What Renaissance Literary Theory Tells Us about Climate Communication

Sir Philip Sidney, 1554–1586

As they develop stories to inspire the public to fight for the transformation to renewable energy, climate advocates often turn to sociology for their narrative models. I wonder whether literary criticism might also help these advocates create powerful, inspiring stories. Literary criticism examines how narrative forms lead people to conceptualize emotionally-charged information and relate themselves to that information. Renaissance literary criticism, in particular, explicitly theorizes how stories create people’s motivations for action. Taking a historical leap and reading theory as advocacy, we can envision climate campaigns that activate people’s tribal identifications, giving them deeply-felt reasons, and compelling role models, for climate activism.

I will spring off from a text called The Defense of Poetry, written by the sixteenth-century aristocrat and poet Sir Philip Sidney. The Defense exemplifies Renaissance literary theory: it compiles arguments about literature from the classical era through Renaissance Italy to what was Sidney’s present in early modern England in order to argue that literature should be the most celebrated of the human arts because it best teaches us how to live. Sidney claims that teaching, by which he means conveying information, should not just impart knowledge, but serve to move people to what he calls the “ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing and not of well-knowing only.” Indeed, Sidney thinks such moving is “well nigh the cause and the effect of teaching. For who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? And what … good doth that teaching bring forth if it moveth one [not] to do that which it doth teach? For as Aristotle saith, it is not gnosis but praxis must be the fruit. And how praxis [can] be without being moved to practice, it is no hard matter to consider.”

This model of teaching as moving people to want to understand and then to put their understanding into practice is quite different from a model of communication as imparting information that makes no claims on people’s feelings aside from their deference to evidence. Rather than just imparting information, or using what Sidney calls “wordish description[s],” Sidney’s teacher creates vivid moving images in the mind’s eye — scenarios experienced in the imagination — that, as he puts it, “strike, pierce, and possess the sight of the soul.” These vivid scenarios eschew the language of general precepts. They neither articulate rules nor make abstract truth-claims, such as “we have X number of years before we overshoot our carbon budget.” Yet they also avoid particular examples, what Sidney calls “wordish descriptions,” of actions we might take, such as “call your Senators and ask them what they’re doing about climate change.” Sidney’s stories never prescribe tasks. Rather, they represent people performing those tasks. And they depict not just any people, but idealized people, who embody both the core values of the audience at hand and what is most desirable — we might even say sexiest — in their cultural context.

For Sidney, these ideal figures embody “the form of goodness,” which seen you “cannot but love.” In reality this “love” is not inspired by goodness per se, but by the skill of the representation itself, which produces thoughts and feelings akin to the experience of cathexis. Sidney calls this aesthetic experience “delight.” Delight is not happiness, exactly, but a kind of pleasurable absorption: the captured attention and heightened emotion enabled by art. It is the feeling of being “moved” when you’re in this state that produces identifications. “Who readeth Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back,” Sidney asks, “that wisheth not it were his fortune to perform so excellent an act?”

Now, we might think there’s something naïve in Sidney’s belief that being moved by the representation of an action leads us to wish to perform that action ourselves or, at least, to identify with the person performing that action. But Sidney’s faith in the power of art to give us our ideals contains a grain of truth, and it’s that truth I’d like to isolate. Let’s think for a moment about the public response to the Wonder Woman film of earlier this year. Most reviewers took it for granted that Wonder Woman was a “positive role model” for girls. Or consider the myth that sales of undershirts dropped 75% after Clark Gable took off his button-down and revealed his bare chest in “It Happened One Night.” Or think about books you may have loved as a child and how much you wanted to be like your favorite heros.

I realize that at this point it’s not entirely clear what this means for climate communication. Am I recommending that environmental NGO’s run ads on Facebook showing women who look like Wonder Woman putting solar panels on their roofs? Well, not exactly — or at least not only. People find the kind of meaning that sustains ongoing engagement not from quasi-advertising ploys, but from stories about what matters to them in their lives. So what stories might Sidney have us tell with the aim of inspiring people into ongoing engagement on climate?

I think we can agree that he wouldn’t have us tell tragic stories. Tragedies imply that human beings are made great by the very qualities that lead inexorably to our death and destruction. We have an example of this kind of tragic climate story in David Wallace-Wells’ article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which implicitly suggests that humans are fated to emit ourselves into extinction by its very opening subtitle “When Will Climate Change Make the Earth too Hot for Humans” (instead of just “Will Climate Change Make the Earth too Hot for Humans”), by its concluding invocation of the Fermi paradox, and in between by a host of other literary devices too numerous to list here. (I think this is why the article was criticized for inspiring despair: not really because it elided the low probability of fat-tail climate effects, nor even because it was hyperbolic, but because it framed climate change as our species tragedy. Why would people attempt to prevent something they feel is made inevitable by the fact of their rational, civilized humanity?) To use tragedy in climate communication is to tell an emotionally powerful story, but also to depoliticize the social dynamics that can be, and must be, contested and transformed as soon as possible so that we avoid the worst climate effects.

So if tragedy demotivates people, at least in theory, then what of comedy? Let’s take a look at the form of comedy: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Comedy enacts an initial exciting connection, which then becomes a conflict, which then resolves, giving the reader a sense of relief and pleasure. Now I wonder whether ending climate stories on a note of hope — by which I mean, ending with an objective description of climate solutions — actually recapitulates this comedic form and in so doing unwittingly undermines the intended effect. I wonder whether saying, for example, “but we can solve this crisis: we have the technology!” or “but there’s good news, the price of solar has dropped X percent in the past Y years” is actually to end your message with a comedic resolution, which is to say a relief of tension, a sort of exhale — a “whew!,” if you will — denaturing the irresolution that sustains ongoing action.

Yet there is an experiential kind of hope which is absolutely crucial here. I’m talking about the deep sense of individual agency and commitment to a greater cause that make both personal and social transformation possible. Sidney suggests that it is the epic genre — what he calls the “heroical” genre — that produces just this kind of hope and that, therefore, most readily transforms people’s dispositions. The epic represents the actions of a great hero as he fights enemies, overcoming extraordinary obstacles to repair an injustice or found a new nation. Sidney insists that these heroic stories make “magnanimity and justice shine through all misty fearfulness and foggy desires.” “As the image of each action stirs and instructs the mind,” Sidney argues, “so the lofty Image of such worthies most inflames the mind with desire to be worthy.” Sidney argues, in other words, that the epic best moves people with the desire to be taught greatness and the desire to be great themselves.

Sidney’s insights about the effects of epic poetry enable us to envision social-media campaigns directed at even tightly focused groups. These campaigns would seek not to enlighten deniers, but to mobilize people who already support climate action yet don’t sense the urgency of the issue. No longer than 90 seconds each, they might begin by capturing the attention of the target audience with beautifully-shot sequences of attractive people performing tasks that telegraph their values and interests. So, for example, stay-at-home mothers might see images of women reading to their children, playing joyfully with their children outside, laughing with friends, exchanging affectionate looks with their partners, etc. Or business people might see scenes of animated, productive meetings, or colleagues appearing delighted by a report of rising share prices, or whatever makes their hearts swell. The idea here would be to offer a quick taste of what Sidney calls “delight” in order to produce audience identification with the figures in the campaign. Then, perhaps, text could emerge making the targeted group’s values explicit: “You want the best for your children,” say, or “You are building a business that will stand the test of time.”

At that point, the spot would transition into a vivid demonstration of how climate change threatens what the targeted group values. And that threat must not be soft-balled. The campaign should represent not the most certain projected effects of continuing to emit carbon at our current rates, but the worst projected effects within the category of what may unfold in the next eighty years — in the lifetime of a child born today. The goal is to visually and artfully convey what those effects would feel like in the bodies of the people represented in the campaign. Yes, the idea is to scare people. The goal is to enact vivid scenarios that, as Sidney puts it, “strike, pierce, and possess the sight of our souls.”

Of course, as sociological research tells us, we shouldn’t just scare people and then leave them hanging. Nor, as I have suggested, should we implicitly reassure them about our current emissions trajectory by immediately going on to describe climate solutions. Those solutions still need to be implemented. Rather, we should scare people with the truth, and then show them what to do — not by listing tasks with what Sidney calls “wordish descriptions,” but by showing them concrete actions to emulate, “the form of goodness” as Sidney puts it, so that not mere gnosis but praxis may be the fruit.

In other words, in the conclusion of this theoretical campaign, the people depicted in the video would both decarbonize their own lives and fight politically to have decarbonizing policies implemented. So the stay-at-home mother or the business person would be shown turning down their thermostats, biking, joining with their neighbors in erecting community solar, signing up for wind power, writing emails, voting, marching, protesting, and so on. The final frame of the spot might be a close-up of the lead actor looking right into the camera, or, even better, the face of whatever child might have appeared in the spot. Ideally, the campaign would end with a URL of an advocacy group that specifically organized regular political actions on climate.

Like the comedic form of advocacy communication, this imagined mini-epic has a tripartite structure, but rather than enacting what we might call the “connection, fear, hope” dynamic it offers something more like “love, fear, love” — a love sandwich, as it were. The love is partly narcissistic, reinforced by identification with one’s ideals, but it’s also connected, bound to the values and the people for which one cares the most. And the fear is not just fear of bodily harm (although vivid depictions of climate-change effects rightly produce such terrors) but also the fear that our happiness might be taken away if we don’t struggle to change how we produce and use energy. What we want is to model the harnessing of that fear — literally to enact it on screen — in a way that inspires emulation, or at the very least gives people a heroic struggle to emulate rather than leaving them tragically grief-stricken or comedically relieved. Instead of oscillating between fear and hope, climate communication could inspire both fear and love at the same time by generating powerful models for our own personal and political actions. As Sidney himself insists, paraphrasing Machiavelli: “the only means of avoiding contempt are love and fear.” We need stories that inspire these emotions as fuel for the climate heroism of our ideal selves.