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.
“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.
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”