Sunday, October 17, 2010

Talkin' triage

"Don't waste your breath" needs to become a mantra in the peak oil and sustainability communities. The season for arguing with peak oil and climate change deniers has long since passed. Our time is too precious and the need to act too urgent. The time has come for talkin' triage.

Triage, of course, refers to medical decisions made on a battlefield. Those for whom treatment would be useless are given what comfort is possible. Those for whom treatment can wait are set aside while those who will only survive with treatment are treated first.

But, I'm thinking about a triage for our discussions with others by identifying those who will never be convinced, those who are already convinced, and those who are open to persuasion. It still makes my blood boil occasionally when I must listen to completely discredited arguments repeated by climate change deniers who care nothing for evidence or logic. But there is no point in arguing with such people. Most of them engage me not to further their understanding of climate change, but to offload their anger about myriad other things in their lives. I become a temporary enemy against whom they can concentrate their fire. For me it is a completely useless enterprise.

The only time it is worthwhile to engage such people is if you have an audience uncommitted to the issue and you have sufficient rhetorical skills to put your opponent back on his or her heels. Remember: Such public arguments are not about logic so much as impressions. A skilled climate change denier can argue that there is uncertainty about climate change and convince an audience that this uncertainty means we needn't be alarmed. But, of course, it is precisely the uncertainty that should lead us to act to prevent potentially catastrophic consequences.

Still, a population brought up on courtroom dramas tends to believe that the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" should apply to public policy questions. Of course, this is patent nonsense. Public policy is always made under conditions that are uncertain. But try convincing most people of that in a five-minute exchange. My advice is to announce that the denier's conclusions are contrary to the overwhelming evidence on climate change and that you are not going to discuss the issue with someone so ill informed.

There are fewer self-styled deniers of peak oil because the issue remains more obscure and in some ways more difficult to master. There is also less denier material on the Internet and elsewhere for those inclined to vent their spleens using peak oil as a target. Still, I think the same approach applies unless you feel extremely confident about your ability to successfully embarrass your opponent.

So, where does that leave us? Well, the deniers are like those poor wounded soldiers in triage who are considered hopeless. We must let them go. They merely slow down the work of reaching those who can be convinced and recruited into action. Recruitment can be done all the more quickly if it is done in friendly non-confrontational venues where the intent is to share information. Naturally, these venues might attract some deniers. But they are easy to detect and easy to shut down. They try to hog the floor by pretending that they might be convinced. Don't let them. Get up and tell them that the group now understands their views and that others should be allowed to speak.

Legitimate points of discussion based on genuine uncertainties which are followed by good-faith exchanges are important to advancing the understanding of all of us involved in the peak oil and sustainability communities. The emphasis needs to be on good faith. When that good faith is absent, it's time to start talkin' triage.


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Erik Curren said...

Great post! I couldn't agree with you more about not wasting time on discredited arguments from so-called skeptics. They're not going to be convinced by reason, so why bother? We have more important work to do reaching folks who might actually listen. I took a similar approach to yours at the new peak oil magazine, Transition Voice: "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" (

Anonymous said...

An argument I always find effective with mild deniers is: would you like to receive a blood transfusion from a patient with HIV? Why not? Oh, because HIV causes aids? Well, a Nobel prize winning scientist claims that HIV does not cause aids. THe former President of South Africa believed him and based a lot of his response to the aids crisis on this guy's research. What? Still not ready to receive that transfusion? Oh, because the majority of scientists believe HIV is linked to aids. So that is the case with climate change. What is different? Simply that you can imagine getting aids and you can't imagine climate change? CHeers,

mattbg said...

Jim, that argument is no good.

We know that people die from AIDS. We have seen plenty of images of people in physical decline because of it. We know that, with HIV, if we want to survive we commit ourselves to a dependence on drug cocktails that maintain our health.

With climate change, all we can be certain of is that we will spend lots of money and most of it will end up in the wrong pockets.

That's why most don't want to pay for it -- the cure for climate change is worse than the disease, to the best of our experience.

Mark Goldes said...

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Christine said...

Great post - you are so right about not wasting our breath arguing with deniers. In my experience, the vast majority of people sense that there is something very wrong with our weather, but don't know what to do about it. It's that group we need to reach, and empower to get active and vocal.
(@mattbg You are kidding when you say "to the best of our experience", right? We ain't seen nothin' yet when it comes to global climate destabilization - if the science, not to mention Russia's drought/fire season this summer, Pakistan's record-breaking monsoons, and 2010 breaking global heat records doesn't convince you, you are one of the deniers that Kurt is referring to.)