Want to save the world? Stop arguing.
I’d been in the job for two months when the first one arrived. An email from a stranger. He had read my column in the local paper about local environmental issues and he was angry. I was on a gravy-train, he said (clearly he hadn’t looked at my payslips). I was intent on bringing this country to its knees, he said. Look outside, he said. It’s raining! In June! It’s cold!
Naively, I wrote back. Hadn’t anyone told him I was going to save the world? And anyway, I had science and logic at my disposal. That would soon show him! Except of course it didn’t. He wrote back, this time more rude and aggressive than before, and I defended my corner, and so it continued.
Over the next few years, he emailed me every month or so, or left messages under my online articles. Sometimes he was abusive, sometimes good humored, always they were patronizing. I was young, I was female; how could I possibly know anything of the world or science? We argued a lot and I spent many furious hours replying to him. I was convinced that if I was going to save the world, it mattered what every single person thought. It really did. Besides, a good, well-constructed argument with someone who knows how to argue back is a glorious thing.
But the more I argued, the more I saw a pattern. An incandescent-bulb of tedious discourse, winding round and round and burning huge amounts of energy for such little reward. It wasn’t a playful back-and-forth brain exercise. It was war and it was stalemate. No one was moving anywhere and the growing animosity on both sides was starting to wear. Who were those stupid deniers and their casual disregard for life on Earth? Who are those do-gooding greenies and their pious asceticism?
The rhetoric on “belief” and “converting” made me uncomfortable. This wasn’t about faith, it was about facts. And suddenly lines were being drawn. AGWers on the left, anti-AGWers on the right. During one public debate, a local politician spat venomously that my views on climate change made me a filthy socialist to be spurned and ignored, yet his party expounded policies for the rigid protection for the countryside. People wrote to the local paper complaining about the refuse problem in our city, and then wrote to me to say that forcing people to recycle was a breach of their human rights.
Around the dinner table people would tell me that wind turbines were an affront and solar a con because of the subsidies, but that the government should pour money into nuclear.
I was exhausted and confused. If everyone wanted the same outcome – protected wildlife, a clean world, energy security – then what were we arguing about? Why did climate change even matter?
Six years after I started that job there was the small but growing possibility that I wasn’t going to save the world. Plus there were other things I wanted to do: study for a masters degree, start a family, move to the country, maybe move to another country, maybe do a PhD. But I was stuck arguing over the finer points of how best to recycle the little cardboard tube inside a toilet roll and trying to explain that a wind turbine was not the same as communism. I had changed but the arguments hadn’t. The world had barely moved on but everyone still wanted the same conclusion.
I caught a radio program about a man who stopped talking for 15 years. When asked why, he said one day he had a cold and lost his voice so couldn’t speak. He was surprised at how much he learned just by listening and decided that he was going to keep listening until he knew everything he needed to know. Just listen. A revolutionary idea.
Then I was idly flicking through a book that someone had given me about conflict. One page caught my eye, about how we habitually deny other peoples’ feelings.
“I’m hungry,”says person A.
“But you’ve just eaten,” says the person B.
“I’m cold,” says person A.
“But it’s warm in here,” says person B.
Person A is still cold or still hungry. There’s no resolution to that, it’s a cycle that’s leading nowhere. Just listen, the book suggested. A revolutionary idea.
The angry emailer emailed again. I suggested a phone call and we chatted. He was intelligent and pleasant and we agreed that something would have to replace oil, although we both thought that for different reasons and we disagreed about a lot of other things. We even laughed, and recently he emailed to ask after my well-being and whether there was any pitter-patter of tiny green feet yet.
Then last week a friend tried, for the millionth time, to pick an argument with me about climate change. I found myself saying “Do you know what? I don’t have to argue about climate change anymore. It’s decided. The people who know, know, the people who don’t, don’t. That’s the end of the story. Believe what you like, it’s of no interest to me. There’s nothing to gain in me having this conversation with you.”
My friend considered this for a moment and nodded. Then she started talking. She told me how overfishing makes her furious, how the destruction of the forests leaves her in a rage. We left the conversation in agreement: action needed to be taken.
All of a sudden I didn’t feel like I needed an eco-psychologist any more, but like this.
Now I can start saving the world.
Image: Geisha Boy