Saturday, May 21, 2005

Triage for environmental awareness

This piece on Mobjectivist along with its associated comments got me thinking about how to approach people concerning issues as complex and troubling as peak oil and global warming. The main aim at the beginning is to get people to accept the possibility that oil production might peak or that global warming is occurring and that both these could have very serious consequences.

But when the competing idea is that everything will turn out fine for the indefinite future, it is hard to compete. If you are told that you can go on living the way you do now only more so, it's much more appealing than having to change everything. Still, there are many people who feel unease. They believe something is wrong. They want to find out what it is, and they want to do something about it.

I have worked in political campaigns, and informing people about critical environmental issues resembles nothing so much as a campaign. That work has taught me a very simple but important lesson in strategy. There are three groups in any campaign: 1) those who are already going to vote for you, 2) those who will never vote for you, and 3) those who can be persuaded to vote for you. Group 1 needs to be launched with the necessary materials and talking points toward Group 3. Group 2 needs to be assiduously ignored.

In other words, don't waste a moment on the spoilers and cranks in the opposition. There are plenty of people out there who can be persuaded. Focus on them.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)


Big Gav said...

The problem with the spoilers and the cranks is that they tend to infest forums that people who could be persuaded are reading.

So you find yourself reading an article on, say, the effects of global warming, and then some mass of noise in the comments below on how global warming is just a conspiracy theory created by environmentalists / greedy climate scientists / communists or other such nonsense.

In these (all too common) instances you have an unpleasant choice to make - argue with the lunatics (which gets very tiring and frustrating after a while, believe me) or ignore them. But ignoring them means that a lot of people who are undecided eventually get brainwashed by the lunatic fringe (especially the ones who are paid to do this sort of thing).

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Kurt Cobb said...

Big Gav makes a good point. But as tempted as I am to respond to the lunatics, I restrain myself.

Comments sections and forums might be analogous to a party at which people are constantly coming and going. You may know some of them, but most you don't. You may not even know the host. Then, someone makes an outlandish remark very loudly to many people and you are there to hear it. It is a comment so egregious that you are reminded that you promised yourself the last time something like this happened that you would not remain silent again in similar circumstances.

The problem is that on the Internet, you are not confronting people in person as part of a group. So inflicting public shame on them doesn't work. These people remain anonymous.

I think the best thing to do is to ignore them. But, if you must, then don't respond directly to them. Simply point to actual, honest evidence and restate your case. Since you cannot refute every insane point made by these tireless jackasses, you must content yourself with differentiating your comments by tone. The more measured and reasoned we sound, the more lunatic they will sound. They are trying to draw you into an emotional catfight that you cannot win.

I'm afraid that on the Internet it's difficult to go beyond this. Nevertheless, I'm open to ideas since I agree that the naysayers present a serious challenge.

There is a clue in what Big Gav says that might be room for an opening. Right now so many forums on the Internet seem the province of unthinking right-wing nuts and conspiracy theorists that perhaps the only way to overwhelm them is to get more sensible people on those forums. That would change the relative "mass of noise" as Big Gav puts it. Often, people judge the truth of something by how many people believe it. This is frequently referred to as "social truth." But given that fact, I see no other way to proceed.

Everyone who has done any advocacy work knows that sheer numbers usually triumph regardless of where the truth lies.

WHT said...

A very recent post of yours got linked in a thread started by one of these lunatics that you speak of (and I have done battles with). Go to this link --if you dare/care-- to see how it plays out.