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Climate Progress at three years: Why I blog

By Joe Romm  

"Climate Progress at three years: Why I blog"

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From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books….

I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts….

No, I’m not operating under the misimpression that my writing can be compared with George Orwell’s.  I know of no essayists today who come close to matching his skill in writing.  On top of that, bloggers simply lack the time necessary for consistently first-rate efforts.  I’ve written some two million words since launching this blog three years ago this week.  Perfection isn’t an option.

But operating under the dictum, “if you want to be a better writer, read better writers,” I took on vacation Facing Unpleasant Facts, a collection of Orwell’s brilliant narrative essays.  My life has been almost the exact opposite of Orwell’s.  Indeed, if you think you had a rough childhood, trying reading, “Such, such were the joys.”  Compared to Orwell, we’ve all been raised by Mary Poppins.

Orwell does have the soul of a blogger, as we’ll see.  He is solipsistic almost to a fault, but with a brutal honesty that puts even the best modern memoirist to shame.

Read about how his headmaster cured his bedwetting with a beating, a double caning with a riding crop in fact, after he foolishly announced that the first one “didn’t hurt.”  Or read “Shooting an Elephant,” with its gut-punching first line, “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people “” the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Second, he has “a power of facing unpleasant facts,” which I think is perhaps the primary quality I aspire for here.

I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to force us to face unpleasant facts — see “What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?” and “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress” and dozens more examples here.

Unlike Orwell, I knew from a very early age, certainly by the age of five or six, that I would be a physicist, like my uncle, and I announced that proudly to all who asked.

I knew I didn’t want to be a professional writer since I saw how hopeless it was to make a living that way.  My father was the editor of a small newspaper (circulation 20,000) that he turned into a medium-sized newspaper (70,000) but was paid dirt, even though he managed the equivalent of a large manufacturing enterprise — while simultaneously writing three editorials a day — that in any other industry would pay ten times as much.  My mother pursued freelance writing for many, many years, an even more difficult way to earn a living (see also “This could not possibly be more off topic“).

Why share this?  Orwell, who shares far, far more in his master class of essay writing, argues in “Why I write“:

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in “” at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own “” but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.

Interestingly, I think there are more than four great motives to blog, at least for me.  But let’s start with Orwell’s:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one….  Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

No argument here.  On the bright side, I make no pretensions to be a serious writer.  I’m not certain that bloggers are journalists.  I think we are, however, journal-ists.  What is a log if not a journal?

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

Again, inarguable.  I’m an auditory person, for those who know NLP, and I dictate all of my blog posts.  If you want to be a better writer, I suggest you read aloud everything you write.  For me the sound of a good phrase, the pleasure of a headline that works, is immense.  I wouldn’t blog just for that reason, and I’d rather have a widely-read substantive blog than a scarcely-read work of art, if such a thing even exists on the blogosphere.   Sometimes everything comes together, as in perhaps my best headline, the one Time magazine singled out in naming me a favorite environmental website:  “Debate over. Further delay fatal. Action not costly. This headline pretty much sums up Joe Romm’s message. Romm is a one-man anti-disinformation clearinghouse.”

I will take a clearinghouse over an arthouse any day.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Even more so with a blog.  In the increasingly likely event we don’t avert catastrophic global warming, I do hope that the reporting and analysis in this blog, which evolves over time, will be of use to those trying to understand just how it is that, as Elizabeth Kolbert put it, “a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself.”  It will be a great source of bafflement to future generations, and I suspect that as they suffer through the misery and grief caused by our myopia and greed, there will be a growing literature aimed at trying to understand what went wrong, how we did this to ourselves.  Perhaps this web log will help.  That’s one more motivation for me to use as many links as possible to original sources.

(iv) Political purpose. “” Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature “” taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult “” I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.

Pretty amazing that Orwell uses that last word.  The Wikipedia entry on “pamphleteer” asserts, “Today a pamphleteer might communicate his missives by way of weblog….”

Orwell explains the source of his evoluton:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

I couldn’t dream of saying it better than that if I worked on this post for a month.

Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

I also blog for at least two other reasons.

Peace of mind:  I would be unimaginably frustrated and depressed if I didn’t have a way of contributing to the task of saving a livable climate, a way of responding in real time to the general humbug and sentences without meaning and purple passages of those who wittingly or unwittingly spreading disinformation aimed at delaying action on climate change.  I hope the comments section on the blog serves in some small way as a similar outlet for readers.

Personal growth:  The act of trying to explain the science and the solutions and the politics to a broader audience forces me think hard about what I’m really saying, about what I really know and don’t know.  It makes me much smarter, if no one else.  The rapid feedback and global nature of the blogosphere mean that I get to test my ideas against people who are exceedingly knowledgeable and equally articulate.  Through this blog I have interacted with people from every walk of life, with widely different worldviews, from many continents, whom I never would have otherwise known.  And all from the basement of my home, occasionally with my daughter by my side.

Like Orwell, I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know I wouldn’t be blogging this much if you all weren’t tuning in and writing your comments.  The readership of this blog has exploded — for those who follow my feedburner stats, they have gone through the roof since the website redesign, for reasons I don’t fully understand.  And I am in discussions to further syndicate the content, so it will reach many more people than who read it here or on Grist or Worldchanging or elsewhere.

Most of all, it boggles the mind that I have a profession that did not exist even a decade ago, but that is, in many respects, precisely what my father did, precisely what I never expected to do.

After my brother lost his home in Katrina, and I started interviewing climate experts for what turned into my book, Hell and High Water, I made a decision I would not pull any punches and would get “political” as Orwell defined the term.

If I have learned anything from the blog, it is that there is in fact a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk about the dire nature of our energy and climate situation, about the grave threat to our children and the next 50 generations, about the vast but still achieveable scale of the solutions, about the forces in politics and media that impede action  — a hunger to face unpleasant facts head on.   And that is possibly the most reassuring thing I have learned in the past three years.  Thank you all for that!

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34 Responses to Climate Progress at three years: Why I blog

  1. ecostew says:

    Thanks for your efforts and you are doing quite well, from my perspective!

  2. oxnardprof says:

    Thank you for sharing this insight on why you blog. I have read some of Orwell’s essays, from a collection that I picked up in a library booksale. I will have to take a look to see if it includes the essay ‘why I write.’

    I think that you have been successful in producing a record of commentary that will shed some light on our collective response to climate change. You have been able to raise the visibility of your comments to a significant level, and that could only be done through effective writing plus something (I don’t know what) that allows your message to rise up above the noise on the internet.

    It is interesting to learn that you dictate your posts, and perhaps that does serve to improve the form and content. Too often, comments are reflective of a ‘twitter’ mentality where comments of 140 characters are distributed to wide audiences. This seems to me to reflect a superficiality in thought that does not serve much good ends.

    In my case, I do not blog because I don’t know how to find the time to blog effectively. I may have something to say on the issues of the day, but I don’t want to do so ineffectively. Thank you again for being so succesful at this enterprise.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    What ecostew just wrote.

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Story

    Last December, I was staying near the British Museum in London, in a small and reasonably-priced place where I’ve stayed before.

    I’m a huge fan of Orwell, and also a fan of Dylan Thomas, so I took a walk to the pub where they used to drink, sometimes together if my understanding is correct. There’s a basement room where they used to drink, and today there are all sorts of pictures of them on the wall.

    It was midday, and I sat in the basement alone, with a “blonde” — a beer, not the other.

    Aside from other parts of the story, the one thing that struck me as very interesting was this: In the pub, inside, looking down at the bar, was a surveillance camera!

    I had to chuckle, and then think. If only Orwell knew!

    Congrats to Joe. Super choice. You are making a difference. Bravo to you!!

    So I will end with one of my favorite Orwell quotes, from “1984″. (Sorry if this was in the post itself. I read most of it, but not all.)

    “. . . but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.”

    Ah (one more thing), if you want to see a really Orwellian quote, check out the quote of Rex Tillerson I posted recently in the thread relating to helping out Obama. That is a modern-day real-life representation of what Orwell was talking about.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  5. Steven Leibo says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Orwell. He inspired a great many of us!

  6. Angela says:

    This is lovely.

    I found you on twitter, actually haven’t read your blog before.

    One tiny correction: I think you mean “peace of mind,” not “piece.” To blog gives you ease, yes?

    But the use of “*piece* of mind” does create quite a graphic image. :}

    Thank you.
    AA (who like you feels driven to not stand idly by while the bus is driven off the cliff, even if all she can do is slow it down so a few people can jump off).

  7. Joe, thanks for all your efforts on this blog, which I read daily. I love your writing on climate change and your meanders into rhetoric and better communication.

  8. J says:

    Keep up the great work Joe!

  9. paulm says:

    Right on Joe. You are a Hero.

    I wounder what Orwell would have done about climate change?

  10. Thomas says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you.

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    Has it really only been three years? I wonder what my first comment was . . .

  12. Jim Eaton says:

    Joe, I read your blog daily.

    This evening I attended a board meeting of a local nonprofit conservation organization with which I volunteer. A fellow board member who writes frequent climate change articles in our local newspaper thanked me for constantly feeding him great up-to-date information. I told him most of this comes from your ClimateProgress blog.

    Your writing is easy to read and understand. I know I am old school, but I do like writing that has Capitals, punctuation (including apostrophes), real words, and complete sentences.

    And while I agree that the future is looking a little bleaker each day, I keep working to protect wilderness and work on climate change by looking at my Edward Abbey quote on the wall: “I suffer from hope.”

    Congratulations on your three-year anniversary. You keep a lot of us informed and armed with good scientific information. Thank you for committing your life to this cause.

    Jim

  13. Robert says:

    Orwell, i have not read … as yet, but your works, from Bil-a-Bong to the chasing the denialist’s siren song, fill my life. You enable many to stand on the sholder of a giant named Joe! I like my leaders out it front leading the charge. In closing, though i’m not the religious type, your work is a prayer answered … Amen!

    THANK YOU JOE,
    rlb

  14. I have learned something new and insightful every day from Joe Romm on Climate Progress and now I’ve learned yet another great lesson, this time on Orwell, that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

    I don’t only use Joe as my unwitting virtual mentor, but his work inspires my own writing and efforts.

    And I have to say, that when I read my own blog posts out loud, to hear how they sound, I had no idea I was practicing auditory NLP behavior.

    Keep up the good work, Joe. Thanks for all the time and care you put into it. And thanks for bluntest possible talk on the subject.

  15. Marie says:

    Wonderful post! Thoughtful, enlightening quotes. In gratitude for your work and mission,

    Marie

  16. ecostew says:

    Check out the midwest in 2100 at TNC: http://www.climatewizard.org/

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    Please keep it up, Joe!

  18. Drew Jones says:

    Love it, Joe! Hang in there!!!!

  19. Jim says:

    Well said, Joe. There is no better model than Orwell.

    Simon Prebble’s audiobook narration of 1984 (available on iTunes) is a more powerful experience than reading the book, with Orwell’s unadorned words striking one’s ears like hammer blows. In Newspeak, where words are “deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them,” Orwell anticipated Frank Luntz by 60 years.

    They say that “writing is rewriting” but one imagines that to a great writer like Orwell, the perfect word simply pops into his head, like notes into Mozart’s. But the Wikipedia entry on 1984 has the first page with Orwell’s revisions, showing that he changed nearly every other word and struck out whole sections! Even for an Orwell, or maybe especially for him, good writing evidently was hard work.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four

    His essay “Politics and the English Language” is an excellent guide to writing.

    http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

  20. Nancy says:

    It’s easy to become discouraged when reading about the reality of climate change. Your blog helps me keep focused on what’s important. I have gained valuable knowledge by reading this blog and your words are an inspiration to keep me and many others moving forward. We can win this war, but it will require work.

    Thank you, Joe, for your hard work.

  21. Dave Morris says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and all the excellent information. I teach field courses on climate and energy issues, and find in that work many of the satisfactions you (and Orwell) associate with writing.

    You inspired me to read some more Orwell, and I found a cache of his essays at http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/index_en

    Best to all dedicated to this work.

  22. lgcarey says:

    Joe, thanks for your unstinting hard work on this critical issue! I note that your RSS feeds figure is much higher than it was just last week – it looks like your audience is growing, which is very encouraging.
    Best regards.

  23. Nikhil Garg says:

    Joe, from a loyal reader, thanks for all that you do! Keep up the excellent, informative, impassioned work!

  24. Donald B says:

    I enjoyed meeting you last week at the NRCM lecture you gave, but I failed to thank you then for this Herculean task that you have undertaken and are making such progress on. I envy your ability to get so much done in a day.

    I struggle at writing (communication?) but find that it can be rewarding and it obviously is for you, as it should be: your body of work presented here is clear, insightful and in demand from all of your faithful readers.

    I find your thoughts on how to “frame” the arguments just as important as the detailed scientific results that you present. But even when I read an article on a subject that appears clear (I am thinking of a Krugman piece at the moment), it is just amazing how people can make comments that show they totally missed the point (or can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance it engendered.

    Thanks for this website and for all that goes on here.

  25. Colin Crawford says:

    Thanks, Joe, for such a great insight into your motivations and the reflection of such a great communicator. I remember reading a few of Orwell’s works with great interest and enthusiasm in my youth, too many years ago. Alas, in the intervening years I’ve allowed the external forces of our culture to drive me in undesired directions, much as Orwell experienced when facing that elephant. That’s not to say that I ever aspired to be a writer. I can’t express how poignant I found that essay and sincerely thank you, again, for linking to it.
    However, even though you do an outstanding job of clarifying and making known the “unpleasant facts” disclosed by the science being employed to understand and describe climate change, I fear that you, and many others, are missing some equally relevant, and possibly “more unpleasant,” factors that are only now just gaining some notice. As a result of your post, above, perhaps I will endeavor to communicate the fully coupled perspective I have developed. Many thanks, again, and wishing you a happy “blog-birthday” and continued success.

  26. John Pearson says:

    I am not much of a writer so please be patient..
    I must salute you Mr Romm for running what the thought police would have considered a criminal blog. you’r motivations were clear to me before you spelled them out here, and are admirable. You’r blog had helped me educate myself to the realities of climate change and its consequences for the future of out race. Your insistance of sticking to the FACTS and not re-iterating the opinions of others I find very refreshing. Also the links you feel compelled to include are really what make this blog ‘indispensible’.
    Having said this, I still think you are missing the point. the real issue here is not so much Climate Change as Planet change. Climate change is just a subset of the big inevitably disasterous picture. I am not doing my job properly here by not linking to my evidence, but since i am just commenting you must forgive me. I feel I am right and I am sure that any proper investigation will reveal the truith of what I say. By Planet change I mean the combination of factors which are changing the planet forever in ways which will prove that in the long run the planet cannot sustain the present, never mind a bigger population.
    We are running headlong into a brick wall with our eyes shut. The impact from all of our activities is ruining biodiversity, using up finite resources and polluting the planet all at the same time. I dont believe that our western ‘rich’ lifestyle is sustainable in the long term for even 1 billion people never mind the 6+ billion who aspire to it without radical changes to the way we do things.
    The thing which irritates me the most about the political situation in the US is the constant bickering about the fact that ‘gas prices will go up’. Of course they will and should. Here is my message.
    We must all start paying the full cost for what we do.
    if that means that gas must be 5$ a gallon, thats what it must be. if we dont like that its really too bad.

    [JR: Thanks for this. I don't disagree -- read Ponzi scheme post. Still a blog need some focus.]

  27. Brooks Bridges says:

    I am quite addicted to your blog. I appreciate the insight into what drives you. Thanks for the incredibly important work you do.

  28. HighTest says:

    I can usually save time reading your blog by skipping the comments. Not tonight. They so mirrored my own sentiments, are so articulate–I read them all.
    May I join the chorus to thank you for your indispensable 3 years– straightforward reporting, tutorials in abstruse science, Orwellian analysis of the shameful opposition, plus great wit. Thanks!

  29. Marc Hudson says:

    Well done you! I have found your relentless precision and intelligence an inspiration and a challenge. Keep at it, and yes, your words will help future generations understand our death-wish.

  30. Eoin says:

    Thanks for this essay, and congrats on your third anniversary. It was Orwell who first inspired me to get into journalism, particularly his efforts to point out how matters of fact can quickly become matters of power.

    I have found his works particularly relevant when it comes to the vast amounts of disinformation about climate change.

  31. Mike#22 says:

    Brilliance.

  32. Eco Canuck says:

    Thanks for this post. I work in the sustainability field, and have had a strong desire to create a blog, but couldn’t quite pinpoint my motivations. You’ve summed them up perfectly and reinvigorated my purpose. Thanks.

  33. herlbertlu says:

    reduced peter yields 1800s north

  34. Roger says:

    I finally took time to read this, and am glad I did. Very interesting and, in the paragraph where you quote Elizabeth Kolbert, quite moving.

    A brief story: I was ‘tabling’ as a volunteer for the cause yesterday, in support of the upcoming October 24th, 350.org, International Day of Climate Action. It was a breezy, autumn afternoon, at the crossroads of a small, New England town. School buses were going by, lugging oblivious young students home. Airplanes were jetting into the local, small airport. Pickup trucks and SUVs were whizzing past. I felt surrounded by ‘the American way of life.’ Good, but, uh, problematic!

    A woman of about 35, who seemed a bit curious about what I was selling, approached my table. Trying to hone my opening line, I must have said something like, “May I take a moment to speak with you briefly about climate change?” (I probably felt like adding, “You know, the coming crisis, that could take you, your kids, your grandkids, plus countless others–not to mention many other lifeforms–through hell and high water?”) She looked at me skeptically and said, “No thanks, not today!”

    An image popped into my mind. Now the SUVs, the airplanes, and most sadly, the schoolbuses, were all heading for an unseen disaster. And no one else around me knew. And no one else around me cared, or wanted to be told. It was not a good feeling.

    Now, unexpectedly, storm clouds were looming in the western sky. A thunderstorm was coming. I packed up my table and my flyers and headed home, wondering why I didn’t just give up, and re-join the much-larger universe of ignorant, misinformed, and don’t-rain-on-my-parade people.

    Well, I’ll tell you why, I said to myself. Some of the same reasons that Joe Romm writes Climate Progress, having to do with peace of mind, and the future lives of my kids, my grandkids, and millions more.

    So, carry on, Joe. You inspire many of us, who know, to do the same!

    And, by the way, why isn’t our government, which has spent ~$20 billion looking at climate change (www.globalchange.gov), able to spend a few more bucks to get the information into people’s heads, where it would do some good!

    Isn’t there some analogy to civil defense, and an air raid siren needing to be sounded, so that citizens know what’s coming, and are thus able to defend themselves, and/or willing to support a strong international treaty to limit greenhouse gases–even if it costs us a few percent of our precious GDP?

    Let’s go, President Obama. Please tell it like it is, for you certainly know, given your inputs from John Holdren, Steve Chu and others. And don’t forget to be in Copenhagen for COP15 in early December!