This Professor’s Comic Can Help You Get Through Climate Change

April 4, 2024 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

The scenes are apocalyptic.

In one, a truck speeds through a ravaged city to deliver much-needed supplies. In another, a wildfire tears through a forest.

The fictional images are from University of Virginia psychology professor Jim Coan’s comic, “Our Social Baseline,” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Although they may not depict our present, they represent an increasingly likely future. Just last summer, wildfires burned through more than 45.7 million acres of Canadian forest. The smoke from the fires spread throughout the United States, causing a haze to descend on cities including Charlottesville.

But the future need not be all doom and gloom. As Coan’s comic demonstrates, we have each other to get through catastrophes.

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Though Hollywood offers audiences a romantic idea of a lone hero who saves the day, and “preppers” preach the gospel of self-reliance, both visions run contrary to most of human history.

“I started to feel a kind of obligation to set the record straight about what we can expect from each other when disaster strikes,” Coan said.

It’s unlikely, he said, that people will all turn against each other.

“It’s more common for humans under really trying circumstances to link up together to solve problems than it is for them to do the sort of disaster movie thing where they all start eating each other’s children,” Coan said.

 

As a psychology professor, Coan’s scholarship focuses not on climate change, but on social bonds and how people utilize social networks. He even teaches a class on why we hold hands. But he said he considers climate change to be one of the most urgent issues people face today.

“We know with a lot of certainty that the climate is going to go sideways,” he said. “I’m thinking about how to make what I’m learning about human nature and human behavior useful in the short term.”

That’s where the comic came in. As a kid growing up in Spokane, Washington, he loved comic books, gravitating toward the ones about groups of superheroes, like the X-Men, rather than individual heroes like Superman. He would make comics for himself and his friends, often parodies of the hero stories he loved, and imagined that he would one day make comics for a living. He said it’s still hard for him to draw people who aren’t muscled-up like Wolverine.

Life took him on a different path, but his love for comics remained. It’s also proving handy.

“Scientific work, in general, gets communicated in ways that aren’t accessible to people without advanced degrees,” Coan said.

 

To reach a non-scientist audience, Coan made a podcast, then started “tinkering around” with illustrating, something he hadn’t done in years. First, he made a comic about why we hold hands for his Engagements course of the same name. He assigned it to students in the course, who read it and loved it.

Then, he decided to use the same medium to tackle climate change.

“There are some fantastic, thought-provoking moments in what’s usually a three- or a four-page comic,” fourth-year student Ryan Lanford said. As an editorial intern at VQR, Lanford edited some of Coan’s comics about holding hands. The comic series, he said, reminded him to be grateful for his social connections.

“That really speaks to the power of comics as a medium of art,” Lanford said.

 

In dealing with climate change, “Our Social Baseline” – told in the three most recent editions of VQR – shows how human beings have evolved to rely upon one another. That is what enabled early humans to multiply and expand into different continents in an unstable climate. Coan says that most of us are “pretty ridiculous,” rather than Bear Grylls-types who can get through disasters with ease, and that’s OK.

“Probably, nobody’s going to need to know how to light a fire without a match,” Coan said.

Each of us has different skills: someone might be an expert gardener who can teach others how to grow food crops, while another person might be a musician capable of boosting the group’s morale with a song. Both are valuable, he said.

To survive, he said people will need others with those talents as well as those who have complementary, but not completely overlapping, skills – “just like the X-Men,” Coan said.

Plus, Coan added, if people band together, they just might be happier, despite their circumstances.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications