National

'Human Understanding Is Built On Stories': Author Sopan Joshi On Science Of Climate Change

Independent journalist and author Sopan Joshi spoke to Snigdhendu Bhattacharya about the challenges of explaining the science of climate change to ordinary people. Excerpts:

Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Photo: Shailendra Pandey
info_icon
Q

There seems to be a communication gap between scientific knowledge of climate change and the public understanding of the subject. Do you agree? 

A

The term communication gap is a euphemism. It is more accurate to say they are parallel universes. Part of it has to do with the nature of the subject. It is one of the most difficult and complex subjects to understand and explain. Another part has to do with how we approach environmental problems. A third part is the nature of the human imagination. 

Q

Why is climate change so difficult to understand? 

A

Because it requires familiarity with several branches of the sciences, sociology, politics and human behaviour, in all their complexity. This is quite beyond ordinary human comprehension. 

Q

You have said that the language of scientific discussions is based on skepticism, whereas public discourse is belief-oriented. Could you explain it?

A

Each of us grows up with certain beliefs and a value system. That’s not the framework for engaging with science. In science, whatever you say has to be rigorously questioned and defended. Scientific communication is based on disbelief and scepticism. Ordinarily, our capacity for scepticism and questioning is always limited. That’s why scientific communication and public discourse are different worlds and communicate very differently.

Q

How can the two worlds be bridged?

A

Since ancient times, scientific communication has not been for the ordinary people. People with certain kinds of expertise talk to other people who share that expert idiom. That’s the trajectory of all specialised knowledge. It is meant for other experts. They don’t make sense to people who are outside that small circuit. Ordinary people understand the world from their belief system. This can be religious faith or ideology, among other things.

Q

How do you list the major challenges in communicating scientific understanding to the masses?

A

Even well-read people generally lack an understanding of climate change. Our cognitive apparatus functions on storytelling. The Earth’s climate lies beyond human cognition, beyond the realm of human experience. We can decipher only the weather through our senses. Our senses and our cognition have evolved over millions of years for survival, not for the discovery of great truths of existence. We got to know about climate change through decades of measurements, empirical science and peer-reviewed research. This does not interest ordinary people.

Q

So, what’s the way to inform the vast majority of people of the scientific understanding of the impending disaster?

A

Consider what scientists read to their children when they put them to bed. They tell them fairytales. Stories are natural to us. Human understanding is built on stories. Stephen J. Gould, evolutionary biologist, described humans as “primates who tell stories”. The first condition of telling stories is that you have to trust the storyteller. The listener has to do what the poet ST Coleridge described as “willing suspension of disbelief”. That’s how stories work. Social communication, too. 

Q

So, do scientists need to learn storytelling? 

A

The most successful storytellers in India, to my understanding, were the great poets of the Bhakti traditions. There are at least two approaches there. One is that of trained scholars who figured out the skills of storytelling in a way that ordinary people could comprehend. Examples include Adi Shankar, Tulsidas, Gyaneshwar and Rahimdas – all classically trained scholars who could get across to common folk in their own language. The other approach is that of ordinary people, without any formal classical training, who understood complex matters and described them in the commoners’ language. In this category come names like Lalan Fakir, Guru Nanak and Kabirdas. They made timeless comments about the human condition, about existential questions, in common people’s language.

Q

I guess the second group includes journalists. What should be their approach?

A

Yes, it does. When we talk to someone about climate change, we need to have the right amount of humility. We should not off-load everything we know on people. That would drive away our audience. We need to start discussing our struggles in understanding climate change. We should start by sharing our travails. That will bring the speaker and the listener to the same level. The last thing we need is to intimidate people with complicated knowledge, which experts and journalists often do. We should channel the humility of ignorance, not the arrogance of knowledge.

Q

What makes fighting climate change so difficult? 

A

All governments seek economic development via fossil fuels. We have bought into a certain idea of economic development that can be traced to the World Bank. It has become the dominant scale on which all human development is measured. If you have access to fresh water, you are developed. Nobody asks if your access to fresh water is built on destroying water bodies. We have created a religion out of economic development. It has all the makings of faith that cannot stand up to an empirical enquiry. 

Q

What is this development model, which you call religion? Consumerism?

Advertisement

A

I don’t call it consumerism. Language is important. Once you buy their language, you end up playing their game. You lock yourself in their perspective.

Q

What do you call it?

A

I call it superstition. 

Q

Superstition of what?

A

Development is a superstitious idea of human well-being. It assumes that a certain lifestyle that emerged in Western Europe and North America is the ideal form of human existence. All people should aspire to live like that. It’s an uncivil approach. But it has become the dominant one because the measurements happened in terms of the human development indicators determined by the World Bank. Your existence is pointless unless you score well in the human development matrices of the World Bank.

Advertisement

Q

You draw attention to poets of the Bhakti and Sufi traditions of South Asia. Why? 

A

For one, most of them got their message across this vast and complex landmass without any royal or governmental patronage. Their ideas are rooted, social and, in many cases, more democratic.

Q

They also seem to have an antidote to consumerism, right?

A

Exactly. The ideas of economic development glorify individual achievement. This promotes callous self-regard. But the truth is, all our knowledge is collective. All our achievements are built on the knowledge gathered by people of previous generations. The problem with glorifying individual achievers is that people who worked in the background get devalued.

Advertisement

Q

Where to start from? 

A

As a starting point, we need to renegotiate social relationships. We need to acknowledge our existence as a collective. We need to seriously critique consumerism. We are not solitary creatures. We are social animals, we depend on others, we cannot live outside of society. Sharing brings joy. This is the message of the greatest literature. The social traditions tell us that nobody is anyone’s saviour. We need to save ourselves as a collective; we need to save ourselves from ourselves. If you are looking for all your pleasures in the materialistic world, you are setting yourself up for failure. We need to spread that message to fight climate change. Once we have reduced the influence of consumerism, we can stop forest felling and the use of fossil fuels. But first we need to discard this damaging monotheistic faith in economic development.

Advertisement

A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement