Apocalypse Talk: How Our Best Metaphors for Collapse Help Us Prevent It

Over the past 50 years, humanity has turned to sinister metaphors—population bombs, silent springs—to understand and overcome our environmental woes. Can we do it again?

May 30 2014, 11:00am
Illustration from the Dutch version of Silent Spring.

There's a big difference between 'climate change' and 'global warming', at least, semantically speaking. In a recent study, Yale researchers found that people were much more likely to be worried about 'global warming'. One reason for that may be that it invites stronger, more resonant—and more apocalyptic—metaphors.

We humanfolk tend to need good, culturally resonant metaphors to effectively grasp, engage, and cope with vast ecological threats. Behind many crises that have successfully been addressed, from the ozone hole to pesticide overuse to rampant overpopulation, there's lurked a pervasive metaphor—think 'silent spring'—that captured our imagination and spurred us to act.

Clearly, the words we use to describe global climate change color our understanding of the phenomenon, as is true with just about anything. The Yale researchers found that 'global warming' conjured images of catastrophe—rising seas, sweaty brows, Hurricane Sandy-esque scenes of destruction, and so on—while 'climate change' led people to "disengage." On a whole, respondents were 13 percent more likely to say global warming was a bad thing as opposed to climate change.

"We found that the term 'global warming' is associated with greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action than the term 'climate change,'" the scholars concluded. As the Guardian put it, "Americans care deeply about 'global warming'—but not 'climate change'." 

Global warming is evocative—it's something we can easily imagine happening in a cohesive context: The world is getting hotter, which means glaciers are melting and sea levels rising, and an age of sweltering unpleasantness is nigh. Climate change is too broad and dull-sounding, and even if it's slightly, technically more accurate, it doesn't connect with the latent storyteller in each of our brains.

That's important, because telling stories is central to how we've collectively understood and overcome past catastrophes. And our foremost storytelling device is, yep, the metaphor.

The sociologist Sheldon Ungar has argued that "easy-to-understand bridging metaphors," derived from pop culture, are essential to understanding major existential threats to civilization. In a 2000 paper, Ungar claimed that the public rallied around the threat to the ozone layer because the problem was readily graspable with the help of such metaphors.

Specifically, the ozone layer was routinely presented as a sort of "shield" that functioned suspiciously like the ones that surround spaceships like Star Trek's Enterprise—and it was breaking down. And we all know what happens when the shields go down: Whoever they once protected is left vulnerable to a final coup de grâce. In this case, the hostile bombardment of the sun's UV rays.

Certainly, other factors were at play, but the global community did seem to rapidly internalize that metaphor—the international effort to reduce the refrigerants, foams, and other chlorine gas pollution tearing at the ozone hole was one of the most successful environmental victories in history. 

Before that, the modern environmental movement was practically born on a metaphor—the famous "silent spring." The name of Rachel Carson's revolutionary book comes from a thought experiment that considers the impact of DDT and other pesticides on the environment, if their use were to be left unchecked: A silent spring, deathly stillness in the season where we'd expect abundance. Silent Spring is now a—if not the—canonical environmental text. It was the first to popularize the notion that fast-advancing technologies may be doing largely invisible, but potentially irreparable harm to the planet at large.

In a 2003 paper, Brigitte Nerlich a professor of science, language, and society at the University of Nottingham, traces the influence of the silent spring metaphor from the 60s through the 90s. She finds that its influence is lasting and powerful. The construction of the 'silent spring,' she argues,

draws on knowledge of literary traditions and political events so as to achieve its main rhetorical effect: to signal a deep threat to the environment. In association with spring the word silent evokes death, the end of nature, the unnatural and artificial, emptiness and sterility, whereas spring is usually associated in western culture with birds singing, new beginnings, life, unspoiled nature, and wilderness. Silence in western culture has mainly negative, even menacing connotations. The two words silent and spring also establish links to western literary traditions, which either romanticise nature or project dystopian visions of nature destroyed, and to scientific and political events, which were different but at the same time similar for the 1960s and the 1990s.

Nerlich, 2003

After its publication in 1962, Silent Spring, helped galvanize a then-nascent environmental movement. When a polluted river in Ohio caught fire and oil spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara, the metaphor may have suddenly seemed very obviously true. We had been polluting, contaminating, and ruining the planet in all of these relatively quiet, off-screen ways. Maybe a silent spring really was just around the corner. It's a resonant metaphor—one that we're still seeing manifested in reportage, fiction, even Google doodles.

Another highly successful, if currently less-celebrated, metaphorical rendering of an ecological End was Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb—his book presented the neo-Malthusian idea that if people continued procreating apace, famine and disaster was on the way. The book was a runaway bestseller in the US, but its biggest influence may have been felt in China, where it's thought to have helped inspire the infamous one-child policy.

It's not hard to see why. The image of humans proliferating with the ferocity of an exploding bomb—and razing their surroundings to rubble after it goes off—was an urgent and sinister one. It's no wonder one of the most-discussed films of the time was Soylent Green, which took place in an overcrowded, near-future dystopia. 

Climate change, meanwhile—the single greatest existential threat to human civilization of our time—is still in search of its killer allegory. In fact, as the Yale study demonstrates, scientists, reporters, and citizens can't quite decide what to name it in the first place, making it all the more difficult to develop useful and enduring metaphors.

The term 'Global warming' was first used by Wallace Broecker, a professor at Columbia, who published the seminal paper "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?" in 1975. Since then, climatologists, reporters, and writers have been sparring over what language to use to best represent the science. NASA, for its part, has said that "global climate change" is the most accurate term, scientifically. But that makes for a lousy allegory-generator. 

Thus far, no home run "bridging metaphor" has emerged for global warming—Al Gore compared the planet to a frog in boiling water in An Inconvenient Truth, the physicist Joe Romm has called the climate an "ornery beast," and NASA's Dr. James Hanson has said that global warming is "loading the dice" for disaster. 

Communications researcher Chris Russill tallies even more: "There are hothouses and greenhouses, atmospheric blankets and holes, sinks and drains, flipped and flickering switches, conveyer belts and bathtub effects, tipping points and time bombs, ornery and angry beasts, rolled dice, sleeping drunks, and even bungee jumpers attached to speeding rollercoasters.”

None have enjoyed profound cultural influence, except, perhaps, the greenhouse effect, but that's inextricably tied to elementary physics. Still, when placed against the backdrop of 'global warming', all of those metaphors become foreboding, alarming—those switches and speeding coasters are heading us towards a definite goal: a hotter, more unstable world.

Meanwhile, it's easy to see why the concept of 'climate change' doesn't inspire the imagination. It sounds routine, normal. There's no culprit; it suggests nothing inherently unnatural is taking place—and, because it's so broad, it provides little meaningful context for any metaphors or storytelling devices to resonate widely.

As such, it's no surprise that the term 'climate change' has been embraced by oppositional political strategists who felt early on that the term downplayed the threat. A famous memo authored by GOP communications expert Frank Luntz advised Republicans that the "phrase 'global warming' should be abandoned in favor of 'climate change'" to blunt the public's perception of a looming disaster. The less the public connected with the problem, Luntz reasoned, the less they would feel an imperative to address it.

Sure enough, doubt and apathy were sowed, and "the climate is always changing" is one of the most popular refrains we continue to hear from those who've been conditioned to disregard climate science. To this day, there's a huge gulf between how the scientific community and the general public understands global climate change. In fact, that gulf is still widening; more Americans than ever deny that it's real at all. Part—definitely not all—of the problem could be that we've been talking about it all wrong. Not only does the interchanging use of both terms offer naysayers an opportunity to snidely intone, 'well, which is it?', but it shatters the frame, the stage on which stories about the threat need to be told.

'Global warming' conveys the nature of that threat. It's the term we need to use when we're telling the true story of the dire straits we're in. Environmentalists catch a lot of flack for being 'alarmist', but in the past, they've turned to some downright apocalyptic metaphors—and they've worked. Now, it seems we're still waiting for someone—an author, scientist, poet, whoever—to take elevate the rhetoric to the next level, to find a new metaphor that captures the essence of all that we stand to lose. 

Inset image: Earth's ozone, WIkimedia