Friday, July 25, 2008

A slow-motion public relations Chernobyl

I’ve written before about doing away with silly slogans like “Save the Planet” and fanciful phrases like “dying planet”. The planet isn’t “dying”, nor are humans “destroying” it. It’s not in any immediate danger of becoming as lifeless as our moon, nor being obliterated into tiny bits, as if devoured by The Nothing from the Neverending Story. Of course, that’s not what most people mean when they use this sort of hyperbole. They're speaking or writing about real problems, but their message is getting lost or twisted in the telling.
Alas, a tiny minority of fringies actually believe this science fiction or something like it. And being fringies (thus, generally lacking time-constraints like steady employment, friends, and family), they have a great deal of time in which to make themselves heard. Other well-meaning folks hear these dramatic words and repeat them, not giving much thought to what they’re saying. Many feel that emphasizing the gravity of some environmental problems will sway others. After all, education and reasoned arguments so often go ignored. Those with better understanding of the issues and cooler heads don’t speak as loudly and aren’t as appealing to those trying to sell ad time. So the message gets distorted and real problems are dismissed as foolish alarmism.
Environmentalists (lumped here into an outlandishly broad group comprising policy groups, volunteer groups, conservationists, deep-ecologists, pro-nuclear folks, anti-nuclear folks, and the many, many others too numerous to list) have done a poor job of connecting the dots for people who don’t understand that improving environmental quality provides benefits to people. For example, cleaning-up the Potomac River and preventing further pollution of its waters means a cleaner drinking-water source for most residents of the DC area, more productive fisheries for those who earn a living on the Chesapeake Bay, increased revenues for guides and outfitters, and a safer place to take our children to swim and play. Perhaps for brevity’s sake or maybe because such connections become increasingly clear as we learn about and work in nature, we are likely to describe a local event that helps to realize these human benefits as a “Tree-planting for Clean Water”. Many will read a gently-misguided pastime or flaming-liberal neopaganism in this name. We wrongly assume that others understand the implicit though real connection between clean water and people. We wrongly think that because we have come to understand these connections, indeed to feel that they are obvious, that everyone has this understanding.
So what do we do? For starters, we stop getting angry at people who don’t understand. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person because he or she hasn’t read the same books you have or hasn't spent much time outside. These gaps in understanding do, however, make connections between environmental quality and peoples’ quality of life less clear. Be patient, educate, ask questions, keep an open mind.
State the obvious: Improving environmental quality benefits people directly or indirectly. This fundamental fact is lost on an astonishingly large number. Emphasize that people need the machine called Nature to keep making the things we use to live our lives, and that interfering with that machine costs us. Restoring or preventing further damage to this machine called Nature is a matter of helping people. Repeat it: Helping people, helping people, helping people.
Stop using intimidating or contentious words. “Ecosystem services” doesn’t say much to a person with limited knowledge of science and economics, and who gets mad at you because you used a word that starts with “eco-”. Instead, explain what natural resources, environmental problems and solutions actually mean to the average person. Use terms and phrases that have an implicitly human component, like “drinking water” or “community service”. Emphasize parks. Emphasize health, safety, and economy.
Be honest and know the facts. If you say that you know something, know why you know it. If there’s disagreement over a point, understand why people disagree and be willing to talk about the disagreement. Don’t pretend that there are no costs associated with an environmental investment (except when there aren’t).
Understand dissenting opinions. Sometimes people have different values, sometimes they refuse to let go of tired old stereotypes, sometimes they’re flat-out wrong, and sometimes they raise valid points. Ask people why they believe what they believe. Study their primary sources of information. Don’t be afraid to learn, to adjust your position, or ferret-out flaws in your own argument. Also don’t be afraid to educate people when they misquote their own sources or refer to a source that makes factual or logical errors.
Finally, remember that in most major environmental issues, there are few genuinely bad guys, fewer genuinely good guys, and hordes of people learning and trying to make an honest living in between. If you brand someone “an enemy”, they have no reason to talk to you or work with you. Don’t presume that someone is foolish or morally deficient for adopting a position other than your own.
And when you get frustrated and need a reminder of why dialog and an open mind are important, just think about the last time someone got mad, told you what you believe, and got it dead-wrong, just because you said “I’m an environmentalist.”


Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Here is an interesting and relevant article. You might also find interesting this post that I made earlier today.

Sue said...

Could not agree with you more, erd. There's a young fellow, intelligent, educated, who had a blog "Earth Meanders" (now defunct) that I've followed on the internet for some time. He did many good practical things to educate people on ecosystems, and draw attention to specific problems around the world, but more and more often he slipped over into a hysteria about the dying "Gaia," and talking about humans as an infestation on earth. I often posted to comments, about the fallacy of the "dying earth" view, which he treated with respect, but did not change. Not too surprisingly, he slowly lost his financial backing, and is now looking for other ways of supporting himself.

As I suggested in talking about what biocentric really means, is that most people who call themselves "biocentric" are really deluded. True biocentricism would give no greater weight to the earth as it is, than to any other past or future state of earth. The only reason to care about protecting earth as it is now is because earth now is not just humanities home, but western industrial civilizations home.

Invisible G. said...

Very insightful post. In fact, you should be the media contact for environmental initiatives. :) In all seriousness, I wholeheartedly agree that a dialogue is essential to creating change. Nobody responds positively to a bully or a hysteric. One of my beefs is the demonization of players on both sides. It gets us no where, except in a deadlock.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I’m not sure that a certain amount of hyperbole and histrionics aren’t warranted. Not about poor old “Gaia” or earth dying. That’s nonsense. Nor about the human race going extinct. Not likely, any time soon. But I do believe that globalized, high-tech, capitalist industrial society just might go belly up if we don’t heed the environmental warning signs. To be replaced with a lot more localized, low tech, semi-agricultural, decentralized societies. Oh, wait a minute. That’s what I’d like to see happen any way. So never mind. Let’s not warn any one about the dangers, after all.

Chris Crawford said...

I agree with your major point that hyping environmental issues is counterproductive. I have mixed feelings, though, about the merits of relying on emotional appeals. On the one hand, they get through to people. On the other hand, they often end up misleading people. Gary Larson of "The Far Side" fame wrote a delightful book entitled "There's a Hair in My Dirt!" that took on mindless environmentalism in a truly funny, revealing way.

But where I'll really disagree is with the claim that there are no bad guys. No, I don't blame big oil, the chemical industry, or any of those institutions; they're no worse than sharks, in my opinion. They live to eat and they just eat. They're not evil, they're just built that way, and we shouldn't resent them, we should just make sure that the sharks don't eat us.

No, my particular concern is with the global warming deniers. I've been trying to communicate with these people for a number of years. I am exquisitely civil and excruciatingly tactful, and I concentrate only on the facts. But these people simply refuse to consider the issue with intellectual integrity. They have made up their minds and they're just grasping for confirmation of their conclusions. They are energetically spreading gross lies and continue to do so even when the most blatant falsehoods are pointed out to them.

I'm not claiming that they're evil -- but I have come to the sad conclusion that most of the global warming deniers are deliberately promulgating falsehoods. There are a few honest ones in the mix: Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts strike me as honest fellows. But the great majority of these people are not interested in honest discussion.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris M,
Thanks for these. It looks like the Seattle post link is flummoxed. Do you recall the name of the article so I can look it up?

E. R. Dunhill said...

One of the interesting (and I would argue, unintended) outcomes of genuine biocentrism, is that certain types of conservation become ethically wrong. After all, extinction is a natural part of evolution. And while humans clearly interfere in some (many) cases, some species are simply on their own way out. I find that true biocentrism creates an ethical conundrum in this respect.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Absolutely. If we simply draw battle lines and enforce them at any cost, we accomplish nothing. We all need to keep in mind that there’s a better way and that most people, regardless of their politics, are capable of having good ideas.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I make a distinction between urgency and histrionics. In many respects, this distinction exists in the use of reason and patience that I described in this post. Beyond this, many people simply aren’t ready to be urgent. Some don’t understand, some don’t care, and some disagree. The solution that will actually produce results with many people is not to push harder, but to begin with the thin pieces of common ground.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris C,
To be clear, I don’t believe that there are no bad guys. In this post, I wrote that there are few genuinely bad guys and I stand by this assessment. I’ve known a good number of people who earn part of their living selling natural gas or cutting timber and pulp. People who do these kinds of jobs unfortunately attract negative labels. This is what I want to put an end to. Someone isn’t a bad person because the only available jobs in his community are working for an extraction company, or because cutting some pulp on his land represents the difference between sending his kids to college and not. In urban and suburban areas, we don’t generally understand how difficult and personal these choices are. That's part of why weneed to work with open minds.
As for climate change, I think there are lots of people pushing both sides of the issue who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about, and are generally unwilling to concede anything. I didn’t raise this issue in this post, but I increasingly think that environmentalists should spend less time on the issue of climate change. Instead, I'd like to advocate the broader issue of sustainability, and when it comes to educating people who are antagonistic toward environmental issues, I'd like to stick to issues that are tangible to those people.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I just used the link below to the Seattle post and it worked:

The only difference with this link is no / at the end. That shouldn't matter but apparently it did....

I tried both links from my earlier comment and neither would work accessing from the comment. When I went to them directly, they did. Strange.

Chris Crawford said...

ERD, yes, we definitely shouldn't be denigrating the people who earn their livings in these industries. I live in southern Oregon, an area whose economy was until recently based on forestry products. The land next to mine was recently logged. And I can truly and literally say that some of my friends are loggers. I don't have the slightest resentment towards them, and I agree with you that those who denigrate these people just don't understand the circumstances in which they work.

That said, I still have a lot of criticisms of the techniques used by many logging companies. They're too heavy-handed with the bulldozers, tearing up the soil on steep slopes when they could be using older techniques ('mules': cable systems that drag logs up or down steep slopes) that are less destructive yet economically viable. Their reforestation efforts are a joke: they plant a handful of seedlings along both sides of the bulldozer paths. And they make no effort whatsoever to restore soils or drainage systems, so that topsoil gets washed away and nasty ruts and ravines develop. The argument that economic self-interest will keep them honest doesn't pan out; given the long times required for these forests to re-establish themselves, the economics works in favor of just stripping the land and moving on. I suppose it's somewhat to my personal benefit; at some point, I'll be able to buy the land they stripped for next to nothing, then I can get to work fixing it. But don't kid yourself that these guys are doing anything remotely like sustainable forestry.

I also agree with you that the global warming controversy is dominated by ignorance on both sides. But the environmentalist side here is ignorantly right while the anti-AGW side is ignorantly wrong. I'd prefer that they both lose the ignorance, but the environmentalists just happen to be right in this case, and the anti-AGW people are engaging in a lot of deliberate falsehoods.

Lastly, I'll agree that boiling it down to bread-and-butter issues is in fact the best overall strategy. We have already begun responding to AGW issues by shifting our reforestation efforts from Douglas Fir to Ponderosa Pine, because the PPine can handle hotter, drier conditions better than the Doug fir. But do other people realize that they're going to see big die-offs of Doug fir in southern Oregon over the next 50 years? I doubt it.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

I am amazed at the smug "certainty" of so-called intellectuals who believe that only they hold the correct position on an issue. I have enough gray in my hair to know that nothing is certain no matter how strongly you believe it to be so.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris, do you believe that there is no basis for ever making any decision? We can't be absolutely certain of anything, but we cannot avoid the necessity of making decisions based on the information available to us.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C. That is not at all what I said. Most decisions are made in uncertainty -- whether it be market uncertainty on an economic issue, weather uncertainty on an agricultural issue, people uncertainty on almost any issue, or whatever. The issue that I raised is recognizing that we don't know everything. We usually don't know enough. We usually just go with our best guess.

When someone states that Global Warming is real and humans caused it by their behavior, they are being very emphatic. If instead the statment was, "based on what I have observed and studied, it appears that Global Warming is real and it also appears that, based on current knowledge, humans have contributed to the problem," I would accept that statement. To state emphatically that if someone doesn't believe in Global Warming they are wrong is arrogant and elitest. It claims knowledge that is unknowable. Any time that you deal with natural phenomena on the scope of global weather patterns, we don't know enough to be making emphatic statements. If you said, "the average temperature in Nome, AK, for the last 5 years was x+y and for the previous 5 years was x," it would be a verifiable, easily acceptable statement. When you make a claim that the average GLOBAL temperature has risen by x degrees over the last 150 years my response is prove it. The way we measure temperature has changed. The quality of instruments has changed. The people recording the measurements have changed. The location of the instruments can and has been influenced by building patterns in their vicinity. Some are located in countries with sporadic observations at best. And the list goes on and on. When you construct equations of the complexity necessary to project the impact of known factors into the future regarding weather or climate change, you enter the realm of pure guesswork. Factors upon factors are plugged into those equations. Many of them are pure guesses that make the curve fit the available data. Good research -- duplicable research -- typically only involves a single variable. When dealing with natural phenomenon you have a virtually infinite number of variables. In that instance, NOTHING can be known with certainty.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris, I agree that we don't know enough about AGW, and I agree that we don't know with absolute, 100% certainty that it's real. But I believe that we understand the phenomenon well enough to conclude that humanity should take substantial measures to reduce carbon emissions. I also know, from direct experience with AGW deniers, that most of them embrace statements that are demonstrably false, and flatly reject statements that are strongly supported by the evidence.

Skepticism cuts both ways; those whose skepticism applies unequally to BOTH sides of the debate are acting in bad faith.