How Stripping Supermodels Promote Climate Action

This video was released as part of Bill McKibben’s global awareness-building exercise last week for 350.org, an organization promoting the idea that carbon emission levels above 350 parts per million are dangerous:

I’d like to treat this as a case study in visual metaphors and conceptual frames to show how insights into human cognition are vital for effective climate action.

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This video contains several innovative elements that are worthy of note. I’ll consider each in turn.

Visual Metaphors

Human thought is profoundly metaphorical. Our most basic concepts are grounded in the bodily experience and “abstracted” through metaphorical extensions. We understand knowledge through several bodily activities such as grasping (I get what you’re saying), seeing (That explanation is a bit murky), eating (I find that hard to swallow) and physical forces (Relativity theory just about blew my mind).

These metaphors are all conceptual. They are found in every human language. They are also involved in spatial and auditory reasoning. This video makes use of visual metaphors that are designed to make profound points through the experience of watching it. Here are a few of them I noticed:

Emotional (sexual) energy is physical heat.

A layer of clothing is one unit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The “natural state” of nudity is the “natural state” of our global climate system (undisturbed by global warming).

Each of these metaphors is activated through gesturing and movement. Thus it is expressed visually in the video. It becomes active in our language when we “put words” to them and articulate our understanding of these ideas.

Making Climate Action Sexy

A major theme of this video is that solving the climate crisis is a natural compulsion (another metaphor!) just like having a sex drive is an innate quality for human beings. It playfully asserts that engagement with the challenges we face in dealing with climate can be pleasurable and fun.

What’s more, the final moments of the video set up the pressure to “finish the job” and get those last two parts per million out of the way. A clear and powerful objective has been set up (for those who find supermodels sexy) to get down to “bare essentials” where these people most like to be.

Deconstructing the Fashion Industry

Each layer of clothing fits within the supermodel frame, meaning that the style of garments represent the glamor and extravagance of the fashion industry. As the models remove each article of clothing, they are promoting the idea that all these layers are not only unnecessary, but they are bad for us.

This puts the fashion industry in a precarious position. If all those layers of extravagance (metaphorically implied as causing the heating problem) are harmful AND unnecessary, we can and should return to simpler forms of pleasure (like sexual interaction with those who appeal to us and, by extension, other kinds of simple pleasures) that do not contribute to the disruption of global climate.

An Image Schema That Leaves (Some of) Us Wanting More

Another key insight about human cognition is that we have body-based concepts for using our bodies in the world. These include core capacities to maintain balance, move along a trajectory, recognize containers, and so on. Each of these capacities requires what are called “image schemas” or schematic concepts for acting out our plans in the world. Two key image schemas in this video are the BALANCE SCHEMA and the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL SCHEMA.

The BALANCE SCHEMA arises when we feel drawn toward or away from a physical object. The metaphor sex appeal is physical attraction makes this evident. We are “pulled” toward the things that attract us and remain “unbalanced” until we either resist the pull or make contact with the source of attraction.

The SOURCE-PATH-GOAL SCHEMA is set up throughout the entire video. As the models reveal that their intention is to remove articles of clothing in a continuing sequence, a trajectory appears in our understanding of what is going on that “leads to” the culminating point where the model is naked.

Those of us who find this end state desirable are left “unbalanced” at the end of the video. These people feel a compulsion to act. This forms the motivational drive to reduce carbon emissions. If, according to the metaphors involved, the only way to achieve the natural state of nakedness is to reduce carbon dioxide levels back to their undisturbed state, this compulsion will remain active and unbalanced until sufficient climate action has been achieved.

Being Evocative Through Controversy

Some readers will find this video offensive. There is plenty of controversy around the objectification of women, idolization of celebrities (including supermodels), and the use of sex to “sell” climate change.

I see these controversies as very effective from a marketing perspective. The two motivating tendencies for sharing this video – and it is clearly going viral at the moment with over 109,000 views at the time of this writing – are (1) people who felt good about the video and wanted to share and (2) people who were appalled at the video and felt the need to complain about it. Both of these tendencies are driving the viral spread of the video.

Closing Comment – Understand Your Political Mind

Every part of this analysis shows that human cognition has many central roles in the spread of ideas. It is vital that social change advocates of all stripes learn more about the workings of our minds and the political/cultural ramifications of this knowledge.

Update 1: I clarified the metaphor “emotional energy is physical heat” with “sexual” in parentheses to suggest that some viewers would read sexual connotations into it while others simply see it as a general emotional warming as the women go from feeling physically cold to being exuberant and energetic at the end.

Update 2: There’s a lively discussion of this article on my other blog that you might like to check out too!

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Joe Brewer is a cognitive scientist turned social change strategist who consults with advocacy organizations of all kinds to bring us closer to a sustainable world. Reach him here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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About Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer is Founder and Director of Cognitive Policy Works. He is a social change strategist and facilitator of idea implementation for people seeking to innovate at the intersection of the advocacy, policy, and technology worlds. Throughout the last decade Joe has sought to understand human values and behavior through the study of cognitive semantics and complex systems with the goal of helping build livable communities for the 21st Century. Much of his work has focused on values, identity, and modes of thought that shape cultural understandings of political and social issues.

Joe is interested in developing new practices that empower people to manage large-scale social change while solving problems through collaboration. He would like to see greater levels of trust and cooperation arise through a culture of sharing that enhances life satisfaction and well-being for people everywhere. Joe is dedicated to making Cognitive Policy Works into a world-class educational center and consulting firm that trains people to manage the change process through the application of strategic planning tools and insights into the political, cultural, and psychological aspects of social change.

He contributes to the Strategies for Change project of WWF-UK as a principal researcher at IdentityCampaigning.org. A collection of Joe’s writings can be found here.