by Stan Hirst
The Suzuki Elders have been at the environmental game for some 9 years now – gathering, talking, arguing, urging, advocating, educating, inspiring on and off, blogging and berating. As our website declares “we bring our voices, experiences and memories to mentor, motivate and support other elders and younger generations in dialogue and action on environmental issues”.
We have spent a fair amount of time and energy in communication and educational pursuits via our website, blog posts, public salons and general nattering. Feedback, when we can get it, suggests we do get some information and possibly inspiration across to the people we contact in these activities. But for a long time one fact has been nagging at me which I now need to unload on the rest of youse.
Mulling over what we know or can deduce about the people and groups we touch through our workshop presentations, public gatherings and social media, there is one important and hitherto underestimated fact:
We’re preaching to the choir*
Does this matter? Very much, I suggest.The environmental scene changes rapidly ion today’s dynamic world, and new issues continually arise. It is surely a good thing to transmit information and viewpoints on environmental issues to friendly folks and those who agree with us in general.
But open a newspaper or a topical magazine, watch TV news on local, national and international politics, or surf the chatrooms on social media, and it becomes depressingly apparent that there are many who hold very different views on environmental and related social issues than we Elders do.
The crux of the matter is that we, both as environmentally concerned Elders and as members of a much wider and heterogeneous environmentally conscious movement, are not communicating with all of our fellow citizens. And…. there are many more of them than there are of us.
Many terms are used in the environmental media and in conversation to characterize the “other side”, some descriptive of a social or political stance (e.g. “denialist), some just plain rude. The label “anti-environmentalist” appears often in media and online dialogue. I think that term is ambivalent, since I haven’t seen any firm indications that conservatively-minded people are actually against the environment or environmental values (although they might deny them). Rather, they’re against those who preach such values. Very important distinction. Like if someone dropped a piano on my toe I wouldn’t be anti-piano but I would certainly think poorly of the guy who dropped it. That said, I haven’t yet found a better term than anti-environmentalist, so I’ll just go with it.
A small amount of basic online research leads one to the inescapable conclusion that the conservative/dark side/anti-environmental segment of society is very active, possibly increasing in size and influence, but certainly significant from the political aspect. Included in this large group are the industries who use denialism and other propaganda to deflect opposition to their pet projects or activities. Also, in the group are the squeaky wheels who write national columns or appear regularly on TV and who have strong neoliberal viewpoints which don’t bode well for environmental policies and outcomes. Furthermore, we also have well-known national, provincial and local government members who have attained political office with significant majorities and who don’t hesitate to push pro-development issues with significant negative environmental consequences.
What I’m trying to do in this post is to sidestep all these groups, be they cohesive or fragmented, political or social, or whatever. Instead I’m trying to focus on what Barack Obama used to call “the regular folks”. Those are the people you talk to over the back fence, who borrow your lawn-mower and don’t return it, and who vote in elections just like we do, but who don’t see eye-to-eye with “environmentalists” like us.
If we don’t really know or appreciate what, or even if, these fellow citizens think about environmental issues, why they think what they do, or how it impacts on their social and political behaviour, then it seems to me we’re pretty much shooting in the dark when we attempt to act out our mandate and “dialogue and act on environmental issues”.
If conservatively-minded people are not against the environment per se, then what the deuce is it that raises their hackles? I think it is fairly obvious, and certainly regrettable, that it is we who get up their noses.
I know this, how? Not by chatting them up, because by the very nature of their life philosophy, they don’t chat much about environmental issues to Elders (although they will argue a political point or two if you press their buttons). I simply delved into their media.
I have spent hours, probably better used on gardening or rambling through the local river park, in digging through online sites which present themselves as conservative in stance. The best of these is National Affairs, but I have managed to struggle through a few pages of others, e.g. The Daily Caller, for anti-environmental opinion. I have also been surfing through social and discussion sites (e.g. Reddit) to read what people with smartphones are saying on environmental and social issues, focusing on the negative opinions.
Wading through comments on social media is admittedly not terribly efficient in characterizing anything, except possibly for Donald Trump. Social media, being what they are, seem to be inhabited mainly by people with a distaste for spelling, punctuation or social graces, and a propensity for obscene responses to others’ posts. But I have also seen many insightful and lengthier responses to things like legislation, government actions and policies (e.g. oil pipelines). Social media are pretty much integrated, so the mish-mash I gathered I took to be representative of both Canadian and American views and attitudes. Occasionally I could identify the geographic locality of the participants (only Albertans refer to their Premier as “Rachel”).
What have I learned? Not nearly enough, but a few items have emerged.
In many instances it is not our environmentally-inspired opposition to an action, project, policy or decree that gets the anti-environmentalists gnashing their teeth, its us and our actions pertaining to the issue. Two local examples:
– environmental activists dangling underneath the Second Narrows bridge to protest the Kinder Morgan pipeline and associated oil tanker traffic. Anti-environmentalists understand protest (they do it too), but to them bridge-hanging smacks of grandstanding and hypocrisy; they note that the wetsuits, safety nets and ropes used by the danglers are made from oil-based materials.
– flotillas of protestors in small boats, canoes and the occasional luxury launch loitering around open net-pen salmon farms to protest impacts on native free-ranging salmon. The anti-environmentalists note that the farms are legal, have been there for years and have all the required leases, federal permits and provincial permits. For them the protests smack more of grandstanding by a few big egos and some opportunistic First Nations’ land claims than the health of native salmon.
The anti-environmentalist view on climate change, as expressed in publications and social media is that environmentalists have seized upon outlandishly improbable climate scenarios to urge economic actions counter to development, trade and business. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s name invokes special fury as a symbol of liberal (and therefore unacceptable) extreme views.
Conservative columnists, especially in the U.S. themselves point out that that the “Republican position” (meaning the conservative one) on climate change is unsustainable, What they mean is that they (the columnists) believe in the science but they point out that the mainstream right wing has difficulty in accepting the premises because climate change as a result of human action implies accepting the conclusions of the left-wing climate activists which inevitably lead to carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, energy rationing, and ceding key economic sectors to government control. There doesn’t seem to be a conservatively tailored option.
I have long felt that the average citizen is woefully ignorant on the subject of global climate change. My recent casual conversation with a fellow British Columbian on the subject (recorded here) is just one example of why I think this way. It came as a surprise though to learn from some social sites that others have an equally dim opinion of their fellow citizens on the related subjects of pipelines, taxes and subsidies.
A number of studies and reports (e.g. this one) explain why public understanding of the climate phenomenon has not followed scientific understanding. The physics and scale of climate change are mentally challenging for most people, and the application of conventional modes of understanding are misleading. Deliberate misinformation on the part of fossil fuel industries has also had a major impact on public perceptions of how the science and politics work.
Studies show that people generally know about climate change, and a lot of them may think it is generally bad. It does not however significantly affect their political behaviour. As the Atlantic writes “Americans may change their vote because of economic fear, or defense policy, or to protect their property or social privileges, but they do not vote because the ice caps are melting.” I have not seen anything that suggests conservative Canadians think much differently on the climate change issue than do their American cousins.
I suggest that the implications of the above overview for Suzuki Elder educational and communication programs are quite significant. As we now function we rely on interested persons coming to us to engage, read our writings, and attend our salons and forums. This implies that our audiences are already interested, aware, sensitized to some extent or at least curious about the environmental concerns and issues which we are presenting.
If we now want to take the Giant Leap Forward (apologies to Chairman Mao for the cultural appropriation) we will find ourselves having to enlighten, and communicate with, publics who don’t agree with us and most likely find us off-kilter, politically bent or otherwise suspect.
Is it worth it? Is it even feasible?
* For the benefit of our many international blog viewers: if one says that someone is “preaching to the choir” it means that they are presenting an argument or opinion to people who already agree with it.