Personal, Perceptible, Practical

Some time ago I learned about Susan Solomon, the atmospheric chemist who discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (a.k.a. CFCs) caused the huge hole in the ozone layer. Remember all that noise about this from the 90s? It went away because of Dr. Solomon. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley and she is currently still teaching and still doing atmospheric research at MIT.

I’ve been thinking about something she said about the tactics she used to get the world to care and do something about the problem. I was struck that she thought as much about the “marketing” of the ozone layer problem as the science behind it.

Susan Solomon at MIT. Credit: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/peril-and-promise/2019/04/how-the-ozone-hole-can-help-us-communicate-climate-change/

Solomon said that effective environmental problem solving requires that the solution be personal, perceptible, and practical. I’d argue that this framework works for any problem, public or private, economic or environmental. It’s relevant even when rallying the globe around fending off a global pandemic, too. I keep coming back to this when I read about the response to coronavirus, so let’s apply Dr. Solomon’s framework to our current global crisis.

Personal

Make people relate. Help individuals understand how the problem relates to them personally. Not the world, or the rainforests, or the spotted owls. Biologically, we are wired to care about #1 (ourselves) and although we can all point to examples of selfless behavior, on average, we’re selfish. Rather than fight that tendency, make it work for the cause.

The harrowing stories of frontline health workers ring louder than the pleas of politicians. Doctors and nurses have an effective way of making things personal. Shelter in place to protect your family, your community, your own health. It also helps that nurses consistently rank among the most trusted professionals.

Perceptible

Help people understand the units of measurement. In the case of coronavirus, it’s the number of tests, cases, and deaths. Charts fly around Twitter comparing rates of infection by country, often on logarithmic scales.

The early challenge with coronavirus is that people who don’t study math or economics don’t have an appreciation for exponential growth. We all probably think we know what it means, but early dismissal of the risks show that most of us don’t appreciate its gravity.

The reason coronavirus spread so quickly is the same reason why you can’t fold a paper in half more than eight times. It doesn’t matter if you’re folding a playing card or a football field. The reason is the thickness of the folds increases exponentially. After that eighth fold, no matter how thin it is to begin with (I mean, you need to be able to feel it), the material you’d need to fold is simply too thick.

To apply this principal to the spread of a virus, the number of initial vectors is like the thickness of the flat piece of paper. The more vectors, the thicker your piece of paper, so as you fold it and the vectors go out and infect, your thickness grows faster. The analogy of a really thin piece of paper is having just a few vectors, maybe just one, in a rural area, so he can’t infect very many people very quickly.

You’re starting with smaller numbers, so you might get more folds in. But exponential growth eventually looks the same, no matter how small the base. This is the perceptibility challenge we faced with coronavirus. Fortunately, it has helped that testing kit production is ramped up and we can see the exponential activity clearer now.

Circling back to the environmental application, when scientists were able to measure the rate of growth of the ozone hole and capture icebergs collapsing into the Arctic Ocean, people started to care. When the ban on CFCs went into effect and measurements showed the hole closing up, it reinforced the global community’s behavior. Now it’s no longer a problem.

Fortunately, the feedback cycles on the coronavirus are even shorter than they are with the ozone hole. Effects of social distancing and lockdowns will be measured within two weeks.

Personally, this is the most important of the three. I believe the business adage that you can’t fix what you can’t measure.

Practical

Make the solution easy to understand. People don’t want to think too hard. And if you’re asking for a lot, then problem should be very personal and very perceptible.

Indeed, this is where we really succumb to the human condition. Unlike many environmentalists I know, I don’t think it’s practical for everyone to give up meat and dairy products. Being 100% off fossil fuels is also not practical. But switching out the chemical in an aerosol can or using a product with a different applicator, as the ask was during the ozone crisis, is definitely practical.

Today the asks are huge. One billion people are restricted from congregating. Schools are closed. Small businesses are shut down. Public transportation ridership dropped by 90% in the Bay Area as employees were forced to work from home. The scale of this impact is mind-numbing.

I do believe this is the right solution, though, and my neighbors agree. These measures are practical in that they’re easy to comprehend and it’s easy to understand how they will help. With daily reports coming out about the spread of the virus, we’re able to follow along as community by community we “flatten the curve” on the epidemic.

So to sum it up, for me to get behind an action, I have to relate to it, be able to track progress, and have a well-defined way to contribute. When I first heard of this framework I thought it was a brilliant tool for activists to use. I never imagined that I’d experience a global pandemic, and it’s interesting to see how this framework applies in this most extreme of circumstances too.

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