It is a reality that we must now learn to live with as the new baseline of our shared life on earth, even as we ramp up our determination to alter the deep habits of carbon consumption that has led us to this unexpected new precipice.

As I attempt to wrap my mind and heart around these painful truths, I know that we will have to find antidotes to the fear and anxiety (and subsequent denial) that such events naturally arouse in the human mind. We will have to find antidotes to the “disaster fatigue” that can leave us feeling disempowered on the sidelines. We need to become warriors of the spirit. Lately I have felt drawn to the Buddhist archetype of the Shambhala Warrior. Unlike the traditional image of a warrior as aggressive and ruthless, this warrior archetype combines the best masculine qualities of strength and fearlessness with powerful feminine qualities of wisdom, compassion and a commitment to non-harming. In her book So Far From Home, which I riffed on last week as well, Meg Wheatley describes the path this way: “As warriors for the human spirit, we discover our right work, work that we know is ours to do no matter what. We engage wholeheartedly, embody values we cherish, let go of outcomes, and carefully attend to relationships. We serve those issues and people we care about, focused not so much on making a difference as on being a difference.”

The path of the spiritual warrior is a tough assignment. It always has been. It requires, in Jack Kornfield’s words, “tremendous strength and courage”. Its grounding is in the heart.

There is no minimizing the scope of the crisis we now face. But despair is only one option for a response, and denial is just another. Neither is inevitable. And neither is particularly helpful. Somewhere between denial and despair lies a third way. Call it the path of the spiritual warrior. This path finds its strength in moments of open-hearted presence. It taps into the inexhaustible aliveness of Now. From this place we fall naturally into fearlessness. Fear falls away like mist in the morning sunshine. Acts of courage and service can now flow freely, unimpeded by fear and cynicism. Joy can catch up with us, right in the midst of our simplest daily offerings. It is not an easy path. It takes discipline and lots of practice. It requires a community of dedicated fellow spirit-warriors. It does not guarantee that things will turn out the way we want. But it is the path I choose, and I welcome fellow travelers on this path.

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Apr 10 2012

“We’re all climate science deniers.”

Sometimes I wonder how I got picked for this job. I don’t remember applying for it, and I get paid very little to do it. It’s especially odd given how conflict-averse I am by nature. I hate standing out from the crowd. My need to fit in, to belong in my tribe, runs deep in my genes. So how is it that I keep coming back to the inconvenient truths no one seems to want to hear? I’ve spent years trying to dodge this calling as a reluctant prophet, but to no avail. I left the ministry thirty years ago in a vain attempt to damp it down. I was tired of hearing people tell me how guilty they felt because they hadn’t been coming to church – like I was some kind of ecclesiastical cop. That’s not what I’d signed up for. But here it is again. These days I’m a climate activist, and my presence in the room is more likely to bring up comments about how guilty people feel because they’ve been driving so much, or because they just flew back from a vacation in Mexico. Like it’s my fault that they have to bother with all these guilty feelings. This is the part of the activist calling that can really make me grouchy. Mention climate change at any social gathering and it is a guaranteed conversation stopper every time.

Which is especially odd, because I live in a liberal island enclave that prides itself on its progressive politics. Few members of my “tribe” dispute that climate change is real, or that there is an urgent need to transform the way we live. In fact one hears a lot on my island about “the Decisive Decade”, “the Great Turning”, the “Paradigm Shift”, the dawn of a “New Story”.  At least one hears a lot about these things during the gaps between trips to Europe, Bali, and Costa Rica.

I was talking about this pervasive contradiction with a prominent Northwest climate activist recently.  He pointed out that, “We are all climate science deniers when it comes to how we are living.” I found it refreshing to hear this dirty little secret acknowledged by a leader I respect in the climate community. We are all caught in the same web of contradictions, even those of us who are dedicating our lives to unsnarling those contradictions in the public and private sphere. We are all caught in the same gathering storm, of which we are both victim and perpetrator. It’s no one’s fault. The point of keeping this question before us is not to amplify the guilt, but to crack the code that uses guilt as a substitute for actual change. There is a huge amount of personal energy locked up in guilt and denial that can be liberated for use in  constructive action and community-building. Guilt is the last thing I’m interested in – for myself or anyone else. Honest self-appraisal, yes, but that’s a different animal. I find it fascinating to probe this mystery of our human nature, that leads us to believe one story about who we are, and live a completely different one, even when to do so is flagrantly self-destructive.

Acknowledging this contradiction, even if it is uncomfortable, is a good fork in the road to pause at. Getting curious about what makes a truth so uncomfortable is a good first step on a more realistic and satisfying path. It is not the same thing as assigning blame.  These contradictions are ancient ones – the need to belong to a tribe, the need to project blame away from ourselves by creating enemies to project it on, even our tendency to go after the messenger when the truth being delivered is an unwelcome one. As E.O. Wilson has argued, these tendencies are coded into our genes. They are responsible for our greatest successes as a species, as well as our greatest atrocities. Curiosity and humor about these ancient contradictions can help us ask the right questions, and dare to strike out in new directions. What are the “reassuring lies” that we are currently flocking to, in our vain attempts to avoid the inconvenient truth about our disintegrating climate? Barbara Kingsolver asks, “Is anyone thinking this through? In the awful moment when someone demands at gunpoint, ‘Your money or your life,’ that’s not supposed to be a hard question.”


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Mar 04 2012

Extreme Tornadoes Put Climate Change Back In The Public Mind

“The most prolific 5-day period of tornado activity on record for so early in the year”?

NBC: “It’s as if a huge chunk of the country has suffered a deep, deep scar.”

Following the rash of devastating early tornadoes last week, Joe Romm has written in  his Climate Progress blog,

“The unexpectedly fierce and fast tornado outbreak so early in the season has folks asking again about a possible link to climate change. Climatologist Dr. Kevin Trenberth emailed me that, because of climate change, “there is every expectation that the [tornado] season will move up in time.  The warm winter in the US is perhaps an indicator of the nature of the changes to be expected.”

The former head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research stands by his 2011 statement, “It is irresponsible not to mention climate change in stories that presume to say something about why all these storms and tornadoes are happening.”

Despite an alarming 30% drop in media coverage of climate change between 2009 and 2010, and another 20% drop in 2011 over 2010, it’s encouraging to note that the number of Americans who say they think global warming is happening is up 7% from last spring, to 62%. The same report suggests that direct perception of the impacts of extreme weather, rather than media reports or the science about it, are behind this rising acceptance of climate change. “With record-shattering droughts, floods and storms in 2011 that scientists attribute to an increasing degree of warming, atmospheric circulation changes, and extra moisture in the atmosphere driven by greenhouse gas emissions, and with 4 out of 5 Americansimpacted by extreme weather since 2006, more people say that temperatures and weather changes are influencing their perception of global warming.”

A recent Gallup Poll showed that 78% of Democrats see solid evidence of climate change. 55% of Independents accept climate change, compared to 30% who do not.. And more Republicans see solid evidence for climate change than do not, at 47% to 42%. Furthermore, Democrats who took a Green position on climate change won much more oftenthan Democrats who remained silent on the subject in both 2008 and 2010. Given this, it is strange indeed that climate initiatives have been taken off the table by President Obama and most Democrats leading into the 2012 election cycle.

As D.R. Tucker has written in his piece called “The Warm War” President Obama needs to do the right thing by delivering a “State of the Climate Address” highlighting the need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Tucker rightly states that, “Obama has been remarkably skittish about mentioning climate change. The indispensable environmental blogger Joseph Romm has argued that David Axelrod and other members of Obama’s inner circle have convinced the President that environmental and climate issues do not drive votes. Team Obama has it half-right — environmental and climate issues do not drive the votes of those who are already vehemently anti-Obama. There is no political downside to Obama making climate change an issue in this election. Those who would be disgusted by a “State of the Climate Address” have already sent their donations to the Santorum campaign.”

Hopefully this newest spate of tragic weather events will tip the balance back toward action in Congress, and visibility in the press. And it is our place to keep this point clearly before the President and Congress as we head into a turbulent election cycle.

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Feb 10 2012

What happens when we get punched in the paradigms?

When I embarked on my year of car-free local living in late 2007, I had a strong wind of idealism in my sails. An Inconvenient Truth had recently won the Oscar for best documentary of the year, Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Public sentiments were aroused to spur strong action on climate legislation. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about it. Surely this was the pivotal moment that would lead to some real cultural and political shifts, and I wanted to be part of it.

How naïve that all seems now, with climate denial rampant in America, and with public and media support for climate action plummeting. The political right is engaged in a virulent campaign to discredit any mention of climate solutions, and the left has fallen nearly silent on the subject. The most recent Pew poll on America’s political priorities has climate change a distant last place.

The other day I received this email from my old friend Gary Partenheimer, who teaches at a progressive Prep School in New England. I had spoken to the students at his school last year, and my book The Circumference of Home is being used as a text in several of the classes there. Gary gave me this intriguing update on how the book is being received:

“My colleague used the book with her 9th graders in the Humanities program, and I got to see the reactions of the girls in the dorm where I do weekly duty . . .  LOTS of resistance to the idea that an individual could meet the challenge of a radically different life in a satisfying way. It is a real adolescent stronghold to be able to hang onto “I know it’s a problem, but I’m too small to do anything . . . ” (thus, permission to write good papers and keep those techno-toys crankin’) . . .  or, as I’ve summed it up:

Q: What happens when you get punched in the paradigms?

A: Your paradigms punch back . . . !

As Donella Meadows said, in order to challenge the existing paradigms (the world is the playground for the elite, and anyone who works hard enough can gain that status) we have to challenge them continually, because there is a social determination not to see countermanding evidence.”

Clearly Gary is right. Climate change has punched us hard in the paradigms, and our paradigms are punching back.

Think Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, who are all in full flight from their previously very public stands in favor of climate action. Democrats and Republicans alike are running scared from the climate “issue”, because it has their constituents’ paradigms in a veritable froth of fury.

So yes, I was naïve to think we had turned a corner back in 2008. And yes, it is discouraging to watch our current stable of leaders falling all over each other in their fervor to ridicule the laws of physics and chemistry.

Naomi Klein really nailed the conundrum of climate denial in a recent article in The Nation entitled “Capitalism vs. The Climate”. She wrote, “Climate change used to be something most everyone said they cared about—just not all that much. When Americans were asked to rank their political concerns in order of priority, climate change would reliably come in last. But now there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change—though what they care about is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs. For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to their worldview as low taxes, gun ownership and opposition to abortion. . . This culture-war intensity is the worst news of all, because when you challenge a person’s position on an issue core to his or her identity, facts and arguments are seen as little more than further attacks, easily deflected. . . But the effects of the right-wing climate conspiracies reach far beyond the Republican Party. The Democrats have mostly gone mute on the subject, not wanting to alienate independents. And the media and culture industries have followed suit.”

So, surprise, surprise! It’s not going to be as easy as Leonardo Dicaprio strutting onto the Academy Awards stage with Al Gore, proclaiming that the time to act is now. We’ve been kicked hard in the paradigms. And their counterpunch is much fiercer than most of us idealists ever dreamed possible.

That is important information, but it is far from the last word. At the moment there is no doubt we are losing the intensity battle to the right wing. They are the ones screaming the loudest, gloating in a temporary “freedom of information” that comes when we unhinge ourselves from the facts. At the moment our political allies in Congress have gone mute, taking cover from the poison arrows that are aimed at anyone daring to utter the words “climate change”.

But the battle for the future, like climate change itself, is a long-term proposition. It will far outlast the naysayers. An idealism that no longer aligns with reality is a good thing to leave behind. The post-carbon future is not going to be dreamed up over tequilas on our next vacation to Mexico. It will come when more of us are willing to take the consequences of our convictions, and put our full creative fervor into being the change that will lead us into a post-carbon future. I continue to find that a fascinating and ultimately heartening challenge. I continue to be inspired by the efforts of countless individuals and groups who are working hard, often beneath the radar of media attention, to show what that future might look like. Here in the Northwest, Climate Solutions and Sightline are examples of places we can go to find allies, and examples of positive solution-building. More than ever, I take heart in the deepening companionship that comes from being part of these efforts.



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