The rocky road to the common ground

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.

19 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, morals, ethics, and dedication to such a worthy cause – the benefit for Mother Earth.

    Important trivia – I am using the expression “environmental terrorist” as a phrase to describe corporations, CEOs, senior executives, and others who believe that they have have the right to take whatever they want in order to make themselves or their shareholders wealthier. Environmental terrorists are those who destroy our environment at everyone else’s expense and I encourage everyone else who is in the “environmental movement” to start using the same phrase to describe these people and what they do. How does an Orangutang feel when it’s only home is being destroyed for palm oil? How does a whale feel as she is slowly being trapped and drowned in fishing gear? The word “terrorist” means that the perpetrator has caused fear in the minds of others and those others could be other two leggeds, four leggeds, winged ones, or swimmers. This planet belongs to all of us who live on it. Earth is the only one we have and I refuse to put up with “environmental terrorists” who feel they have the right to pollute it, destroy it, and render it inhospitable.

    1. Paul, your emotional stance is understandable and probably shared by most Suzuki Elders. But you also realize, I hope, that by applying a derogatory epithet to a particular group (and a very widespread group I should add) we are driving a bigger wedge between “them” and “us”. That makes communication and education that much more difficult.

  2. Bastiaan Rutjens has shown that political ideology does not play a meaningful role in public sceptism of climate science. He shows that trust in science in general is by far the lowest among the religious.

  3. I agree that those who support actions to reduce climate change are often seen as the enemy – of growth, a viable economy, or even justice. In June, I attended a rally in Sidney to protest the KM buyout. About 120 (mostly older) people carrying placards met next to a mall, and we listened to talks about how that 4.5 billion dollars could be spent more usefully. While I was standing there, a man came out of the liquor store and gave us all the finger and a nasty scowl. Really? Are we fooling ourselves that we can change beliefs?

  4. This bit of insight is useful, if thin. It will make no difference. Self-proclaimed environmentalists” will continue to label themselves morally righteous, imagine themselves scientifically sophisticated, and believe that they are politically justified.

      1. So what? Do you think you own a patent on criticism? Exactly what response do you expect when you go around playing judge?

      2. Hey folks – what we would like to see happening is constructive dialogue between environmentalists and those who disagree with them. Are we all up for that??

        1. So who is in charge of handing out the labels? You? And what exactly is an “environmentalist”? Is it like vegetarians, who make choices in their own lives for their own health and benefits? Or do you imagine that you are some kind of expert panel, fit to pass judgement on everything and everybody? Does everyone agree on one set of “beliefs” on each “side”? And which side takes its arguments and “facts” from Russia TV propaganda campaigns? Which side is respectful of ordinary Canadians, including First Nations, Newfoundland fishermen, Alberta working men and women?

        2. I am very sick of attack and counter-attack. I think “environmentalists” ie. those who want a liveable planet for their grandchildren are getting worn out. We seem to be fighting on so many fronts. Meanwhile, money pours in from corporations who want to be sure that rape and pillage of the planet continues unhampered. Our politicians are in their pockets. Civility falls by the wayside.

          1. And there you go. The familiar message of Russian-sponsored, western based activism is unfailingly based on anti-corporation, anti-capitalism, anti-human activity slander and exaggerated outrage. Rape and pillage indeed.
            Does it occur to anyone else that political radicalism is not the same as environmentalism?

  5. Environmentalists often seem to be the subject of ad hominem attacks. We are “hypocritical” because we are embedded in a culture dependent on fossil fuels. Our message should be clear – REDUCED dependence on fossil fuels will leave the next generation better off.

  6. This is very “entertaining”. I see a major issue in that we (apply appropriate label here) have done and continue to do a lot of talking and quiet protests and have done so for a very long time. These approaches have not really produced much result. With every day that goes by humans continue to destroy the planet. Nothing has changed. We are still heading toward the cliff and actually at an accelerated speed.
    If we Canadians needed a wake-up call it should have come when Trudeau (the “centre left” government) bought the KM pipeline. Not only did he buy the pipeline, he paid a lot for it and he will have to borrow the money to pay for it. How is that for most/all of us still just business as usual?

  7. It is definitely optimistic to hope, and to think that, a congenial/respectful platform exists for non-toxic dialogue between individuals who may approach important issues differently. I and many others feel deeply about environmental issues of great importance and we despair when the worries that we have are pushed aside because we’re viewed as thoughtless environmental nut bars who don¹t care about the economy or jobs. Most of the environmentalists I know are very responsible people who believe in responsible business, the welfare of our fellow humans and the power of community. We are all in this together but at this point recycling and using the right light bulbs will not undo many irresponsible decisions that have already been made and continue in the name of so-called progress and growth at any cost.
    There MUST be positive solutions that mean we don¹t “sell our souls” for profit, although profit is important and none of us want to “freeze in the dark”. Let’s really think and talk about the REAL costs of the decisions being made while keeping in mind the well-being of ourselves (even being threatened now) and for future generations.

  8. Let me tell you why I get pissed-off. Environmentalists like to assume, no, assert, that they are much better informed and much wiser than all us poor souls who supposedly have fallen victim to big, bad, corporate lies. You tell us that “climate change is real”, and honestly believe that this is where the argument begins and ends. But here’s the kicker. You imagine that, if you believe in the science, and accept that climate change is “real”, suddenly we are obliged to accept, without further debate, every proposed “solution” put forward. Specifically, you are certain that the problem lies with Industry, the producers of fossil fuels. So you bring your torches and pitchforks and want to tear down Alberta’s oil fields. Always start by attacking your neighbors. Deny them access to our ports, and also deny a private business access to their own property. So the problem I have has nothing to do with “belief in science”. It’s not the message, it’s the mob. The idea that you are now above the law. Unacceptable.

    1. I haven’t noticed anybody storming the oilfields with torches and pitchforks, or even attacking their neighbors over climate change. Some civil protests against Kinder-Morgan have been ruled illegal by the courts and those perpetrators are paying the price. What kinds of actions by fossil fuel opponents would you deem acceptable? Are we allowed to express our opinions via the voting box? Or are we to meekly accept whatever Ottawa and the oil moguls conjure up?

    2. You take an interesting perspective or angle on a simple issue. Humans are killing the planet they live on at an increasing rate. This is a simple truth that anyone can accept unless you cannot read or listen to the news or notice the dramatic changes in climate outside your own door. Some of us prefer the status quo – deny, no action required so I can continue to live my life of abundance. Others, often called environmentalists, prefer to take actions to stop this auto-destruction before it’s too late. You see, when you identify a problem, i.e. the planet is warming up, you look for a cause, i.e. too much CO2 release by burning fossil fuels, and then you find a solution, i.e. reduce fossil fuel combustion and switch to renewable energy. Unless you are an oil and gas shareholder, how hard does that sound? (BTW, laws change all the time. Bad ones are replaced by good ones. Until the bad laws are removed, it is more than acceptable for citizens of a free society to “break” those laws.) Just my opinion.

  9. Dear David Knight: I am curious as to how you feel when you hear about things like severe droughts, more and more forest fires or that the Fraser River has become so warm that the salmon fry might not survive their trip this year which is hoped to be a banner year for numbers. Do you think these things are just acts of God or inevitable for other reasons and that we humans have no obligations to try to live differently? What would you do instead of the things that “environmentalists” do (which are varied)? What solutions would you offer? I think we humans have more in common than what divides us. I am a grandmother, and I am sure there are grandmothers who think differently, but we all want the best for our grandchildren’s future. It is as unhelpful to lump all environmentalists into one group as it is to say that all fossil fuel employees think and act the same way.

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