TL;DR for the skimmer
The only way to mobilize society to prioritize important, tough problems like climate change is to follow the religious model of social movement. Solving these problems is a whole other beast – but at the very least, these problems have to become societal priorities first so that more of the world’s smartest individuals will actually identify them and solve them.
The problem of climate change needs an idol and a story, and it’s up to us to craft what those will be.
My first ever visit to Rome was mostly spent gaping at the sheer volume of art that covers every square meter of surface area of the many basilicas throughout the city. Sculptures that look almost soft to the touch, huge frescoes that completely cover the vaulted ceilings, paintings the sizes of ten people lined up together, gold foiled everything… The list goes on.
It’s not just the art, but also the almost obscene opulence of the decor and architectural design. The picture below is just one example from one of many similar buildings in Rome.
The implications of this are insane.
Think about it – it takes an artist months, even years to paint and sculpt works the size and detail of which seem commonplace in these Roman basilicas. Each basilica houses over a hundred such pieces.
Think about the scarcity of resources during that time.
I remember standing there next to my friend, during one of the rare hours of the day when the church was somehow completely devoid of visitors, sinking into the deafeningly empty cavernous space around me. I whispered to her, asking: how could a single religion impassion people to the point where they’d dedicate their entire life’s works and purpose to it? To the point where they would spill blood and sweat just to build these colossal establishments? To the point where they’d fight wars, write symphonies, build entire cities for it?
I continued thinking about this long after the trip ended, and this is the conclusion I came to.
Religion has two things no other types of societal movement have:
- An idol
- A story
But not any random number – just one single central idol, and just one single central story.
Idols (no, not the K-pop kind)
In most streams of religious thought, an idol is an earthly representation of a celestial figure, which makes it possible for mortals to worship them and pay them their respects. Idols could be statues, paintings, even an assigned person.
But another way to think about it is that an idol is a persona, acting as a key focal point around which society can organize itself.
Focal point theory was invented by a master game theorist named Thomas Schelling. It indicates that in a situation where people must work cooperatively, but are unable to communicate with each other, individuals will collectively tend to use one solution over another because it seems more relevant due a variety of sociocultural or biological factors.
As a trivial example, if you tell 50 Torontonians to meet up somewhere without any of them being able to communicate when or where to meet up, there’s a good chance most of them will show up under the CN Tower at noon.
Human society is similar to this little game: people have a hard time communicating and organizing themselves as one collective because of the complexity of mass human behaviour. There are billions of permutations of potential decision pathways and incentives in one single community of individuals.
Most religions solved this problem by creating a central persona that had moral or physical characteristics beyond human capability, which is what made them compelling to people. Then, they mass distributed the idea of this persona so it came to obtain cultural relevance.
In this way, you engineer a focal point, an idol – around which society will naturally arrange itself – who can act as a mouthpiece to communicate the next steps for any given cause or movement.
For example, recall that human civilization a thousand years ago was a world of rampant disease, death, scarcity, and despair. In a world like this, having an idol the likes of Jesus – someone who represents unconditional goodness in a reality that did not have any of these characteristics – created hope for people when they needed it the most. They were therefore willing to give up their lives for the causes Jesus championed.
Idols are the key to influencing a large civilization to move towards one singular goal.
The Power of a Story
Humans are fundamentally emotional. We’re motivated by emotional incentives. This is nothing new.
But what this also means is that an emotionally impactful story, when presented at the right time and place, can completely change the course of a human’s life – because a big part of our decision-making is based on emotions.
See, the idol is indeed the focal point, but the story is the vehicle through which you deliver this idol to greater civilization.
The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, with around 5 billion copies sold and distributed around the world. Without the stories of the Bible, the ideas of Christianity would never have been spread so widely. The glorious retelling of Jesus’ miracles and his ultimate self-sacrifice to become man’s salvation – all of these things that are beyond human capability – is what impassioned people to the point where they’d dedicate their entire lives to this religion.
The influence of Jesus’ story continues to change people’s lives today: for example, many of the most devout Christians are the way they are because they found comfort in the Bible’s stories after experiencing acute suffering, despite being previously agnostic.
Another non-religious example: the most influential figures of the western world rallied together to create massive impact in terms of funding AIDS and HIV prevention after hearing the story of Freddie Mercury’s death. However, for antibiotic resistance, which is projected to be the greatest cause of human death over the next couple of years, we haven’t heard of any mobilization at nearly the same level. The reason for this is because there is no central, core story for antibiotic resistance.
Stories are how you scale societal movement.
Because of Jesus’ stories, the Church rose to become one of the most influential and powerful institutions in history that the world has ever seen – and its influence persists even today, thousands of years later.
The Religion of Climate Change
So what does any of this have to do with climate change?
I’m sure we’ve all seen those news articles about running out of food, water, sand, etc. by 2050, and how the steady rise of global temperatures is wreaking havoc on our environment and threatening our livelihoods.
Essentially, the children of Generation Z most likely won’t have a habitable planet to live in if we continue on the same track.
We are facing a crisis of extreme magnitude, and yet nothing is actually being done. We read these articles and move on with our lives, we buy metal straws and eventually lose them somewhere in our rooms and go back to using plastic straws, we ask the government to make policy changes only to be met with staunch inaction.
The stark difference between society’s passivity towards climate change today and the hundreds of years of prolific art, music, architecture, and philosophy that have been towards the Church could not be more startling.
The reason for this is because climate change does not have an idol, nor does it have a core story to tell.
You could argue that Greta Thunberg will soon become the idol of climate change around which society can assemble ourselves, but there have already been many Gretas in the past who have inspired the same fiery ideas of revolution – fiery and bright, but ultimately short-lived.
We’ve had Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the Rio Summit in 1992, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez in the 2015 climate change case against the government, even the more recent video of elementary schoolers demanding the Green New Deal from a Republican senator… the list goes on.
The reason why these movements and idols haven’t had success is because they have no core, coherent story, distributed in the way the ideas of the Bible were distributed hundreds of years ago.
In other words, without a central idol and a story to carry that idol forwards, human civilization will never be able to turn large problems like climate change or antibiotic resistance into problems people care about.
We need to re-evaluate how we’re tackling this problem moving forwards so that the next generation will actually be able to live in a habitable planet.
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts – I’m curious to see more perspectives on this topic.