Fun in the Face of Danger: Animal Intelligence in Rambunctious Climate Change

VIDEO: ABC Natures Edge

(ABC News)

The Mickey Rooney Judy Garland Solution to the Climate Crisis.

How fun made us 'so damned dominant,' FDR triggered our mirror neurons, and our search for realistic hope.


Nature's Edge Notebook #30

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

(Editors' Note - This continues series begun with Notebook #27, "' Hug the Monster' for Realistic Hope in Global Warming."


The Emergence Fun in the Face of Danger

Our ability to have fun in the face of danger can sometimes help us survive it.

Evolutionary psychologists say it may have evolved for that very reason.

It may be part of what helped make us humans, as biologist Edward O. Wilson once described us, "so damned dominant."

We humans do it all the time - in wars, natural disasters and competitions physical and mental.

An extremely social species, we often band together when things look grim and confront trouble with a sense of almost defiant fun.

This paradoxical behavior, say social psychologists, could prove essential to the survival of civilization itself amid the fast accumulating catastrophes of climate change.

Call it "The Mickey Rooney Judy Garland Solution to Manmade Global Warming."

Playing spirited teenagers in a series of MGM "backyard musicals" that began in 1930s Depression-era America, just as things seem hopeless, one of them gets an idea, their eyes grow big, and then … "I know! We'll put on the best darn show this town has ever seen!" … and they do, and great collective fun ensues, and by the end of the film the town's problem, whatever it was, has vanished.

Animals do it too, as scientists we interview are finding. It can be hilarious in its playfulness, and often fascinating.

In fact, they report that humans (and others) have built-in urgent needs to have fun - as reward and remedy for ossified joints both mental and physical

This is not to trivialize the gravity of the climate crisis, but to broaden the search for unexpected strengths and behaviors that may help overcome it.

This reporter has heard Republicans and Democrats in Congress discussing together how they might stimulate what they called "the can-do spirit" to help fight global warming - apparently thinking of something like the spirited group efforts that suddenly emerged in the early 1940s in America to build anti-Axis bombers and ships in record time.

Three Short (and Fun) Video Segments

The three short (and fun) video segments below show a range of examples of the emergence of fun we have found in the face of the danger of manmade global warming.

They may even bring a smile - tickle your mirror neurons.

They also happen to show how the global warming news story is an occupational boon to journalists - those who might like the challenge of a rich and compelling story, however frightening.

And these videos even offer early glimpses of something that often seems rare in this daunting news story: realistic hope.

' Realistic Hope' amid Climate Calamity

Before we get to the fun part, a brief reminder of what's at stake.

If you want to skip this - find it too daunting to ponder just now (as this reporter sometimes does) - simply jump to the next bolded subhead, And Yet…

However, if you can tough it out, these next paragraphs may render what follows all the more fun.

How can we find any "realistic hope" in the face this story? ** (see footnote)

The frightening news about the catastrophic impacts of rapidly rising global temperature and ocean acidification is confirmed in repeated polls of the world's climate scientists.

For example, more than 97 percent of 1,372 in a recent survey published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists (PNAS) "support the tenets" of rapid manmade global warming presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC.) ( "Expert credibility in climate change", Anderegg et al.) *footnote

Economists and sociologists working with them project devastating droughts, floods and agricultural collapse - distinctly possible even within the next few decades, before mid-century - that could easily unhinge governments and global economies with unprecedented massive deaths and immense migrations of desperate and starving climate refugees.

Such multi-disciplinary teams of experts report that such impacts have already begun in small parts of each of the six inhabited continents, and expect them to increase for at least the next few decades, and to level off only if human intervention somehow arrests them.

More troubling, several recent scientific assessments conclude that even if all the proposals currently on the table from the world's nations were fully implemented, they would still be nowhere near enough to stop the continuing rapid rise in temperature to catastrophic levels.

Obviously, the search for any realistic hope must start with us, the humans, since virtually all the world's climate scientists concur that it is unquestionably manmade, and that only human activity could be counted on to slow or reverse it, since they have not found any non-manmade causes that will.

Climate scientists say "the biggest unknown" in all the data they feed into computers to try to project the rate of global temperature rise is simply this:

"What will the humans do?"

How fast might humanity…

  • Cut overall global greenhouse emissions into the swirling borderless air?
  • Increase light-reflecting roof and other surfaces?
  • Multiply carbon-absorbing plants, soils and other "carbon sinks"?
  • Switch to non-greenhouse-producing energies and technologies, and to cultural and economic norms to sustain them?

… And do so, hopefully, in time to avoid catastrophic tipping points, including any overall global tipping point that could trip earth into a self-reinforcing "runaway" warming that overwhelms agriculture and the underpinnings of civilization while shooting the planet's global temperature regime back up once again to something like that which was comfortable for the dinosaurs, when there was more heat-trapping CO2 in the air and little or no snow or ice on the planet.

If the biggest question is "What will the humans do?" that means this is a collective psychology story.

And humanity's record for achieving enough collective psychological cohesion to avoid enormous calamities that many nonetheless see coming - such as World War II - is frightening (as discussed in our recent Nature's Edge Notebook, " The Great Big Book of Horrible Things").

And Yet…

And yet this reporter, in the years since I started focusing on the climate story in 2005, is beginning to glimpse several reasons for realistic hope.

They include hints about that biggest unknown - what the humans will do.

They are always fascinating, and often fun - if reported well.

It is surely important to report any glimpses of realistic hope.

It seems fitting to start with an example that may be especially authentic coming from a professional journalist - one concerning the impact and promise of this event on the practice of journalism itself.

It is an example that is also therefore concerned with the enjoyment of you the reader.

If the journalist is engaged or even fascinated with the story, it's more likely the reader will be too.

(Or conversely, as poet Robert Frost put it, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.")

What sort of news story is climate change?

What does it offer a truly professional journalistic interest?

There's some good news about that.

The Good News About This Bad News

The good news about this bad news is that it's what journalists call "a great story."

How could it not be?

The great and indeed unprecedented scale of the imminent danger - in fact, the clear and present danger - gives the story utmost relevance.

Most of the American public knows this, as shown by several public opinion surveys. (For example, the work of Jonathan Krosnick at Stanford University.)

This suggests that large numbers of people will reward any illuminating reporting on global warming with their appreciation.

They are hungry to understand it.

Even those trying to deny manmade global warming and its gravity spend a great deal of time thinking and even worrying about it, according to surveys and other sociological and psychological studies recently discussed in a conference on Science Writing in the Age of Denial at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The climate story overflows with great characters, enormous and engaging import, whole new areas of attention and thought to be opened like entire continents to early explorers, gorgeous outdoor settings and exotic ecosystems of unguessed importance.

It abounds with unexpected professional heroes, heartbreaking losses and visionary solutions, looming catastrophe and opportunities for great generosity, puzzles galore and even with new forms of humor, sometimes dark but often salutary, that can trigger a laugh when you'd least expect it.

In other words, for the professional journalist, this story offers a great deal of what might be called, in a sense, professional fun.

People who love doing what good journalists do have an El Dorado to explore here - once they see it - but unlike that legendary "Lost City of Gold," this one is real, rich in low hanging journalistic fruit - in "great stories."

It offers reporters the immediate reward of many hard news facts that clearly and urgently need reporting.

The three short video segments below are from a Nature's Edge show that explores what a "great story" it is.

From Climate and Environment to Animal Intelligence, Human psychology, and All the Economies of Life

3 Short Video Segments from Nature's Edge

We created Nature's Edge at ABC News in response to the climate crisis, upon realizing its unprecedented nature and enormous scale.

We sensed the extreme newness of the story.

No journalism anywhere - at least in modern times - had ever had to grapple with something like this; the only close analogue, the manmade depletion of the ozone layer, was tiny by comparison and soon solved (even if only in the nick of time, as the Nobel Prize committee stated it.)

No journalistic organization had institutional experience of how to sort out and coordinate a story of this particular complexity and scale; not even World War II had presented such a complex threat.

So Nature's Edge began as a journalistic foray to give context to the daunting story of global warming and ocean acidification.

We decided to begin every show with these words:

"Welcome to Nature's Edge, for your news from where nature and human nature meet - from climate and environment to animal intelligence, human psychology, and all the economies of Life."

It was seeking to surround this frightening story with as many fascinating and pertinent new angles and related subjects as we could find.

We found many, and seem only to be getting started.

They were mostly great fun to report, being so new.

Animal Intelligence, at Times Superior to Ours- and Play Behavior

In fact, fun itself was one of them, as revealed in the new science of play behavior.

Scientists are finding healthy play behavior throughout life to be important for health and survival in all sorts of animal species, including humans.

New perspectives are also offered by the rapidly expanding science of animal intelligence studies.

Scientists and other experts have explained that the new studies in animal intelligence are adding new excitement and prospects to the study of the nature of human intelligence.

And since "What will the humans do?" is so central a concern in dealing with global warming - a question essentially about the nature of human intelligence and human nature - animal intelligence clearly applies, in addition to being so much fun.

But the news about animal intelligence studies, "from where nature and human nature meet," offers new perspective not only on humans.

Animal Minds …

There's also a major existential and moral story here that we're barely beginning to know how to report.

One of the greatest ravages of manmade global warming, already reported to be happening and with much more projected for each passing decade, is the decimation of long evolved ecosystems and the rapid acceleration of extinctions of species.

Peer reviewed studies in leading scientific journals, calculating the rapid increase of extinctions as rising temperatures and ocean acidification assault ecosystems already stressed by habitat destruction and toxic pollution, estimate some 20 percent to 50 percent of all species on earth extinct or committed to extinction in the second half of this century, even when today's toddlers are in middle age.

So the new scientific insights into the nature of animal intelligence and consciousness (which are finding remarkable similarities to our own, and even, in many cases, finding "superior" mental abilities in specific functions) raise another critical question, newly substantiated by fast growing science: What kinds of minds are we humans now wiping out forever with our increasing emissions of invisible greenhouse gases?

In the world's universities and scientific institutions, this is no longer the fringe question it so recently was.

We also decided when we began Nature's Edge always to host the show outdoors, whatever the weather.

We soon found it had a surprising benefit: Even the geekiest scientist tends to talk normally when outdoors, as do all sorts of jargon-bound experts. And it seems easier also to listen to people if you're outdoors (or the camera is), perhaps because you feel somehow less constrained.

You can explore many Nature's Edge shows in all their variety at: … but here directly below are the three short video segments of one Nature's Edge show that explores some of the story's unexpected fun and riches.

The first video Segment :

A Riot of New Stories

It starts with a quick list sampling 31 different subjects, an example of the variety we have found in this story, ranging from

  • stray dogs who've learned to use the Moscow subway
  • to a video artist's rendition of what our world would look like if we could see the invisible greenhouse gas emissions all around us…
  • to architects of Adult Treehouses and "Cabinology" getaways…
  • to the impact of global warming on terrorism…
  • to plans for how New York City can become a beautiful Venice as sea level rises, which it is inexorably doing, speeded by the rising global temperature.

Then it explores the "Mickey Rooney Judy Garland Solution" to climate change…

  • Shows how U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt - in his single most famous quote - used a form of "meta-psychology" (asking people to think about their own psychology) that some leaders instinctively use to rally populations in the face of great danger …
  • Glances at the new sciences showing the critical importance of play behavior…
  • And presents several other stories "from where nature and human nature meet" that give context to the story of global warming.

Video Segment 1:

"Fun in the Face of Danger, with FDR, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and others…"

The Second Video Segment :

Neil Tyson, Compelling in Digression

Rich Rewards for a Wandering Mind - Both Fun and Important

Neil de Grasse Tyson, astronomer and compelling explainer, shows us the delight - and the critical importance for the advancement of science - of wandering off the subject, getting distracted… of just having fun being curious.

Collateral learning - unexpected discoveries - sometimes prove critical precisely because we were not seeking them with any use in mind beyond just knowing more about the universe.

The great dangers of manmade global warming arose, say scientists, because experts in different disciplines were not speaking to each other as much as they should have.

Psychologists are beginning to show how the "disparate concepts" that may be intuitively brought into contact with each other when you wander off-topic - even daydream - may be critical to "connecting the stovepipes" for the sort of coordinated global scientific effort that it appears the climate crisis now demands.

The digressions (within reason) that we made with Neil Tyson while interviewing him about other things, took us into new territory … and, by marvelous coincidence, new explanations that actually add rich context and perspective to the climate story:

  • News about how the atmosphere of distant exo-planets circling other stars is measured…
  • How "biomarkers" in light originating from those stars and passing through those distant planetary atmospheres may detect life on those exo-planets…
  • And Neil Tyson's funny - and serious - joke about his greatest fear regarding space aliens who may detect earth's own "biomarkers."

Video Segment 2:

'Delight in Wandering Off the Subject Leads to Important Science'

The Third Video Segment:

Peter Raven, Gloria Steinem, Neil de Grasse Tyson … and Your Mirror Neurons to the Rescue…

Three masters of communication share the secrets of their success, including optimistic belief in the ability of others, the importance of telling stories and listening to everyone else's stories, and finding ways to engaging your mirror neurons…

V.S. Ramachandran explains how your mirror neurons work, are key to all sorts of fun, and a powerhouse for great leadership in a crisis … and a final word from your correspondent about how no one style of communication is recommended.

Video Segment 3:

'Peter Raven, Gloria Steinem and Neil de Grasse Tyson Share Secrets of Their Success - and the Power of Mirror Neurons'

Summing Up - Why This Offers a Glimpse of 'Realistic Hope'

Why is all the above a glimpse of realistic hope in the global warming crisis?

It all suggests that, as more and more professional journalists discover the journalistic riches they may pluck here, they will.

That as they do, it could mean the current public confusion about the basics of the climate crisis - a confusion some climate scientists charge is due partly to professional "malpractice" by some mainstream media news directors - will dissolve in a flood of some of the most fascinating, engaging and compelling stories the relatively young profession of modern journalism has ever presented.

Actually, like manmade global warming itself, such reporting is already well under way and to be found in myriad sites and currents flowing on the World Wide Web, if you just look for it.

(To be continued…)


TWO FOOTNOTES on "realistic hope," and on 97 percent of scientists agreeing:

* The phrase "realistic hope" comes from a book by philosopher and Holocaust Scholar Philip B. Hallie, "Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There," originally published in 1979.

In his "Introduction to the Harper Perennial Edition" of 1994, Hallie, writing when he was already suffering from the illness that would soon take his life, recounts an exchange in which a woman who, in hearing him speak about his book, realized that it was about the village and villagers who had saved the lives of her three children.

He describes how she then told him and his audience that "The Holocaust was the storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow."

Hallie goes on to reflect on how "the rainbow is one of the richest images in the Bible" that "God put in heaven after the great Flood" and that it meant '…never again shall all flesh be cut off.' "

Then Hallie writes two sentences that are now carved into the headstone on his grave in Middletown, Ct.:

"The rainbow reminds God and man that life is precious to God, that God offers not only sentimental hope, but a promise that living will have the last word, not killing. The rainbow means realistic hope."

Hallie had used the phrase "realistic hope" in the original edition of 1979. Reflecting on the fact that, as a member of an Allied artillery crew in WWII, he had participated in the killing of human beings, he writes:

"… If only such things were possible, then life was too heavy a burden for me. The lies I would have to tell my children in order to raise them in hope - which children need the way plants need sunlight - would make the burden unbearable.

"I am a student and a teacher of good and evil, but for me ethics, like the rest of philosophy, is not a scientific, impersonal matter. It is by and about persons, much as it was for Socrates. Being personal, it must not be ashamed to express personal passions, the way strict scientists might be ashamed to express them in a laboratory report. My own passion was a yearning for realistic hope. I wanted to believe that the examined life was more precious than this Hell I had dug for myself in studying evil."

** This PNAS survey reporting more than 97 percent of climate scientists agree on manmade global warming also reports that "… the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced [less than 3 percent] of ACC [anthropogenic -- manmade -- climate change] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers."


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