Talking about climate change: in favor of being moderate, in an extreme situation.
Taking climate change seriously is terrifying, but we shouldn't let our terror get the better of our ability to communicate effectively.
All the science points to the fact that we’re staring down the barrel of a global climate meltdown. It’s a meltdown so literal, of such massive proportions, that for a lot of us it provokes a quiet panic that lingers unacknowledged somewhere in the pits of our stomachs. We go about our lives as usual, trying to make sense of the day-to-day; working to 5pm, maybe going to the gym; debating with ourselves whether we’ll have soy-mince because it’s better for the planet or a steak to avoid the dreaded 3am hungry wake-up; telling ourselves we definitely won’t have dessert because we just went to the gym; choosing soy-mince, feeling good about that choice and ending up eating dessert because YOLO. We feel the strains and pressures of wanting to ‘succeed’; wanting to figure out what success even means to us; wanting to make our parents proud; wanting to find love and be good partners, fathers, mothers. All the while there’s a growing sense that perhaps it’ll all be in vain anyway when, as our children reach our current age, human civilization begins to collapse in the face of ‘untold suffering’ on a biblical scale; actual famine, fire and flood. Jeepers.
The danger is that eventually, two or three beers down in the local bar, that frustrated confusion comes spilling out in an ugly, unproductive wave. It’s a wave of ‘wake the f*#k up, people!’, aimed at friends who don’t want to talk about climate change because, like, what a downer. It comes out laced with righteous indignation and carried by a conviction that ‘these people’ are idiots whose willful ignorance will lead to the downfall of all the things they value the most. This ruins everyone’s evening, helps the planet not at all, and probably makes everyone shut down more fundamentally to the idea of really trying to get to grips with the whole issue. It is this righteous indignation, this adoption of an unequivocal moral high-ground, a more-eco-than-thou approach to interactions, that we must avoid at all costs.
So take another sip of your beer and a deep breath, and as calmly as you can, start up the conversation about the things that really matter to you.
It can be really hard to deal with issues that weigh heavily on our minds when we feel like other people just don’t get it, or don’t care. This is especially dangerous when this impression is combined with an overall opinion of the ‘other’ people themselves or an underlying ideological difference. We’re seeing it in politics everywhere: deeply polarized opinions being expressed in angry haste; everybody shouting, nobody listening. Angry demonstrators spit venom at each other across picket lines while keyboard crusaders ALL CAPS the heck out of each other on Facebook comment threads. In some places resentment and contempt are taking us backwards at a really scary rate. The same can be said of the global discussion around climate change which itself has become deeply politicized.
So how do we bridge the gap? How do we get someone on the other side of the isle to hear what seems so obviously true?
Being extreme in daily interactions doesn't help.
We need extreme shifts on an overarching level; extreme changes to the ways in which our countries are run and the policies taken by our leaders. We also all need to take a thorough look at our attitudes and habits and adjust them for the better. It’s this last point that’s so hard to communicate to people who don’t want to hear it, and where a touch of moderateness is often the best medicine.
How do we convince the person who eats meat in 14 to 21 meals a week that their choice to do so isn’t just personal and they really do need to change, for all our sakes? How do we convince the vegan who puts his kale in plastic shopping bags because they’re just so convenient, that just not eating animal products isn’t enough?
There's a sure way to fail . . .
and that’s to speak to people in a way that attacks or maligns the people themselves, rather than focusing on the particulars of their habits or actions. Stop calling people names online. It seems obvious to say, but hate fuels hate, and contempt fuels contempt. It’s that simple. We’re ALL part of the problem and we all do things and live in ways that are harmful to the planet. Don’t call people stupid or lazy or stubborn, even when your gut tells you that they are. Every insult hurled is a step away from finding a workable path forward.
This sounds patronising, and often we feel like the content of what is being said or written is so ‘backwards’ or ignorant that it’s not worth listening to. But if you listen to understand a person’s perspective rather than the content of what they’re saying, you may be able to communicate your own point in a way that seems more reasonable to them. Listen attentively and completely, and read carefully and attentively online. Always listen to arguments or points that challenge your own beliefs. Do this with dedication partly for the sake of refining your own actions and beliefs. If your friend tells you recycling plastic is a waste of time because hardly any plastic actually ends up getting recycled, don’t just tell them they’re lazy and they should care more about the planet. Think about what they’re saying. Find out if it’s true that hardly any plastic actually ends up getting recycled (it is - about 9%) and change your own behaviour accordingly by buying less plastic in the first place. Then continue to recycle what you do buy and tell your friend the best way to reduce their waste too.
Don't preach to people or overwhelm them.
You often only have one opportunity to make an impression; one chance to sew a seed of doubt in a previously held belief that will grow into a change of action. Got 73 reasons it’s more ethical to eat less meat? By the time you’re halfway through reason number four your audience has switched off and decided they will order the beef burger after all. Listen to others (see above) decide based on listening to them which one or two of your 73 reasons is likely to be most convincing, make your point and go back to listening.
Lastly, don’t tell people that they are the problem or make them feel accused. I’ll say it again, we’re ALL part of the problem. Every single one of us. So take another sip of your beer, and a deep breath, and as calmly as you can, start up the conversation about the things that really matter to you.