You’re not immune to tribalism

The name of my old blog was Etwas Luft – German for ‘Some Air’. I don’t really remember why I chose it, but it’s horrible. It implies that I’m some heroic harbinger of clarity and accuracy, in a fog of pollution and deception. This little act of arrogance represents a tendency we all have: to assume that we have some special access to reality, whilst others languish in a sea of bias and delusion.

This delusion is part of the engine of tribalism. We surround ourselves with like-minded people. The occasional moments we encounter the unfiltered-people are moments of horror and revulsion. Digital media facilitates the formation of these clear groups, but we’re amazingly bad at recognising this tendency in ourselves. We label ourselves as urbane, savvy, open and unbiased. We shouldn’t. We’re not.



As always, let’s look to climate and energy. Mark Lynas, a British journlist and climate change activist, talks about ways to bring opposing tribes in the climate movement together – namely, the nuclear tribe and the renewables tribe:

“So how can we move beyond ideological tribalism? Perhaps by emphasising instead what we have in common. I’ve talked to many climate sceptics in my time, and even if we disagree about the IPCC report all of them seem comfortable – even enthusiastic – about the most environmentally friendly emissions reducing technology, nuclear power. So if the green left wants to promote wind and solar, and the right wants to push nuclear, that’s fine with me – let’s figure out how we can deploy both renewables and nuclear to their fullest extent to reduce fossil fuels”

The quote comes from a speech Lynas delivered at the launch of ‘Ecomodernist Manifesto‘. Ecomodernism is spearheaded by people who have railed, as Lynas does above, against ‘technology tribalism’ – Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, two signatories on the manifesto, said in 2013:

“We may like to imagine a 100% renewable or 100% nuclear future, but pinning technologies against each other undercuts innovation across the board. The question at hand is not which technologies need innovation — they all do”


It’s a nice idea. But recently I’ve noticed an undercurrent of discontent directed towards environmentalists and the Greens political party that seems to animate so much of what’s put out into the world by the loose collective of ecomodernists and nuclear advocates. It ranges from visceral distaste, to nuanced blaming, through to ideological paranoia. It also seems to be driven by something deeper and older than disagreement on the mathematics of climate solutions.

The article tweeted recently by some key adherents of the ecomodernist movement sees ‘ecomodernist mom‘ Amy Porterfield Levy run through the ways in which she feels environmentalists are ‘dicks’:

“What’s happening here? There are surely a million different reasons but one of them may be that you environmentalists are scary as hell. Seriously, you’re such dicks sometimes – to each other and to anyone, really, who doesn’t bow down to your green dogma”

Levy describes an instance in which death threats were sent to author Leigh Phillips, in response to a book about growth. Somehow, environmentalists and the ‘greens’ are collectively responsible for this. Having been the subject of death threats and anonymised racist taunts (for expressing skepticism about ‘wind turbine syndrome’) for a few years now, I know exactly what this feels like. It feels truly horrible. But it’s possible to retain a specific loathing for the morons that engage in this behaviour without having to cling-wrap that emotion around an entire collective.

An anti-wind protest (source)

I know for certain that the diverse groups that comprise Australia’s anti-wind farm movement hate wind for a range of reasons, and they behave in a range of ways. Sometimes it manifests as strongly worded opinion pieces; other times, they literally want to murder employees in the clean energy industry.

Levy’s article probably had two outcomes: it buttressed a collection of gripes against environmentalists, and it alienated any environmentalists who might have been open to the ideas of eco-modernism through its focus on blame rather than reconciliation and common ground.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus seem somewhat naive about how difficult and weird it is for anyone to discard the safe haven of identity – including enlightened ecomodernists. Every millimetre you proceed away from tribalism can be undone in a second, as you fling kilometres back into the core of your centre of gravity.

More recently, another example of ‘technology tribalism’ has emerged in the same crowd:

As you might expect, a range of climate change denial accounts have picked up on the news of a brief, minor and easily controlled accident at a large-scale generation facility – they do the same for every single wind turbine fire. But the news has been shared with fervent relish by the nuclear-advocacy crowd, too. ‘Schadenfreude’ seems to accurately describe the mildly vengeful sentiment in these tweets. There’s no doubt the people who feel this have been on the receiving end of equally ugly sentiments from opponents of nuclear power, who wield that view too aggressively, and with similarly vengeful unkindness, on social media.

It’s surprisingly hypocritical, as a key gripe among nuclear advocates is that the media and public focus on single nuclear incidents (such as Chernobyl and Fukushima) and exaggerate their impact, instead of looking at the long-term safety record (nuclear technology has become as safe as other forms of low-carbon power, since earlier jarring and memorable incidents).

It also seems directly at odds with the philosophy espoused by Nordhaus and Shellenberger in their techno-tribalism speech: “Accelerate the failure rate. All technology successes stories are preceded by decades of failure. The key is to have a high rate of trial and error”.

The Gizmodo article describes the solar plant fire as a ‘hellscape’ (seriously) for the workers (despite the fire being put out by staff before firefighters arrived), claims that this single instance “reveals the inherent dangers of concentrated solar power”, describes concentrated solar power as a “menace”, and ends with exaggerated claims about bird deaths.

Single, dramatic instances can skew risk perception well away from actual scientific assessment of risk. Hence, the use of words ‘hellscape‘, ‘menace‘, ‘inherent dangers‘. What drives nuclear advocates to share an article that features the rhetorical tactics used to exaggerate the health risks of nuclear power?



No one is immune to ‘techno tribalism’ (see recent mis-reporting on Germany’s ‘100% renewable energy’ day for an example of an odd lack of caution from my own ‘tribe’). The threat of climate change, and global demand for low-carbon technology, is only increasing. My suspicion is that there really is room for everyone to put their case forward, without wasting our breath sniping at people who want to achieve the same outcomes. Yet we are all innately driven towards pushing and shoving, when it comes to slotting solutions into their relevant spots, and we react quite badly to the involvement of philosophies, technologies and people we’ve grown to dislike.

There are wonderful, smart people in your tribe, and a stack of normal people in the middle, and some thunderous fuckwits festering somewhere in the background. This is roughly the same for most tribes, including the ones that you think are comprised entirely of the latter. Be charitable, and you’ll be find out that the people you thought were dicks are actually kind of nice.

Amy Porterfield Levy is wrong to plead with environmentalists to ‘stop being dicks’. The best advice on dickishness comes from American astronomer Phil Plait:

“But seriously, don’t. Don’t be a dick. All being a dick does is score cheap points. It does not win the hearts and minds of people everywhere, and honestly, winning those hearts and minds, that’s our goal. And I asked you two questions at the beginning when I stood up here in the first place. The first one was, if you used to believe in something. And the second one was if you lost that belief because someone was a dick to you. My goal, my personal goal is have everyone in the world raise their hand when they’re asked that first question. And the other part of that goal is to never even have to ask the second one”

Scientific evidence is both necessary and insufficient, when it comes to steering public discourse closer to our educated estimations of what reality is. The attitude of those pushing evidence out into the world has more influence on the changing of minds than the evidence itself. This is why one has to learn not to be a dick, rather than to plead with a group you already hate to resolve their dickishness. From within your tribe, you overestimate your peers and underestimate people in other tribes.

We are each profoundly compromised, but it’s not by sinister corporations, sinister governments or sinister environmentalists. We’re compromised by an internal package of software shortcuts that pushes us in directions that, ultimately, will impact our ability to collectively address a terrifying, existential threat. Part of the slow, unsexy and totally unrewarding way of dealing with this pre-installed roadblock to collaboration is acknowledging it in ourselves, and never, ever assuming we’re immune.

Header image – via Carbon Brief, “Mapped: The climate change conversation on Twitter”


  1. Very interesting points you make. I was one of those who laughed about the Ivanpah fire and oh did I relish rubbing it in! Just as I relish the current problems being experienced with wind farms in Europe as they grapple with the realities of intermittent energy sources. And oh have I been rubbing that in too!

    But you’ve forced me to think about the end goal. Thank you for making me review my own approach to disagreements. Phil Platt’s video that you referenced. I will keep it close at hand especially to remind myself of the two questions he posed and the regrettably truism: I can’t call someone an ignorant dick and expect that person to magically make a left turn and see it my way … “Oh yeah I was a dick there, I see what you mean.” … and off I go to convert the next dickhead to my way of thinking.

    There a couple of aspects to this that you haven’t addressed though. Firstly the perspective anyone reading the “conversation” might form if the misconceptions — and many times, outright lies — are left unchallenged. What’s the reader to think if that’s not forcefully challenged? Won’t they see someone else being called a dick as justified, especially after all rational arguments have been rejected by the dickhead?

    Also there’s the aspect of implying someone’s a dickhead by inference. For instance I often use sarcasm, basically laughing at the ridiculous argument being posed. Now isn’t sarcasm in effect poking fun and in a real sense saying “you’re a dick, don’t be such a dick”? However because it’s not a direct charge, isn’t the use of sarcasm more likely to force the dickhead to self-examine his/her view(s)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is really just a question of science communication, and it depends on the audience. I see them as roughly split in two:

      – You’re talking directly to an unconvincable misinformer, in which case argumentation is performative, and you’re doing it to demonstrate flaws rather than change that persons mind – but an undecided person watching it unfold might change their mind as a result. In this instance, it’s okay to be a little…….charistmatic, shall we say (eg, this

      – You’re talking to someone undecided, and open to ideas, but still firmly held with their views. In this case, your attitude is very important. Sarcasm and derision will immediately alienate your audience, as will impatience and dickishness.

      I think the nuclear advocacy crowd are focused very much on an audience that’s in category two, but too often, they fall back on the approach of category one. Compare this to something like the anti-anti-vaccination movement, who actually deal with some pure evil stuff, and really need to be ‘demonstrative’ in their communication – it works for them to be a little warlike, because, well, vaccination acceptance is pretty good. It’s just about illustrating the stupidity and cruelty of the anti-vaccination position.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. An excellent post, Ketan.

        Perhaps the category one anti-nuclear audience (as Ketan describes above) is so vocal, so belligerent, and so frustrating that they capture all the attention from nuclear communicators or nuclear advocates, and they perhaps forget about or neglect the category two audience. That’s really unfortunate.

        (A similar situation probably occurs when you’re looking at immunization, fluoridation, biotechnology, health effects from wind turbines, etc.)

        The category-one population is typically so loud and so vocal that their population actually appears larger than it really is – they’re just not really that significant.

        I think it’s also important not to engage with the category-one audience, not to give them oxygen, except when you’re actively engaged in that “immunization” activity against the science denial, for the category-two audience and the wider public. Unfortunately, many people (including mainstream journalists) do engage with the category-one population and give them an uncontrolled platform where the science-denial memes are still “infectious” and unattenuated, where the immunization isn’t done in the correct, safe way.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. There was more than a little levity when Ivanpah toasted itself, but the context for it was that here was the much touted and photographed bit of solar power “eye candy” immolating itself after doing that to the local bird life on a daily basis.

    Hard not to throw a few comic lines at that irony, huh?

    But deeper than that was the financial context: here was a plant of a few hundred megawatts (peak capacity) that had a ginormous price tag, and it had failed to even produce the quota of output it had contracted. So the first “fix” was to connect to the gas mains and fire up the boilers in the morning to boost it up to operating temperature. (If you want the hard figures, go look ’em up, and it’s pretty clear that this monstrous gadget is a dinosaur, and not the climate Messiah. But it’s still the pinup eye candy for the sun worshipers.)

    Notice how this involved fossil fuels and of course “burning” it, to “assist” a BIG CLEAN SOLAR THING IN THE PRISTINE DESERT (insert stunning photo here).

    I thought it was rather funny, still do, but apparently certain members of some “tribe” were offended.

    Tough luck.

    I get this “tribalism” argument on some levels, but lets take it out of the energy domain for a moment.

    Let’s look at the anti-vaccination cult. Here’s a bunch of people who have convinced themselves that vaccination is responsible for causing autism despite there being absolutely zero scientific evidence for this bizarre association. It took just one person to shout ‘fire’ and it’s been burning ever since, even though there never was a fire.

    What are the benefits of vaccination? Well we have charts to show us, and its nothing short of a miracle in public health, but despite the irrefutable benefits, there’s this tiny group of people who only see an imaginary risk.

    Most of us scoff. And it’s quite a reasonable thing to do. They are scoffable. They are also dishonest and devious and hide behind all manner of made up rubbish that purports to PROVE their case.

    This is nothing short of scurrilous, but hey, it’s got nothing on the “green cult”!

    OK a few kids get sick, some really very sick and some even die. But the magnitude of this idiotic behaviour is not a microbe on the elephant that calls itself “green”. This “tribe” if you want to call it one, admits we have an existential crisis coming soon to a planet near you (oh, this one!) and the ONLY way to prevent it is to cut carbon dioxide emissions. BIG. NOW!

    You can all fill in the rest….this tribe then expends more energy trying to kill nuclear power (BIG NO CARBON EMISSIONS) than it does actually trying to kill emissions.

    Some people like to hide behind this green cult and pretend they’re not walking both sides of the street, but they do.

    Conversely, most of the people I see supporting nuclear power are quite supportive of renewables having a valid role in the electricity sector. But the plain stupid vehemence directed at nuclear by the green cult (“we ONLY need renewables”) is filled with made up fears and misinformation that explodes the risks of nuclear power to the level of Armageddon while usually claiming “besides, nuclear is not even low carbon” blah blah.

    Anti-vaxers are boy scouts compared to this “tribe”.

    So let’s say that I see the “green cult” tribe as vastly more dangerous than anti-vaxers because they are in fact holding the planet to ransom for their dogma, and avid desire to be “pure”. (Did you know that wind and sunshine are the purest things in nature? Here, take this brochure… sign up here and here, and oh yes, donate here and here.) Defeating the evil nuclear energy cartel is top of their mission statement and they’ve been at it for decades, they’ve spread around the globe like a virus and infected the discourse with some of the most appalling lies and fear ridden nonsense. It is near biblical hysteria at the devil of nuclear power, and it has permeated the discourse so effectively that it’s maybe a good thing to, you know, actually call it out. Occasionally.

    But hey, I am obviously being “tribal” to say so.

    So shoot me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ve illustrated my argument fairly well. I also don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest the environmental movement is ethically worse than the anti-vaccination movement, nor is it reasonable to say that they’re causing deaths far beyond the health impacts of the anti-vaccination movement. I get the feeling you have a fairly direct and intensely visceral hatred of this specific group.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve listened to ABC radio for years, and can tell you that they are almost signed up members of the green cult, anti-nuclear FUD spreading tribe that hails wind and solar as the Messiah.

        It is perniciously pervasive and, sadly persuasive, since it reinforces some bizarre idea that ALL we need is “political will” and hey presto, this climate thingy is fixed.

        I’m astonished you don’t think is more dangerous than anti-vaxer nonsense, but parse it how you will, it is, by many orders of magnitude. Most people vaccinate their kids, so the crazy cult has quite low impact.

        We’re still pumping carbon dioxide like there’s no tomorrow (might not be!), and around the globe, “greens” (misnomer alert) march in the streets, lobby, protest and write copious crud about nuclear on a DAILY basis.

        One is a tribe on the fringes of nowhere, the other is an invading horde that has over run rational discourse around the globe.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a great book–You are Now Less Dumb– about this very subject–not nuclear power but why we believe what we believe and why it is difficult to change people’s minds. And Ketan, I both agree with this post and am guilty of being a dick to anti nuclear people and you are right–it doesn’t work. It makes people dig in deeper. My sister finally exclaimed–“I don’t want to know what the truth is. I believe what I believe and I like what I believe. I am fine with who I am.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. One might expect the people trying to shut down Diablo Canyon to be died-in-the-wool, tribal, anti-nukes. People like Caldicott, Erica Gray, Jim Green, Busby. Real fanatic haters. Not so. It was mainstream Sierra Club, NRDC. Did you catch Suzy Waldman and Ben Heard in a smoke-filled backroom conspiring to shut down a wind farm? No. They have better things to do with their time – unlike the mainstream, anti-nuke, green movement, who have nothing constructive to offer the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very well-argued and well-written, Ketan. But I think you’re going to be getting some pushback on this. It would be great if Australian electricity was nuclear baseload with wind/solar at the edges. That would make most happy and utilise both tribes. However, I feel that a big reason pro-nuclear has a distrust of the green left is that so much political and societal concern for the environment is expended on the push for renewables, so that the genuine desire of millions of Australians to mitigate climate change is thwarted and the will for genuine change wasted. That’s why at the recent Australian elections every time I saw a Greens election campaign poster talking about global warming or the evils of coal, I thought ‘that’s a bit rich’. It’s hard to be asked to find common ground with such people.


    1. Trust me, you can find common ground with all but the most furious and seething of the groups who aren’t your own. It’s not easy, and it’s not always worth it, but it’s surprising.

      Liked by 1 person

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