If aliens on distant planets are capable of monitoring news broadcasts here on earth, the last few days must have struck them as emotionally draining. The world, according to nearly every media outlet, spent the new year watching in agony as the American economy lurched towards the “fiscal cliff”. Hour by hour, the rollercoaster of negotiations in Washington carried us to the heights of hope, before plunging us back into gloom. Now that a messy half-solution has been cobbled together, we’re cautiously allowing ourselves to breathe once more, our hearts still racing, as it dawns on us how narrowly catastrophe was averted.
Except … you didn’t have any of those reactions, did you? Because the entire debacle was stupefyingly dull. The fiscal cliff, as Slate magazine’s economics writer Matthew Yglesias pointed out, was “the most boring political story of the year. It has none of the human drama of an election campaign. None of the white-knuckle terror of a financial system calamity. Just a lot of endless, tedious negotiations …” Rarely has a metaphor seemed more inappropriate: the US hurtled towards a cliff, then briefly hurtled over that cliff – and yet the whole experience was marginally less interesting than, say, regrouting the tiles in your bathroom.
In my social circles, at least, it’s frowned upon to talk like this about any major news event. People are liable to accuse you of cynicism – or in the case of the fiscal cliff, of an obnoxious, privileged disregard for the low-income millions who bear the brunt of squabbles in DC. They might even quote GK Chesterton: “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” But there’s a real conundrum here, which won’t go away by scolding anyone who speaks of it. Many of the most important issues of our era just aren’t particularly interesting. Worse than that, there’s good reason to believe in an inverse relationship between interestingness and importance. The more we should care about a story, in other words, the more likely we’d rather do anything else. Which is a problem – and not, by any means, a dull one.
The chasm between interestingness and importance is nowhere more evident than on the subject of climate change, a topic of immeasurable significance that only the most talented commentators and campaigners are able to render compelling. (I’m speaking personally, of course, so you may disagree with any specific example: all of us have some specialist topic we’re obsessed by, despite others finding it crashingly dull.) This is what the marine biologist turned filmmaker Randy Olson has called “the great unmentionable” of the climate conversation. “I dare you to find any major programme studying it, and willing to call it what it is,” he told the New York Times. “You’ll find huge budgeted projects examining public attitudes towards climate … But what about the simple fact that climate is quite possibly THE most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public?”
What climate change and the fiscal cliff have in common, most obviously, is that they’re not stories about the sufferings or triumphs of individual, knowable humans. They’re failures of complex systems: millions of individuals are affected, but in incremental, widely dispersed ways; in the case of global warming, most of those millions aren’t even born yet. In his recent book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall makes the case that our hunger for stories – for seeing the world through narrative structures – is inborn. “Story is for a human as water is for a fish,” he writes: so deeply essential that we may not clearly perceive it. And those stories compel most when they’re suffused with moral drama: strivings, betrayals, victories, lies, conflicts and reconciliations. (People who read fiction, he reminds us, have been shown in some research to demonstrate greater empathy.) Drama happens in human minds, not complex systems. This is why politicians know to frame their campaigns as narratives, and why celebrity gossip outsells pronouncements of climate doom.
The economist Tyler Cowen rightly warns that our addiction to stories is dangerous. Stories strip facts away, dragging attention to what’s most narratively satisfying, not what’s most important. One of the least appetising tasks of the journalist, I can say from experience, is the struggle to combat this by injecting “the human element” into news that doesn’t naturally possess it. The results are often painful. A recent survey of listeners to America’s National Public Radio found that they broadly enjoyed its politics coverage, but hated “person-in-the-street” interviews: usually, it’s all too evident that the “average voter” being interrogated has nothing to contribute. The greatest challenges facing humanity, you might possibly have noticed, rarely find answers on Any Answers.
The best we can hope for, Cowen suggests, is to cultivate a distrust of our own love of stories, to watch for when we’re being seduced. (It’s also worth remembering the psychoanalysts’ argument that apathy might be a coping strategy, a way to avoid confronting the horror.) Those charged with communicating Really Important Issues, meanwhile, should stop pretending that importance guarantees interestingness: it doesn’t, and may even work against it. By the way, in a few weeks’ time, the US “debt ceiling” debate is coming back. It would be difficult to understate my excitement.
• The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman, is out tomorrow in paperback from Canongate Books at £8.99. Order it from the Guardian bookshop today for £7.19.
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