By Damian Costello.
Since last year’s Congregation I have become an environmentalist. For years I’ve been working towards a more empathetic and sustainable society, but recently I’ve come to realise that environmental disasters might destroy civilisation before Society 3.0 can ever emerge.
Soon after I joined the ranks of those working to save the planet, I realised I had a few things to say to my new colleagues. For decades, environmental scientists have been preaching to the public while demonizing those who ignore their warnings, but this approach is clearly not working. The problem is that we have allowed the debate on the future of civilisation to become an over-simplified argument between two opposite ends of the political divide: assertive environmentalists on the left and aggressive capitalists on the right. The left thinks it has a monopoly on goodness and the right seems to think that money and power are all that matters. We dehumanise the right by calling it; the 1%, the establishment, the elites, or the superrich, but in doing so we miss the fact that regular people find the swagger of the populist right more compelling than our logic.
Such polarisation is endemic in Western democracies, and it has reached new heights with the Trump White House and Brexit. It leaves the public confused, scared and angry, and as a result they are easily manipulated by those willing to deliver comforting lies. We need to face the fact that those of us who are trying to tell the truth are simply not winning converts fast enough. This is a battle that environmentalists have been losing for decades, so how can we honestly expect public opinion to change, unless we are willing to change our approach. Over the summer I’ve been working on an initiative that involved, among other things, a series of regular discussions with Lord John Alderdice. Now a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, he is best known for his role the Northern Ireland peace process. One anecdote of his in particular, changed my mind about how we deal with the right.
In my first in-depth conversation with him, he told a story of when John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, first told his three fellow political leaders in Northern Ireland (Ian Paisley, Jim Molyneaux and John Alderdice) that he believed that the only way to advance the stalled peace process was to open talks with the IRA. Faced with stalemate, Hume, a staunch pacifist, overcame his most deeply held beliefs, opened his mind, swallowed his pride, and radically changed his approach. The other leaders were appalled at the suggestion and the two unionists in particular felt certain that the move would collapse the process. On leaving the meeting, he said that he had to reconcile himself with not knowing what would happen next and so he moved forward more in faith than in hope. We now know how things worked out. Hume’s gamble paid off and lasting peace was made, and Hume went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his vision.
This example of a war time pivot affected me deeply and made it clear that if society is now on a war-like footing, then our side needs a similar change in approach. I realised we need to alter our approach, not to the science, but to our positioning and communications. We need to reach out to those we have previously chastised. We need to understand and empathise with their position and we need to find a way forward together. To do this, we need to first respect and then appeal to the middle majority that have been swayed by the lies of the 1%. These are the regular people who don’t trust holier-than-thou experts anymore. They either suspect environmentalists of hypocrisy or they find our language patronising.
We need to appeal to their hearts and not their minds. We need to reposition the climate argument away from one of right and wrong, and towards one of fairness. Our problem is that our message is honest and requires sacrifice, while the 1% seems happy to make empty promises. We can overcome this imbalance, however, by aligning our communications around a new truth, but we must believe it ourselves. If we are to mobilise the masses, we need to genuinely put people first – we need to make fairness our number one priority.
If we believe in the ongoing importance of democracy, we must put people ahead of planet and empower the people to save the planet with us, not for science but for themselves and their children. Too many of the masses believe, or have been convinced, that environmentalist put the planet before people. The 1% has convinced them that we are the ones who are out to destroy their way of life. Unless we break this cycle, by telling the public that we are 100% on their side in a way that the right can never be, we will never stem the tide of environmental disaster and we will never give ourselves the chance to enjoy Society 3.0. If we can build a coalition with the masses, we will expose the lies and dismantle the ability of the 1% to divide and conquer us. We must start to see the people, as the solution rather than the problem. Anything less is unfair.
Humanity’s response to COVID-19 proves that ordinary people are fair and decent and given half a chance they are willing to make personal sacrifices to help all of society. Let’s stop preaching to them from our ivory towers. Let’s roll up our sleeves and show them that we can be trusted and that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the THEIR fight for a better future.