The death toll does matter, but I want to tell you a story.
When I was a kid, my father stopped to get gas at a country station. I saw an old man sitting in the shade outside. He was dressed in a torn hunting vest and ragged clothes. This was in a time before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protected crows, and he held a shotgun across his lap. I walked past him on the way into the station, and he said something to me. He was drunk, but like any polite kid, I stopped and said, excuse me. I’m not sure why he told me this story until I started thinking about our death toll and numbers.
He said that when two hunters go into a blind and one comes out, that crows know there is still one hunter in the blind. He went on. If three hunters go in and two come out, they still know there’s one hunter in the blind. But if four hunters go in and three come out, the crows get confused and will be killed by the remaining hunter. He wasn’t having any luck because he was alone.
So crows are like humans. They can count, and add and subtract. They are smart birds. But also like humans, they get confused by larger numbers.
The same applies to the tragic number of people dying in our country from COVID-19. Trump intuitively understands that we don’t get numbers. He will use this to confuse us and avoid responsibility and deflect blame. I don’t know what it means to have 100,000 to 200,000 people die. Of course I know this is tragic, but I can’t absorb this number. I also don’t know what a billion or a trillion dollars are when speaking about relief packages.
In climate communications we also confuse people with large numbers and it isn’t helping. We say that the Line 3 pipeline will put 1.5 megatons of CO2 into our air every week. But I’m confused. A megaton sounds like a large amount, but I don’t know how much that really is, and whether it’s bad. I also don’t know what CO2 is. I can’t smell or see it.
Sometimes we need to use numbers in our communication. The secret is to allow our audiences to experience those numbers. Instead of saying the pipeline emits 1.5 megatons, we can say, “This pipeline will spew the same amount of pollution in our state as 40 coal fired power plants belching black smoke into our clean air every day of every year for the next 40 years.
If you want to know how many people are dying every week, think of it this way. We had 3,600 people die on 9/11 with four airplanes. Trump’s inaction and lack of a plan is like having a 9/11 every day with 4 airplanes falling out of the sky killing mothers and fathers and children. Then start naming people that have died. Bob Jackson (36), Stella Brown (72), Leola Smith (8)… until you run out of names.
When we use numbers, the question we need to ask is, “Can our audience see and feel that number?” But here’s the real trick. Never use a number, a fact, or a reason when you can use an image or tell a story. Like the hunter stalking the crow, there is another virus of self-interest and wishful thinking stalking us.
Getting sick reminds us that we’re all just human, no matter what we look like, where we live, or what’s in our wallets. In order to prevent the spread and protect our loved ones from COVID, everyone must have access to testing, treatment and some way to make ends meet.
This is a moment that we must stand with and for each other across our differences to ensure all of us can care for our families and get and stay healthy. A time when we need to stay apart so we can build back our country cleaner, better and more just.
Or we can be numbed by the numbers while thousands of crows eat the people we have needlessly let die.
The next time you think you need to use a number, I’ll bet you think of the story of the crows.
‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™
L. Hobart Stocking