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Fire and Brimstone and Fort McMurray: Considering the Implications of Apocalyptic Rhetoric in Climate Communication

For the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Denver, CO. September 28, 2016
by

Don Duggan-Haas

on 11 April 2017

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Transcript of Fire and Brimstone and Fort McMurray: Considering the Implications of Apocalyptic Rhetoric in Climate Communication

Adgate Loomis, 1863 Union Army
Carolyn & Marilyn Loomis
Me and my siblings, about 1967
Cleveland's Cuyhoga River on fire (again)
Adgate & Minnie Loomis Honeymoon, 1871
Might need saving
We all want to be on the right side of history. For the ones we love.
Jeepers.
Not in need of saving
The Village People
World War II
...and my great-grandfather marched in front of President Lincoln. Horrible times were not over, but the abomination that was slavery did come to an end. Adgate and Minnie married in 1871, and honeymooned in Niagara Falls. They went on to have five daughters and four sons, and were married for more than 50 years. The brood included twins - Ruth and Ralph, born in 1891. Ralph was my grandfather. I don’t know if their life was wonderful, but it did have some wonderful outcomes.
The Civil War ended...
To consider the concept of wonderful horrible times, I’ll quickly step through five generations of my own family history. My great-grandfather, Adgate Loomis, was born Dec. 4, 1843, in Lebanon, Connecticut and my great-grandmother, his wife, Melissa “Minnie” Bridget Hardy, was born Dec. 13, 1847 in Hoskinsville, Ohio. Slavery was still firmly entrenched in the American South, and Adgate and his brother Lucius both fought for the Union Army, and Lucius died at the Andersonville Prison Camp. Clearly, these were horrible times.
We Live in Wonderful Horrible Times
My grandfather also saw the tragedy of war, serving in a machine gunners’ unit in World War I. He also saw pestilence - helping to manage an impromptu hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic. His twin, Ruth, died as a young woman. But, as these horrible things were going on, wonderful things were happening too. Nellie Brown, my grandmother, was the only woman in the University of Missouri's Rocky Mountain field camp. And Grandpa went on to earn a Master’s degree in agricultural economics and then a divinity degree. As an extension agent, he was effective in helping bring an end to swine cholera. He married Nellie and they had four children, including twins of their own, Carolyn and Marilyn (my mother), who were born in 1931. And my grandparents were married for more than fifty years. Grandpa managed a dairy co-op and preached in several churches, and returned to Agricultural Extension work for the University of Missouri in 1936. And Grandma taught physical geography and more.
And more tragedy & wonderful things
And Hitler rose to power in Europe, and the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into World War II. And my grandfather was fired from the Extension, as, "...the Extension didn’t need any pacifists." A few years later, my father, Roger Haas, enlisted in the Navy, though, fortunately, the war was in its final year. These were horrible times. But the war ended though my dad served until just before the Korean War began. My folks met at the University of Missouri, Dad attending on the GI Bill.
And, Hitler.
Teaching about climate change can be horribly depressing work. It seems as though we are marching headlong into hellish times, and are not sufficiently rising to the challenge. This, to some degree, is the natural state of things. We have always lived in horrible times, if you look at that way (which I tend to do). We’ve also always lived in marvelous times. Sometimes I can see that too, but reminders are helpful. When the situation becomes dire, as it seems to be doing now, we do have a history of rising to meet the ominous challenges. It is my hope we are in the process of doing that now.
And Jim Crow was still festering in the south, and Joe McCarthy was feeding the Red Scare. And Rock-and-Roll was coming up, and life expectancy was growing. And the skies were black with smoke and smog and rivers caught fire. And my parents married and had six kids, beginning with my brother in 1952 and ending with me in 1963, just a few months before President Kennedy was killed. And Dad worked on technologies to see people through the forests of Southeast Asia, and my brothers worried about (but were not called for) the draft. And Mom was a university librarian who wrote books about books. And Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were killed. And riots. And there was Woodstock and the Civil Rights Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. They were wonderful horrible times. And Mom and Dad were married for more than 50 years.
And, the beat goes on.
And Richard Nixon and Kent State. And Free Love. And disco. And the lakes and rivers got cleaner and the bald eagle came back. And, eventually, I got married and we had two wonderful kids, Kiana born in 2001, just a few months before September 11, and Nellie in 2004 as the country grew more and more mired in America’s longest war.
And more tragedy & wonderful things
All along, we worried about the fate of our children in these turbulent times, whatever time it happened to be. All along, horrible things were happening that looked like the end of the world. And each time it looked like the end of the world we did things to make it not be the end of the world. And, ok, it never really looked like the end of the world, though it may have looked like the end of civilization.
The world won't end, but civilization...
Yes, horrible things are happening now - This was largely written in July of 2016, in the aftermath of a series of horrible shootings, and it looks to be an unending series of horrible shootings. But violent crime is actually at its lowest level in decades, which is pretty wonderful. And, 2016 went down as the hottest year on record, which brought unprecedented droughts and floods and fires to various parts of the world, which is pretty horrible. And my daughters are kind, hardworking, smart, happy, engaged in things that make the world a better place, and beautiful. And hopefully, your kids are too, and so are you.
Most people are beautiful
There are horrible things in the world. When the horror becomes clear to enough people, we do something about it to make it less horrible. Let’s do that now. And celebrate the wonderful things too.
Act.
Don Duggan-Haas, Ph.D. dad55@cornell.edu
The Paleontological Research Institution pursues and integrates education and research, and interprets the history and systems of the Earth and its life, to increase knowledge, educate society, and encourage wise stewardship of the Earth. PRI (http://www.priweb.org) cares for one of the largest research collections of fossils in North America; publishes technical journals in paleontology; and provides programming and resources on Earth, environment, and evolution for public and K12 audiences. PRI hosts two public venues, the Museum of the Earth and the Cayuga Nature Center, and is an affiliate of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
About the Paleontological Research
Institution
Fire and Brimstone and Fort McMurray:
Abstract
Fire struck Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016 looking like hell on Earth, burning 1,500,000 acres, destroying 2,400 homes and leading to the evacuation of 90,000 people. While it is difficult to make causal links between individual events and climate change, this type of disaster is predicted to be more common in a warming world.

The story of Fort McMurray shares much with biblical stories. Scientists prophesied disaster, and disaster came to pass. Prophecies are more than simple predictions - they are parables intended to lead to repentance. Fort McMurray’s economy is built on the extraction of oil from tar sands - making Albertans carbon-intensive, and arguably in need of environmental redemption. The process also produces mountains of sulfur, a.k.a., brimstone.

We have been telling apocalyptic stories as long as we’ve been telling stories. Environmentalists have been telling modern versions of these tales for generations. From the Book of Genesis to The Lorax, humans love a good story of paradise lost.

There are at least five reasons for exploring these issues:

The kind of story is very commonly used, though often without recognition (or awareness) of biblical and mythological roots.
Such approaches may have substantially different outcomes for different people within the same audience.
In school settings, there are good opportunities for interdisciplinary connections, particular to language arts and the social sciences.
Attending to these issues is a vehicle for building understanding and appreciation of complexity.

Understanding the use of mythological rhetoric can help identify problematic claims. If an argument is grounded in a paradise past narrative, or promises a simple cure for multiple problems, or if the rationale is grounded in a narrative of good and evil, be suspicious.

Such stories are highly motivating for certain individuals, but ineffective for others. For some, they are not merely ineffective, but the opposite of effective, motivating people to work against the storyteller’s goals.

What can we do to make apocalyptic/lost Eden stories remain effective for those they are effective for while avoiding the problem of them being anti-effective for others (all while being true to the science)?

This session draws from the forthcoming Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_and_brimstone
What do you picture?
What does fire and brimstone bring to mind?
What comes to mind?
How does fire and brimstone relate to the way you see the world?
Fire & Brimstone
& the Lorax
We've been telling apocalyptic stories as long as we've been telling stories.
In polarizing issues, it’s often easy to find apocalyptic rhetoric at both poles of the issue in question. The extremes related to climate change are destruction of the environment and civilization (or even the entire Earth) at one extreme and destruction of the economy and the “American way of life” at the other.
Oil ≠ Evil
Fossil fuels made our modern way of life possible.
Prophecies are more than predictions
They are also calls to change one’s (evil) ways, to repent. And to repent is not simply to apologize but also to change one’s ways.
Brimstone & Fort McMurray
How thoughtfully are we using these ways of framing?
Oil Sands Extraction, Fort McMurray, Alberta
Fire & Fort McMurray
What does fire and brimstone bring to mind?
“And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
Revelation 20:10, King James Bible
Prophecies are predictions
While it is difficult to link specific events to climate change, the drought that led to the fires in Fort McMurray aligns with what climate scientists predicted.
Fossil fuels endanger our modern way of life.
There are at least five reasons for exploring our use of this kind of rhetoric.
1. The kind of story is very commonly used, though often without recognition of biblical and mythological roots.
By paying attention to structures, origins, and implications, we’re more likely to use them more appropriately.
2. Such approaches may have substantially different outcomes for different people within the same audience.
Using a doom-and-gloom framework for environmental problems will:
some may be motivated to work in ways opposing the storyteller’s goals.
some may simply tune out the messaging and,
motivate some to work to reduce potential impacts,
3. For educators, there are good opportunities for interdisciplinary connections, particular to English language arts and the social sciences.
4. Attending to these issues is a vehicle for building understanding and appreciation of complexity
Bottom lines:
5. Understanding the use of mythological rhetoric can help identify problematic claims.
If an argument is:
grounded in a paradise past narrative, or,
promises a simple cure for multiple problems, or,
if the rationale is grounded in a narrative of good and evil, be suspicious.
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00T0GIB10/ref=pe_385040_118058080_TE_M1T1DP
Levinovitz is
a professor of religion and applies his expertise in mythology to analyze claims about diet fads. The framework is useful for understanding other common myths as well. The last three bullets come from this work.
While the end of the world has been prophesied for a very, very long time, it hasn't yet come to pass.
Considering Some Implications of Apocalyptic Rhetoric in Climate Communication
Apocalyptic stories involve prophecies.
Find the presentation here: http://bit.ly/Fire-and-brimstone
Use apocalyptic framing very carefully or not at all.
An example of what you might do instead follows.
But moral framing is still appropriate.
Full transcript