Recycling as an example of a lore domain
Part 3/7 of the On Lore series.
In the first part, Lands of Lorecraft, I roughly sketched out the contours of the emerging thinking around lore. This bit seemed to resonate the most with people:
Marketing is the story insiders tell outsiders to influence them in some way
Lore is the story insiders tell themselves to manage their own psyches
In the second part, Lore as Imaginative Irony (paywalled), I argued that lore can be understood as a response to LinkedIn style motivational content that insults your intelligence.
I want to expand on these basic ideas, and build out some theory in this series, but in this piece, I want to flesh out a good concrete example of what I call raw lore: lore in a relatively natural state, without overwhelmingly strong design forces acting to distort it.1
Recycling2 is an excellent domain of modern raw lore to think about, since it involves contemporary beliefs and behaviors, and exists in relatively similar forms around the developed world. Since it is so vast in scope and involves so many individuals and institutions, no one party has an ability to shape it decisively. So it exists and evolves in a relatively raw, unmanaged way.
I’m laying out this example with the US in mind, but it applies to any developed country that pretends to have functioning recycling infrastructure.
Consider your recycling behaviors. What posture do you adopt, what story do you tell yourself, and what do you actually do?
Here are some possibilities:
The Clueless: “Recycling works as the authorities say, we must trust them and do as they say because it is the right thing to do” (follow the rules conscientiously and uncritically, to the letter)
The Aspirational Recycler: “I have no idea how any of it works, but I feel both guilty and lazy, so I’ll recycle as much as I can with as little effort as possible” (throw in almost anything that looks vaguely recyclable, with half-ass cleaning/separation)
The Compliant Cynic: “Recycling doesn’t work, but I don’t want to be fined or lectured to, so I’ll play along” (half-ass go through the motions of compliance)
The Amateur LCA3 Theorist: “Recycling really only makes sense for aluminum, uncoated paper, and PET” (carefully recycle aluminum, uncoated paper, and #1 PET, and toss the rest)
The Noble-Lying Nudger: “Sure it’s theater right now, but it could get real as facilities and technologies improve, so it’s important to model and install the right behaviors for a sustainable future now” (conscientiously follow the rules, but acknowledge your true beliefs, and alternate justifications for behaviors, to people you consider thoughtful enough)
The Geopolitical Wonk: “China’s stopped taking our recycling and it’s all getting commingled and sent to the landfill or incinerator anyway, but I’ll keep doing it because it’s easier” (half-ass it)
The Jaded Hippie: “They’re trying to make ordinary citizens feel guilty, but it’s really industrial recycling that is the bulk of the problem, and they get away with doing so little nothing I can do matters, so why bother?” (half-ass it)
The Contrarian: “It’s all bullshit woke greenwashing theater and a liberal conspiracy to control us.” (throw it all in the trash, maybe even go out of your way to generate more recyclable waste to trash, to own the libs)
I don’t want to get into a whole disquisition on the topic of recycling lore here,4 but the point is — this is what lore looks like.
Tag yourselves; I’m probably in Geopolitical Wonk or Amateur LCA Theorist mode most of the time, though occasionally I get in a high-minded mood and slip into Noble-Lying Nudger mode, or get lazy and slide back into Aspirational Recycler mode.
Except for the first and last stances (which are both occasionally adopted in child-like ways, with no ironic meta-awareness), there is an element of imaginative irony to all the postures. We are aware enough of uncertainties, ambiguities, and gaps in our knowledge that we are not entirely sure of ourselves, so there is some invention and kayfabe-like willed belief involved. A gap between felt and performed confidence.
When we take positions 2-7, we semi-consciously play a role in a theater. Sometimes it is purely cynical greenwashing theater that we know to be futile. More often, there’s some level of sincerity and effectiveness.
Recycling is as much self-conscious performance as it is sincerely enacted belief. What guides the performance is lore. And you perform even when nobody is watching.
Which of these postures you pick is not entirely a matter of solipsistic tastes and self-serving rationalizations. There is something of an evolving ground truth condition here, rife with all the uncertainties and ambiguities of an evolving new science. There are better and worse postures. There is good and bad recycling lore. Living a lie is difficult, which is why acting is a tough job and good actors get paid the big bucks. We try to live by whatever we think is true, to the extent we can.5
Your recycling behaviors are likely effective or not (in relation to your stated values) depending on how well they accommodate the few relatively stable truths you do have, and how well they accidentally harmonize with as-yet-unknown truths.
For instance, it is almost certainly true that trying to recycle anything besides aluminum, clean uncoated paper, and PET is a waste of time in most places. It might even be net worse than just tossing it. You won’t know till you do a proper lifecycle analysis of how waste is actually handled in your area.
It is almost certainly true that in most parts of the developed west, recycling infrastructure has been badly broken since China instituted its National Sword policy, and that there’s a good chance any conscientious cleaning and separation you’re doing is pointless because it’s going to a landfill or an incinerator. You won’t know till you investigate local conditions.
I bet 90% of you have no idea where the recycling in your area actually goes, or how it is actually handled. Is it just commingled with garbage and dumped? Is it incinerated? Is it sorted and recycled locally? Is it sent to Malaysia to be recycled, but is really just burned there? Does it go to a high-tech pilot recycling facility based on new methods that can handle what most places can’t?
I don’t know. I bet you don’t either.
And that’s fine because we can’t all be expected to know all these gory details about every complex system we rely on. We just need to adopt beliefs that we have enough confidence in to act on, Beliefs we can expect to have a reasonable shot at being somewhat effective, despite all the things we don’t know.
This rough sketch of postures we adopt, and things we say and do around recycling, is an example of raw lore.
You find such raw lore around any well-defined domain of behaviors where people must act, and believe they’re acting effectively, with imperfect information. You can probably recognize a similar pattern in many modern domains, such as mask-wearing and dietary recommendations (remember the food pyramid wars?)
Even apparently straightforward behavioral domains involve more lore than you might think.
Like take drinking a glass of water.
Why a glass rather than a cup or bowl? Did it come from the tap or a bottle? If you’re in Italy, do you drink sin gas or con gas.6 Do you reuse a glass through the day or rinse it out or put it in the dishwasher after a single use? Do you only drink when you’re thirsty, or do you try to drink 8 glasses a day? When do you drink? Do you drink water with meals? Ice or no ice? Wedge of lemon or no? Straw or no straw? When do you drink wine, soda or coffee instead of water? Would you drink water straight from a mountain stream? How about an urban river? What do you believe about the purity of natural sources?
If even something as basic to life as drinking water can be so obviously rife with largely unexamined lore, imagine how complex things get in larger behavioral regimes.
Here is a definition of raw lore:
Raw lore is the collection of adopted postures and working fictions that people use to navigate uncertain and ambiguous piles of truth, lies, and bullshit, in order to get to behaviors that feel effective, purposeful, and aligned with their values.
In other words, lore is all the competing mental models for effective action going around, under conditions of imperfect knowledge. Lore is some mix of received wisdom you opt-in (or buy in) to, lazy imitation, and some original thought and ideation. It evolves as we collectively learn more about something, but the relationship between knowledge and lore is anything but straightforward.
How does lore in this basic sense connect to lore as talked about in the Web3 world?
While you might be able to use collections of NFTs of fantastic beasts and magical archetypes in your lorecrafting efforts, they aren’t the actual substance of it. At best they’re the materials with which you might pave the cowpaths of evolving lore. If you don’t tackle the substance of raw lore as I’ve defined it above, all you’ll have is the ephemera of tediously unimaginative and derivative LARPs that might at best sustain short-lived fads.
Lore is long-lived narrative territory that emerges in response to shaky epistemic landscapes of enduring importance, not short-lived narrative maps invented by hordes of ersatz Tolkiens.
You can reshape the territory to some extent, and produce somewhat accurate and current maps of it, but you can’t construct lore out of whole cloth and expect it to work.
The recycling case study suggests a good molecular unit of lore. Lore molecules are triads comprising three atoms:
An archetypal Posture in relation to a domain
A Narrative suggesting a way of acting within it
An actual Behavior that acts on that domain
You can remember this with the acronym PNB. Lore is a swamp of PNB molecules of various species.
The unmanaged aggregate of all these molecules, across all individuals, is raw lore.
While lore molecules as defined above can exist at an isolated individual level (personal mythologies; common among auto-didacts or lonely self-styled “heretics” and “contrarians”), they really come into their own when the postures are performed, the narrative fragments shared, and the behaviors made visible.
This creates a whole sociology of signaling, mimesis, and contagion that makes the larger commons of the lore come alive, and begin evolving as a connected memeplex.
In its natural state, lore evolves in wild ways, and reflects the ideological and epistemic variety within the set of individuals producing and consuming it.
While the lore molecules within a single individual generally cohere well (chances are you adopt a consistent posture across all your recycling and environmental behaviors), a larger group will likely form a fragmented landscape of tribal subgroups.
A bit of lore territory might expand, develop a robust openness, and become part of “normalcy,” or at least a large, recognized subculture. Or it might hit reality limits and retreat into a closed-off conspiratorial shell, with heavily policed epistemic boundaries.
Tokenomics in the Web3 sense is about injecting an economic life into that commons, so the lore can evolve faster to greater effectiveness. Good lore should shed lies and bullshit fast, and identify, test, and stabilize truths for as long as they remain valid. Tokenomics can potentially enable that, the way clear land-title regimes can unleash economic growth.7
Like good science, good lore should get more powerfully true over time, even if we don’t quite know what “truth” is. We also want good lore to be psychologically motivating, capable of catalyzing enthusiastic action, and a sense of meaning and purpose in harmony with sincerely held values.
This is a tall order. No wonder we mostly get bad LinkedIn motivational slogans instead. No HR department will craft lore if it’s easier to just print posters. No DAO will craft lore if it’s easier to just mint NFTs.
Recycling is an especially interesting Grand Challenge domain for lorecrafters because of its importance within the larger lore domain of climate action, and the depth and complexity of knowledge justifying the behaviors that must happen at scale to be effective.
If you fancy yourself a lorecrafter consider how you might actually shape the lore of recycling into a more truthful and effective shape.
The temptation is to do as marketers do: separate out the problem of determining the “truth” (maybe give it to “scientists” and “engineers” hidden away from public view), then try to package that “truth” into persuasive messaging, and spend money pushing it out. Ideally, you want a brilliant campaign that solves the marketing “problem” once and for all, turning people into perfect recycling robots forever more.
In tough lore domains like recycling, such a marketing approach typically fails because the truth itself is contentious and actively evolving, and efforts to pretend otherwise backfire.
Worse, the chances are basically zero that you could even assemble the most authoritative experts to produce “truth,” package and promote it, and have the “message” be accepted meekly by everybody.
The alternative is to approach such challenges as lore territories to manage indefinitely, the way forestry departments manage forests, rather than marketing problems to “solve” once and for all.
I’ll share some ideas on how to do that next time.
Next: Part 4/7 — Epics vs. Lore
Something like North Korea’s Juche ideology would be an example of very non-raw top-down managed lore. It takes enormous effort and boundary control to stabilize such lore. A country-sized conspiracy theory requires a lot of work.
Civic duty regimes in general make for good examples of lore and lorecraft, since as citizens we are all “insiders” of the governance regimes involved (nature, non-locals, or foreigners tend to form the default out groups).
Lifecycle analysis, the technique used by sustainability researchers to figure out if recycling is actually worth it in material/energy/emissions terms
Though I could, since sustainability is both a personal interest and consulting area for me and I’m getting increasingly nerdy about it 😆
As George Costanza said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
And why the hell does Italy have so much variety in bottled water?