Going green is all about what you gain, not what you give up

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

It was written by Kate Laffan

According to The New Republic magazine in June this year: ‘You will have to make sacrifices to save the planet’, while the US newspaper Metro asks: ‘What would you give up to end climate change?’ These headlines, read from my desk in London where I carry out research in environmental psychology, present us with stark choices: between self and society, wellbeing and morality. It worries me to see pro-environmental action being equated with personal sacrifice in this way. It also makes me wonder whether we could change the content of a third recent headline, this time from Sky News – ‘Majority of Brits unwilling to cut back to fight climate change’ – by reframing how we talk about pro-environmental behaviour.

A growing body of research suggests that, rather than posing a threat to individual wellbeing, adopting a more sustainable lifestyle represents a pathway to a more satisfied life. Numerous studies have found that people who purchase green products, who recycle or who volunteer for green causes claim to be more satisfied with their lives than their less environmentally friendly counterparts. In the most systematic exploration of this relationship to date, the social psychologist Michael Schmitt at Simon Fraser University in Canada and colleagues found that, of the 39 pro-environmental behaviors examined, 37 were positively linked to life satisfaction (the exceptions being the use of public transport or carpooling, and running the washer/dryer only when full).

Digging deeper, the authors of this 2018 paper found that the strongest positive relationships were between life satisfaction and those behaviors involving a cost in money, time or effort. So, participating in local pro-environmental activities is far more predictive of life satisfaction than, say, turning off the tap while brushing your teeth (despite it being a more effortful undertaking). In complementary vein, when the psychologist Stacey Ann Rich at La Trobe University in Melbourne and colleagues looked at people on the far end of the sustainable lifestyle scale, they found that ‘voluntary simplifiers’ – or people who freely choose to live frugally – report higher life satisfaction than nonsimplifiers across several different studies. Far from suggesting that people lose out when they put significant effort into living a sustainable life, it seems that the more you put in the more you stand to gain.

This is promising evidence, but the measure used – life satisfaction – can miss some of the potential nuances in play when people think (and feel) about their lives as they go about them. My own research at the London School of Economics addresses this issue by examining how pro-environmental behaviors relate to different types of wellbeing. In particular, I make a distinction between hedonic wellbeing, which relates to the emotions that people experience, and eudemonic wellbeing, which reflects their sense of purpose.

There are good reasons to think that this distinction might matter. Some pro-environmental behaviors can boost people’s mood: imagine cycling to work rather than driving through central London traffic, for example. Other behaviors that are typically carried out on autopilot, such as recycling, might not be expected to have any impact at all. Still others might cause people to experience feelings of stress, as anyone who has recently tried to have a short, cold shower will attest.

Contrast this with how we might expect pro-environmental behavior to relate to people’s sense of purpose. The environmental psychologist Tim Kasser – an expert on materialism and wellbeing, and now emeritus professor at Knox College in Illinois – has argued that pro-environmental behavior can contribute to people’s needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence – all of them key drivers of eudemonic wellbeing. More directly, to the extent that people perceive engagement in a wide range of pro-environmental behaviors as ‘doing the right thing’, we might expect them all to contribute to people’s sense of purpose.

As part of my PhD, I examined these ideas using questionnaire data from a sample of more than 5,000 English residents. I found that people’s levels of happiness or anxiety were independent of their engagement in pro-environmental behavior on the previous day. This suggests that, while individuals might not derive pleasure from engaging in pro-environmental behavior, nor do these behaviors generally come at an emotional cost. At the same time, my research indicates that the more pro-environmental actions that people engage in, the more worthwhile they consider their activities to be overall.

When taken together, the life-satisfaction evidence and the results of my own work fly in the face of the view of pro-environmental behavior as a sacrifice and point instead to a range of potential psychological benefits of going green. We are still in the early stages of understanding what’s driving these apparent benefits, but recent work by the economists Heinz Welsch and Jan Kühling at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, among other scholars, suggests that conforming with social norms, having a positive self-image and opportunities to socialize all play a role.

Aeon counter – do not remove

If you style pro-environmental behavior as onerous, then moral appeals of the ‘You will have to make sacrifices to save the planet’ kind are never far behind. Better then, is to encourage people to take action on climate change by presenting environmental issues as personally relevant. The subjective wellbeing evidence gives us an opportunity to move our focus away from what people might have to give up or do without, and towards the potential gains of living not worse but differently. Such positive messages might better motivate pro-environmental actions that contribute directly to individual wellbeing, while at the same time safeguarding the wellbeing of others and of generations to come.

Kate Laffan is a fellow in the department of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In November 2019, she takes up a Marie Curie fellowship at the Geary Institute for Public Policy at University College Dublin. She lives in London.

What is Melancholia?

Depression is defined as pathological sadness – a disease for which there are a variety of treatments. I myself have suffered from episodes of severe depression, and I have successfully overcome these episodes with a combination of Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy, anti-depressant medication, exercise, and meditation. Because I have first-hand knowledge of depression and the effectiveness of treatment, I think it’s essential that I differentiate depression, which always involves some sort of disfunction, maladaptation, or physiological imbalance, from melancholia (as in The Black Sun,) which I define differently.

To put it simply, depression is a disease; so if you are depressed, something is wrong with you. You are feeling an overwhelming and continual despondency that is inappropriate to your particular circumstances, and more generally, atypical of a healthy, thriving human being. You have an illness that warps your perception of the world, and you need treatment.

However, when you experience melancholia, there is nothing wrong with you. The “symptoms” you are feeling – lethargy, pessimism, low motivation, slowness, emptiness, grief, loneliness and even thoughts of suicide – come from a deeply felt awareness of death, loss, and impermanence. These feelings are entirely appropriate to your situation, and to the human condition, and may reveal some essential truth about your world.

In melancholia, suicidal ideation is not a literal impulse to kill one’s physical body, but a longing for transformation, both of one’s identity and the world in which that identity is enmeshed. (In later blogs, I will introduce the concept of egoicide.) Melancholia is not a problem to be solved or a condition to be cured; it is a truth to be encountered, an experience to be felt more deeply, and a window to insight.

I associate melancholy with many of the topics that obsess me, including Buddhism, Post-Jungian psychology, Imaginal experience, mysticism, existentialism, art, aesthetics, cinema, and even mathematics. It’s a word that I will use often in this blog, and it’s important that readers understand that I am not romanticizing depression, rather, I am investigating a related, but unique state of conciousness.

In the Venn Diagram below, I’ve differentiated four separate kinds of sorrow or despondency. YELLOW is ordinary sadness, the kind of sadness we feel in response to common disappointments, failures, and losses. GREEN denotes depression as treated by CBT; it is a negative cognitive bias caused by negative automatic thoughtsmaladaptive behaviors, and/or dysfunctional world beliefs. BLUE is depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – a deficit of serotonin and dopamine. Pink, at the bottom, is melancholia.

It seems likely that most of us are feeling some mixture of these four elements when our mood is low. My point is not to argue whether the neurochemical model or the Cognitive/Behavioral model of depression is valid, but rather to differentiate depression-as-illness from melancholy.

In particular, I want to challenge our culture’s relentless pursuit of happiness and obsession with psychological growth. If sunny optimism defines what it is to be “healthy,” then the culture begins to see any encounter with the darker, more tragic, and rightly depressing aspects of life as “unhealthy.” Melancholia is seen as something to be avoided, like saturated fat, herpes or income tax.

When we “grow out of” every experience of deep sadness, then melancholia as a necessary, vital and enriching human experience, is denied and forgotten.

Future blogs will explore the idea that our inability to tolerate sadness (like our inability to tolerate boredom) results in a “positive cognitive bias” or patholgical happiness, which may ultimately be more destructive than depression. Lingering over the inevitability of death, illness, and decay disturbs our very American fantasies of perpetual expansion, economic growth, and boundless possibility.

(See my recent blog about the perverted symbolism of sunny, happy, optimism: The Tyranny of Sunlight. )

If melancholy is seen as just another problem to be solved by programs of self-improvement, then vital parts of the human experience fall into Shadow -unacknowledged and unspoken.

So, the process I’m exploring in this series of articles on The Black Sun is one that DOES treat the various forms of depression as illnesses, but the goal is not to eliminate the experience of deep and heavy sadness, but instead to correct our cognitive bias and right our neurological imbalance so as to allow for a more meaningful and transformative encounter with melancholy.

James Hillman described this process in “The Dream and The Underworld” as a deliberate descent into Hades. This descent humbles the “heroic” ego. It is not a quest with an objective, or a riddle that needs answer. It is a “move backward” rather than forward, a process that is “pathologizing” rather than healing; it is an experience that offers not happiness, progress or victory, but only meaning and depth; It is an unsettling and eerie encounter with a dream world that is both irrational and psychotic; it is a voyage into imaginal space, and eruption of the Ordinary Numinous in which we wrestle with archetypal entities, neither quite real or unreal, who are “deceptive, unpredictable, frightening, and wise.” It is the journey down into the mythical and the alchemical – a place that we can only interpret with metaphors or images, as we would a dream:

“The brood of night gives the dream an atmophere that is far from the happy optimism of growth psychology or the secret delight of sexual desire. We are not being told that our dreams help us, that they round out our lives and inflame our creativity. Nor are we being told that dreams pour out of a libidinous wishing well. Instead, they are akin to deceits and and conflicts, to the lamentations of ageing and the doom of our destiny. The dream takes us downward, and the mood that corresponds with this movement is the slowing, saddening, introspective feeling of melancholly.”

James Hillman, The Dream and The Underworld, pg. 34

So, using my own images, an experience of melancholy means peeling away the layers of yellow, green, blue, to reveal the red… and the black.

That “something that emerges” is represented by The Black Sun.

What are the odds of selling a good screenplay?

Ask A Screenwriter #4

Short answer: Very, Very Low.

Estimating odds is never easy because a number of assumptions must be made, and many of these assumptions may not apply to a particular script. “Good” is an extremely subjective term. A brilliant and original screenplay may actually be no easier to sell than an average script if what makes the story “good” is seen as risky, or if the “originality” is misunderstood. Conversely, if the writer just had a hit movie, the odds of selling the next script skyrocket. Maybe, it’s a mediocre screenplay based on a wildly popular book. Sometimes scripts are bought just because producers or executives like the underlying premise and they plan to hire a more seasoned writer to rewrite it. However, a script that is well-written is always more likely to sell that than a script telling the same general story that is mediocre.

So, here are some general statistics to make the argument that, all other things being equal, the odds of selling a good screenplay are LOW. And for you, probably about 1/1000.

Roughly 50,000 screenplays are registered at the WGA each year.[1] However, not all screenplays get registered, so it is safe to assume that about double that number of feature scripts get written every year. (For example, I finished two screenplays last year, but I didn’t register either at the WGA. There are many other ways to establish a legal claim of authorship, including registering the script with the Library of Congress.)

Some estimate that as many as one million scripts are written per year worldwide in hopes of “selling” that script to Hollywood.[2] So my pool of 100,000 scripts is really just the 10% of scripts worldwide that are “professionally” written – meaning any script reader would recognize it as having the minimum level of narrative form, format, coherence, and quality to submit to a buyer.

So, out of 100,000 “professional” screenplays how many of them are “good.” Let’s just say the top 5% of screenplays are good.

So out of 5,000 good screenplays how many actually sell?

In 2018 there were only 40 spec screenplay sales reported in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety, a statistic gathered by the folks who run The Blacklist.[3] This doesn’t count writers who are hired to write scripts based on existing material ( a book, a sequel, an existing script that needs a rewrite, a producer’s idea, etc,) which makes up the bulk of the paid screenwriting done in Hollywood. It also doesn’t count the many screenplays that are optioned, with writers hired to rewrite their own material. However, when people say “sell a screenplay” they are usually imagining selling an original script to a major studio or production company. The average number of these sales in recent years is about 50 screenplays per year.

So to summarize, assuming your script is one of the 5000 “good” scripts out of the one million that get written worldwide. Your chances of selling it are…

1% or one-in-one-hundred.

Are you discouraged yet? It gets worse.

How many of those 50 sales are screenplays by unknown, unestablished writers? Maybe 4. Sometimes fewer. Yet how many of the 5000 scripts were written by unknown, unestablished, non-WGA writers? Only about 5000 WGA writers out of 20,000 WGA members, earn any money in a given year, and most of them are TV writers. But let’s be wildly optimistic and say that of the 5000 good scripts written, 1000 of them were written by WGA members.

This means that out of the 4000 good scripts written by as-yet-unknown writers, only 4 will actually sell. So, for you, the chances are one-in-a-thousand.

What does this mean for you and your dreams of being a screenwriter? If you have “what it takes” to write movies, you are probably delusional, obsessed, and sadly unfit to do anything else. So stop reading Quora and get back to writing.

As Han Solo said in The Empire Strikes Back…

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

Why are Hollywood writers firing their agents?

Ask a Screenwriter #3

The Writers’ Guild of America demanded that the Talent Agencies sign a Code of Conduct. The Agencies refused. So, all WGA writers fired their agents and agencies. Writers will remain “unrepresented” by agents until an agreement is reached.

To explain:

The Code of Conduct is a document intended to eliminate Packaging Fees and curb the practice of Agents receiving money as de facto producers.

Agencies, in particular, the “Big Five” (CAA, WME, UTA, and ICM) who thrive on packaging fees and who feel they can’t survive without them, refused to give them up.

To explain in detail:

Talent Agent negotiates fees with Producers and studios on behalf of Writers.

A Talent Agent makes money by taking 10% of the fee negotiated.

For there not to be a conflict of interest, the Talent Agent negotiating with a Producer should not also be a Producer on the project.

Since the 60s it has been illegal for an Agent to also be a Producer.

However, the most powerful agencies (like CAA and WME) often behave like producers. Whenever a writer sets up a TV pilot, the agency charges the studio a “packaging fee.” This fee amounts to 6% of licensing and 10% of the gross, which is precisely something that a producer or a writer-producer might get.

“Packaging Fees” are ostensibly paid so that a powerful agency will bring other talented writers, actors, and directors it represents to the project. However, attaching additional talent is a producer’s job. And it’s not clear that the people who are “packaged” are having their best interests served. Most problematically, the agency could end up making far, far more than 10% of the deal:

Said Meredith Stiehm, the creator of Cold Case, “When the show was sold, CAA negotiated a packaging fee for itself, without my knowledge…It wasn’t until six years and 134 episodes later that I learned about it. It turned out that on the show I created, I worked on exclusively for years, CAA ended up making 94 cents for every dollar I earned. That is indefensible. An agency should make 10% of what a client makes — not 20, not 50, not like in my case, 94%. 10% is enough.”[1]

Furthermore, companies like the newly formed, WME affiliated Endeavor Content are both producers and agent-like representatives. Although the heads of Endeavor Content call themselves “matchmakers,” writers feel that they are behaving precisely like agent-producers.

Bottom line:

Writers say there is a conflict of interest. Agencies say that if the money is good, what’s the harm?

Bigger Issues:

Writers, who often get their own work based on their own relationships, are asking themselves, “If I have a lawyer and a manager, what do I need an agency for?”

Agencies, who are struggling to find ways to make money in a rapidly changing industry, say “everybody benefits from agency packaging and participation. The writers are creating chaos, and the result will be that everybody loses.”

See these articles:

Why Are Agents Producing Shows? Writers Guild Would Like to Know

Endeavor Content Takes Big Swings to Expand Options for Producers

WGA Sues Big Four Agencies Over Packaging Fees

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

Is there a book similar to “Save the Cat” for TV series?

Ask A Screenwriter #2

Save the Cat is a popular screenwriting book for beginners; it offers a simple, humorous and accessible introduction to story structure. It gives just about any reader the feeling that he/she/they too could turn their idea into a movie script.(How To Write a Screenplay in 21 days! was the first in this genre.)

With a few basic concepts like “The seven immutable laws of screenplay physics!” along with a basic structural template and a few charming anecdotes, inspired readers of Save the Cat can often finish their first draft and get a sense of having done it. “I wrote a movie script!”

Of course, writing a movie is much harder than the witty and beloved Blake Snyder makes it seem. 90% of the writing process is REwriting, and most of the problems professional writer’s struggle with aren’t covered in “the last screenwriting book you’ll ever need.”

Writing a TV series is a vastly, VASTLY larger and more complex undertaking than writing a movie, which is why a series is written by a ROOM full of writers, instead of just one. The process just doesn’t lend itself to glib simplification and fill-in-the-blank templates. That doesn’t mean writing a great film is easier than writing great TV. It just means that creating a TV series is usually the wrong project for a starry-eyed beginner to attempt. It would be like tackling an epic, thousand-page novel before having even written a short story.

All of that said, two books I’ve read are good for beginners:

Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV written by Pam Douglas, who teaches TV writing at USC. (Full disclosure: she is also a colleague, so I like to plug her book.)

Writing the Pilot, by William Rabkin

However, you’ll notice that some Amazon reviewers complain about these books. “I was looking for a Save the Cat type book with a beat sheet, offering some type of structure or format. Although a lot of people like this book, sadly my expectations weren’t met.” So, you aren’t alone.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure an easy-to-read, anyone-can-do-it, Save-The-Cat-style book on TV writing is really possible, and if you are serious about learning the craft and ultimately creating a series, it’s better to leave behind the beginner’s fantasy that one exists.

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting?

Ask a Screenwriter #1

In 2012 I was an avid writer and contributor on Quora, writing several answers that went alarmingly viral, including What’s it Like When Your Movie Bombs at The Box Office.

But now, as I expand my teaching portfolio, I’m going back to Quora for three months in order to contribute to the Ask A Screenwriter section. Tonight I found this question On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting which I answered thusly…

Short answer: not much.

The key phrase in your question is “on average.” Every film is different, and there are situations (for example Ladybird and writer/director Greta Gerwig) in which the writer’s vision is exactly what “we are really getting.”

However, most movies are based on valuable underlying material: a novel, a comic book, a franchise, and so on. So, the primary elements of character, world, story, and conflict are already in place. The writer is not free to change these elements according to their “vision” because the underlying story is a valuable brand, handled as such by the corporation owning it.

Most movies have three or more participating writers who work on the screenplay independently at different times, often at the direction of different people. Most movies go into credit arbitration, in which the WGA determines who among the participating writers contributed enough material to the final shooting script to receive screen credit. As a result, most movies have multiple writers (and thus multiple “visions”) as well as a set of uncredited writers whose contributions (and uncredited “visions”) are never recognized.

Most movies are driven by the “vision” set by the studio, the producers, the director, and the name actors, all of whom outrank the writer. Screenplays are usually re-written dozens and dozens of times before and during production. Each time a “pass” is done on the script, the screenwriter (or screenwriting team) is given a set of “notes” (often bundling changes required by the studio, director, producers, and actors.) These notes are directives, not suggestions.

I have been both a WGA arbiter determining credit on Hollywood movies and a participating writer on Hollywood Movies that have gone into arbitration. A typical arbitration might include these elements:

  • A best-selling, novel on which the movie was based.
  • Seven writers who all worked at different times over five years during which the script was “developed.” In general, only two writers (or writing teams) can ultimately get screen credit.
  • Twenty different “drafts” of the screenplay, including the first draft and the last “shooting script.”
  • Statements from all seven writers, each arguing that their contribution to the final shooting script (aka “vision”) exceeded 33% (which just puts a number to a very subjective assessment.)

In this typical movie, the arbiters may determine that Writer A contributed 35% and Writer B contributed 30% and the other five writers made combined contributions of around 35%. The arbiters may talk it through and ultimately determine credit for Writer A (in the first position) and Writer B. Writers C, D, E, F, and G would get absolutely nothing. The dude who gets the producers’ dry cleaning would get credit, but they wouldn’t.

So, if you ask “how much of Writer B’s vision are we actually getting?” In this hypothetical case, Writer B did three “passes” on the script based on highly specific notes by multiple executives, producers, directors, and actors, while not changing anything that might harm the underlying intellectual property. While Writer B’s work added up to a third of the actual shooting script, many of these story points, dialogue additions, and action beats were changed during shooting and editing. Finally, after audience testing, Writer B’s ending was completely reshot.

So again, not much.

Ultimately, the way movie production usually works, the screenplay is often a kind of Wikipedia entry – emerging from countless small changes made by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “authors.” The screenwriter can have an important role in this process, figuring out how to skillfully and artfully execute these changes, but “on average,” the writer’s “vision” is not what you are seeing on screen.

Exceptions include hyphenates, like writer-directors and writer-producers, or celebrity writers, like Charlie Kaufman, Diablo Cody, Aaron Sorkin, and the late Nora Ephron. Also, there are producers (like the ones I’m currently working with) who see the value in maintaining the same writer from beginning to end, and in keeping this writer actively engaged in the filmmaking process.

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.