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The 'diagnosis-prognosis' analogy for communicating the need for transformative climate action

I have been thinking a lot lately about what I can learn from my interactions with the general public about the climate and ecological emergencies, and how I can use those experiences to communicate more effectively. I just posted this on twitter, with some editing to fit.


To close the climate & ecological emergencies knowledge-action gap, it is crucial to communicate the gravity of our situation & the fact that it is #nottoolate to preserve a livable future, to disengaged people in wealthy countries. Stories and analogies help. Here is what I’ve learned from giving public lectures about these crises to varied, non-specialist audiences.


A few things about these audiences stand out: a general lack of climate literacy, a genuine imagination deficit, & a fundamental sense of lack of agency. None of these things are an individual’s fault. They are concerned, they want to learn more, but can’t grasp the scale & speed of change that needs to happen. We must reach people outside of the activist echo chamber. I have had some success with a ‘Diagnosis-Prognosis’ analogy.


Our multiple, overlapping existential crises can be imagined as akin to receiving a medical diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, or perhaps more appropriately, for your child. How would you react? Would you question the doctor’s conclusion? Maybe. Would you seek a second opinion? Perhaps. These are reasonable things to do given the gravity of the diagnosis. For the climate & ecological crises, second opinions have confirmed the originals, 1000s of times over. Scientists are certain the prognosis is poor if untreated.


Denial is a useful tool for coping with difficult truths. But your kid’s life is at stake, and with speedy and aggressive treatment, they will have a livable future. How long would you stay in denial? If you could, would you willingly receive the unpleasant, possibly painful treatment instead of your child? I bet yes. Most people would. Your lives will never be the same, dreams for the future changed, but you and your kid would live good lives.


You would also probably want to know as much as you could about the disease, and you’d look for best treatments online & elsewhere. You might ask your friends, maybe join a support group. You might be tempted by quick fixes or the promise of future technological advancement. But are you willing to risk your kid’s life with ‘solutions’ from charlatans, because they seem less scary? Think about that for a minute.


Effective treatment exists for our planetary crises, & it means recognizing that it’s impossible to continue to grow economies through extraction, exploitation, & emissions of Earth’s resources. We live on a physically finite planet, & no amount of economic theorizing can avoid that fact. We must embrace cooperation & ditch competition in order to survive. Yes, life will be very different, & the transition will be difficult for some, but there will be life. It is not too late.

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