Why Environmentalists Need to Talk More About the Basics and Stop Skipping Steps

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To Protect Nature, We Have to Be More Convincing

If you consider yourself an environmentalist, or green, or care at all about the life-support systems of our blue marble of a planet, one of the best things you can do to help is to convince others of what must be done. This is simple math. One person, even doing their best, usually cannot achieve as much as a group working together. But bringing others on board can be pretty hard. If you've tried before, you've probably noticed that people fall into three groups: Those that are already on board on one end of the spectrum, those that for various ideological reasons won't be convinced even by a mountain of evidence on the other, and a large group of open minded but fairly neutral people in the middle.

If asked, most of them will say they are 100 percent in favor of clean air, clean water, clean soil, protecting the environment, etc. Everybody claims to be for motherhood and apple pie. But virtue is not something you say, it's something you do, and actions speak louder than words. Most people don't really do much, showing that they aren't really convinced of the urgency of the situation. They hear all the usual stuff about global warming, air pollution, soil erosion, fisheries collapsing, endocrine disruptors, etc., but their behavior doesn't change much.

Why is that? Can we greens do better? Can we be more convincing to these people who have open minds and good intentions?

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Fighting Human Nature

Part of the problem is hard to get around. It's human nature, and very hard to change. People know some things are important, but they don't pay attention until it becomes personal. So while a person might know about heart disease, it might not stop him from eating junk and not exercising until it hits him. A similar thing happens with environmental problems; people don't mind too much when whales on the other side of the planet are getting killed, but when it's their water that is poisoned, it's something else. Unfortunately, like with heart disease, sometimes by the time it becomes personal, it's too late to act. We also suffer greatly from a cognitive bias called scope insensitivity:

Once upon a time, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88. This is scope insensitivity or scope neglect: the number of birds saved - the scope of the altruistic action - had little effect on willingness to pay.

Similar experiments showed that Toronto residents would pay little more to clean up all polluted lakes in Ontario than polluted lakes in a particular region of Ontario, or that residents of four western US states would pay only 28% more to protect all 57 wilderness areas in those states than to protect a single area. (source)

But even taking that into consideration, I think defenders of nature could do much better. The problem is that we too often skip to the end and don't spend enough time explaining the basics and intermediate steps. This matters a lot because the very same argument will be interpreted very differently by someone who has the foundational knowledge required to truly understand and by someone who does not.

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Context is Everything

When we learn something new, we make inferences about it based on what we already know. The Less Wrong Wiki gives this example:

For example, explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to a physicist would be easy; even if the physicist didn't already know about evolution, they would understand the concepts of evidence, Occam's razor, naturalistic explanations, and the general orderly nature of the universe. Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to someone without a science background would be much harder. Before even mentioning the specific evidence for evolution, you would have to explain the concept of evidence, why some kinds of evidence are more valuable than others, what does and doesn't count as evidence, and so on. This would be unlikely to work during a short conversation. (source)

So someone who already knows a lot about how ecosystems work, our planet's climate, non-linear systems with tipping points and lots of inertia, the evolutionary role of predators, and the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services will be able to put environmental news in context and grasp its importance. Yet people who know these things tend to forget that there was a time when they didn't know, so they tend to speak as if everybody was on the same page.

But someone who only hears the last step in the reasoning might not have the tools to truly understand. It's these tools, these basic foundational blocks, that we have to do a better job of providing, so that when people hear about global warming or sharks heading for extinction, they don't just think "I don't mind if it becomes a few degrees warmer, and it's not like I would want a shark as pet anyway, so good riddance."

What You Can Do

The simple answer is to be mindful of the problem. Keep the level of your audience in mind. If you're talking to an expert, you can skip as many steps as you want and be technical and chances are they'll follow just fine. But if you are talking with someone who isn't familiar with the basic concepts, slow down and start at the beginning. Try to remember how you first learned about whatever you are talking about, and use that as a guide. Even if you can't cram every single detail in a conversation, it's good to make clear that the pieces of the puzzle are out there and that true understanding requires putting them all together, and not just looking at one in isolation.

Tags: Animals | Endangered Species | Global Climate Change