Rethinking Tactics


While there is no shortage of blame to go around when it comes to environmental issues and environmental policy, the over politicization of environmental matters falls squarely on the shoulders of those pushing the global warming (or climate change or whatever the term du jour happens to be) narrative. That the Earth's climate is changing is undeniable, the science insofar as that is concerned is fairly settled and the conclusion well supported, but whether or not that change is an artifact of human industrial and technological advance is another matter entirely. However, arguendo, let's assume that that anthropogenic climate change hypothesis is correct.

If, in fact, humanity is having such a profound effect on the planet that we are literally changing its climate, then there is an argument to be made that we should modify our behavior if those changes, cumulatively, are net negative. Let's assume they are (e.g., assume oceans will acidify and rise, ice caps will melt, and species will disappear due to habitat loss). What then? Well, we could advocate the fool's path and suggest humanity return to a 'simpler' lifestyle akin to that of our ancestors centuries or more ago. However, I'm willing to bet that you're currently reading this on a device which runs off electricity, and that you may even be located in a building or vehicle which depends on energy-consuming devices to regulate its internal climate. I'll be honest, I'm not willing to give up air conditioning and my iPad, and there's no good argument that I should do so.

The main problem is that many climate change advocates are alarmists. They run around with their hair on fire screaming that the sky is falling, the world is going to end, and that cats and dogs have suddenly become the best of friends. Even in a situation where that parade of horribles is true, such alarmist behavior would only be warranted, not helpful. It does nothing to advance the debate or the ends of either side to scream at one another.

Corollary to the alarmism problem are the twin problems of marketing and strategy. It may be best to go about explaining these problems by way of example:

  • Let's say we're flatmates and I want you to wash the dog (assume we're joint owners of said dog). He's been sprayed by a skunk, he smells terrible, and I don't want him in the house until he's been thoroughly washed. Now, I could argue with you that his having been sprayed by a skunk is bad for his health, he could have an allergic or other reaction if he's not washed immediately, that the smell is strong enough that it will permeate the entire house, and that if you don't wash him I'll stop paying the water bill and we can all molder together.
  • Now, I'm not wrong, the dog does need to be washed and he could have a reaction if he's not washed quickly and the smell likely will permeate the entire house if he's allowed inside before being washed, but this isn't an effective way to go about getting you to act. The threat to turn off the water is, of course, simply childish. Nevertheless, the logic holds if we are, as stated, joint owners of the dog and, consequently, you do have some sort of duty to care for the animal, which includes washing him when he makes new, unpleasant friends.
  • Of course, presented with this sort of argument, what's most likely is that you'll assert I should wash the dog and we'll find ourselves at an impasse. Meanwhile, the dog isn't getting washed and everything is starting to smell like skunk. No one wins.
  • Alternatively, I could approach the problem rationally. If I want you to do something, I should offer something in exchange. Instead of arguing why you should wash the dog, perhaps I should give you reasons why you want to wash the dog. If you wash the dog, I'll go pick up dinner and beer.
  • Assuming you like beer (and what sane person doesn't), you're probably more likely to wash the dog when presented with the exchange scenario than the pure argument scenario (even when the argument is coupled with a threat).

Coming back to environmental issues, climate change evangelists almost always take the former tack. They'll talk until they're blue in the face and you're using your smartphone to look up laws on justifiable homicide. They'll warn of everything from melting ice caps, through disappearing island nations, to mass extinction events. Meanwhile the skunk smell is seeping into everything. No one wins.

This is the marketing problem for environmentalists. Not only is fear mongering and predicting Armageddon unhelpful, it's also unethical. Points and positions should be advanced by reasoned debate, not by shouting matches and PowerPoint presentations rivetingly explaining how we're all going to drown.

Instead of presenting the general population (and particularly the voting population) with doomsday scenarios, it would behoove environmentalists to appeal to mutual gain and the inherent sense of stewardship that most people have when it comes to the natural world. People won't take up your banner if you lecture them about Micronesia slowly disappearing and how they can help prevent that by paying twenty times the current price for their electricity usage. That is, rightfully, a losing argument.

On the other hand, if you explain to people that certain incentivization and related programs can be implemented which will simultaneously cut down on air pollution and lower the cost of electricity, then you've got a much better chance of getting them to champion your cause, or at least to support it at the ballot box. A little marketing goes a long way.

While the marketing of most environmentalists is bad, their strategy is downright embarrassing. If you were attempting to start a business, you'd probably want to create a business plan with relatively detailed steps you intend to follow. This sort of document would be useful if, say, you wanted to make a pitch to investors. It seems safe to assume you wouldn't just gather together dozens of reams of paper, scrawl "Business Plan" across the top page of each individual ream in crayon, and then run down the street throwing these reams at random people. You could do this, but you probably wouldn't get much investment and you might wind up spending more time with the police than you'd prefer. This is pretty much what environmentalists are doing when they stand in the corner, pointing at modern society, technology, and energy production/consumption, and screaming "CARBON" with the occasional mumbling of "methane" to add variety.

An alternative approach taking into account a bit of strategy would yield vastly improved results. Let's say you're trying to build a patio in your backyard. Walking outside and yelling "PATIO", no matter how long you scream, won't convince any patios to appear. Likewise, going to a home improvement warehouse and yelling "PATIO" also isn't likely to get you much of anywhere (except, again, befriending some police officers). You have a clear goal in mind, which is good, but you have to get from where you are to where you want to be one step at a time.

With the patio, the steps are easy, you go to the store, discuss your goals with someone knowledgeable, obtain the materials, and set about building a patio. Getting from where we are today to where environmentalists want to be is also easy, it just has a few more steps. For instance, there is legitimate concern about the collapse of many fish populations in the world's oceans, but screaming "CARBON" isn't going to get anyone to change anything to start addressing the issue. Working on international treaties to ban whaling, however, is a concrete step that can be taken today to begin addressing the problems of the world's oceans. Likewise, programs to create new marine habitat and to safeguard still-pristine habitat can help to slow, and even to reverse, some of the damage that has been done to various fish populations by overfishing, pollution, et cetera.

In essence, concrete steps of reasonable scope are more likely to succeed than are grand schemes based on data interpretations with which a significant percentage of the population take issue. People like whales, they don't like paying more for electricity. Likewise, most people do like trees, advocate programs to plant more of them, or programs to create green spaces in dense downtown areas. The entire narrative of the climate change evangelists is that small changes, over time, can create significant, even staggering, results. It only makes sense, then, to advocate for the same sort of approach to solving the problem.

Further, programs for restoring parts of the ocean food chain, for creating more green space, and for safeguarding pristine natural environments are beneficial not only in the event that those arguing that anthropogenic climate change is both real and, in terms of its impact, significant enough to warrant addressing, but also in the event that climate change evangelists are completely wrong (e.g., if it's all just a product of some solar cycle). For instance, more green spaces in downtown areas are simply and purely beneficial.

Really, the bottom line is that environmentalists should be advocating for programs which make a better world and, in the process, address the environmental issues confronting humanity. Programs with concrete steps, achievable goals, and ancillary benefits should be the focus of the environmental movement. There is no benefit to be found in screaming about the end of the world, especially when no one is willing to lend you a soap box and you'll have lost your voice long before anyone starts listening.