Train in front of The Hague skyline

During my career as an environmental professional, I have not seen many people question the need for a polarized debate. Polarized engagements are normal and almost feel natural. Why is it beneficial to continue like this; who wins? It is obvious that parties win when an argument serves the interests that they represent. Oil companies win if they can sell more fossil fuels, NGOs win if they have more sponsors and I win if clients believe that I can help them.

Fossil fuels contribute to global warming and their popularity is waning in the West. Not so, however, in the emerging economies where coal, oil and gas lift people out of poverty and where consumption increases are expected to take place. Does that mean that big oil is winning? Surely not! The environmental movement contributes to fewer emissions, better air quality and the protection of natural habitat, but they compel very few people to reject the possibility of a better life in favor of environmental protection.

Polarization

In this post, I would like to demonstrate that a polarized approach is ineffective and to show how environmental communication can be improved. Polarization isolates you and robs you of your ability to act. The following sentences are typical of the polarized debate to which I refer:

  • Global warming has to be averted, or else catastrophe will ensue.
  • Sea levels will rise, storms will get more frequent, people will be displaced from their homes and species will be lost.
  • Industry and governments have to be held accountable, or else profits will go before the wellbeing of the planet.
  • People have to take a stand and organize against pollution, or else capitalism will destroy our lives.
  • We have to stop using fossil fuels and reduce our carbon footprint, or else we will get addicted and won’t be able to stop global warming.
  • We have to take a stand; we are the only ones that care.
  • We have to adopt a sustainable lifestyle, or else future generations will have nothing left.
  • We have to protect the environment, or else we lose a part of ourselves.
  • We have to live in harmony with nature, or else our environmental impact will be unsustainable.
  • We have to exaggerate pollution and impact, or else people will not listen.
  • We cannot report on environmental improvements, or people will relax into inaction.
  • We have to help developing countries, so that they won’t repeat our mistakes.

Notice how each of these lines of thought form a circle from which there is no escape. What a responsibility to carry on your shoulders. A polarized debate is characterized by arguments and counter arguments. What is true and who is right? Is there an impartial way to tell?

Some of the logic in the bulleted statements can, in fact, be invalidated. In my previous post, I already spoke about causality and explained that facts and opinions shouldn’t be confused. The words catastrophe, profiteering, destroy, addicted, care, nothing, lose, inaction and mistake are examples of thoughts that don’t meet the test of causality. In addition; quite a few of the bulleted statements comprise predictions of the future. However likely or unlikely an outcome is, nobody can predict the future. Finally, some bulleted statements suggest the ability of mind reading. There is no way of telling that other people don’t care, that they won’t listen or that they will make our mistakes.

When these simple tests are applied, a number of truths remain standing. These are not the kind of truths of a polarized yes/no discussion, but the non-pretending, less-dramatic kind. The revealed truths are: global warming is an issue, sea levels may rise, profits matter, fossil fuels results in CO2 emissions, we are part of nature and not everybody cares about the environment in the same way. Wouldn’t it be more effective to ditch the drama and only carry these truths forward? That might reduce the weight on your shoulders considerably.

Letting go of a single dramatic interpretation is difficult enough, but the roles that parties have adopted in our society may prohibit anything more substantial. Industry, government and NGOs have been playing their respective roles for a long time and the parties have become familiar with what to expect from each other. Departing from these roles might even feel like an existential threat. At the heart of each organization is a set of beliefs that determines its societal identity and each party has developed ways to deal with the other’s core beliefs. NGOs have the habit of focusing on industrial pollution and industry has a habit of keeping NGOs at arm’s length. This gives NGOs the moral high ground but they are less effective in reducing environmental impact as a result. Industry gets to be left alone, but isn’t trusted as a result. Wouldn’t it be great if parties could realize that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits? Or even better: if they could realize that being left alone and being right aren’t benefits either?

Other disadvantages of polarization include: doing concessions, turf protection, frustration, social isolation and losing sight of the bigger picture. Other benefits of polarization include: being influential, being needed, surviving, averting responsibility, doing good, being heard or seen and maintaining the status quo. Again you can see that these additional benefits are disadvantages as well. It is difficult to see any real benefits of polarization.

If we want to solve global warming, we need views that rise above existential human fears. We need views where “we” means “us” instead of “them”. We need views where human ingenuity transforms scarcity into safety. We need feasible mitigation and adaptation strategies. We need views that transcend impossibility and obligation. We need views of nature that encompass life and death, opportunity and limitation. Views that optimize the use of resources, not just minimize their use. We need economic growth to lift people out of poverty, for education, health-care and employment and to enable people to protect their environment.

We need this because we care.

Gayle Rubin

Whenever there is polarization, there is an unhappy tendency to think the truth lies somewhere in between.