Tree-huggers. Greenies. Enviro-nazis. Eco-terrorists. Eco-extremists. City-dwellers. Radicals. Eco-vangelists. Eco-crazies. Sheeple. Foreign-funded __________________ (add any of the preceding epithets).
What ARE environmentalists anyway? Are they good, wise, caring, rational, science-loving people put here to save us? Or are they deluded, uninformed, unreasonable, deranged lunatics out to destroy our jobs and our way of life, probably for personal gain? And what does all of this have to do with environmental law?
In my opinion it has a lot to do with environmental law, or at least it has a lot to do to do with how that law develops. When people use negative labels to describe environmentalists, they are attempting to frame the discussion to suit their own purposes. Repetition of the negative labels is meant to shift public opinion and public opinion eventually impacts what becomes law.
I grew up thinking that “law” was just about rules. My father was a Crown prosecutor. I had a limited understanding of what he did when he went to work, but I knew that he tried to put the bad guys in jail. There were rules. People who broke them went to jail.
If you are brave enough to read through the occasionally soul-sucking public comments on environmental news stories and social media pages, you will come away with the impression that there is an epic battle between good and evil taking place. I now think that the law is about so much more than rules. It’s about what we want the world to look like. It isn’t always a thing, it’s often more like a process. The capital “L” Law reflects the society we live in, the one we want to live in, the things we collectively care about, the things that percolate to the top and demand the most attention. It’s messy and always slightly out of date, because society is complicated and the systems we have in place for creating law (elections, legislatures, law reform research, public consultations, lobbying) are imperfect. There is always a time lag between an expression of some desire in society and that desire finding its way into what we call law. There will inevitably be compromises. In other words, society and law are inseparable. There is a continuous, symbiotic, push-pull relationship between the two.
Environmentalists are everywhere. Some work for non-profit organizations. Some want to change things quickly, even radically. Some work for oil companies, engineering firms, transportation companies, waste disposal companies, governments, law firms, utilities, universities . . . trying to make things better. They are farmers and ranchers. Some like to hunt and fish. Some are backcountry campers, skiers and off highway vehicle users. Jeff Foxworthy could probably work up a routine “If you breathe air and drink water. . . YOU might be an environmentalist”. Environmentalists aren’t good or bad. They are just us. I’m one. You are probably one too.
Learning how to teach people to have a stronger environmental ethic may be the most important group of skills needed for those who want to improve our environmental laws. If deeper caring for the environment becomes a more engrained societal value, our laws will eventually come to support that value.
Learning how to teach people to have a stronger environmental ethic may be the most important group of skills needed for those who want to improve our environmental laws. For many people, the conversation about environmental issues takes place online. If you are brave enough to read through the occasionally soul-sucking public comments on environmental news stories and social media pages, you will come away with the impression that there is an epic battle between good and evil taking place. Everyone appears to be talking, very few are listening. In the words of the late Strother Martin in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Social media exaggerates our differences of opinion and lowers the quality of our conversations. In a short paper (available online) called “Moral Outrage in the Digital Age”, Professor Molly Crocket of Yale University concludes that the ease of posting on social media magnifies the triggers of moral outrage, reduces its personal costs and amplifies its personal benefits. Professor Crockett states that if moral outrage is a fire, the internet is like gasoline.
For environmentalists and people who think they are not environmentalists, I propose the following incomplete list of suggestions to improve communication:
- When people use negative labels to describe environmentalists, they are attempting to frame the discussion to suit their own purposes.Be selective about what you choose to read and post on social media. Think about whether responding to something is going to do any good. Maybe there are more productive ways to advance your cause. Online forums may look like rational debate but are often staged attempts to manipulate public opinion. Since people tend to only read things that confirm their opinions (confirmation bias), your well-thought out argument will likely only be read by people who already agree with you;
- Fight your own confirmation bias. Try to listen to people with opposing views. Try to truly understand what they are saying and what they care about. You don’t have to agree or necessarily compromise. You are in a better position to make your point if you fully understand theirs. And who knows, you might occasionally change your mind;
- Deal with skepticism and mistrust by showing the other person that you are listening and trying to understand their position (easier face to face than online);
- Avoid name-calling. It just undermines what you are saying;
- Stick to the truth but realize that it’s difficult to change people’s minds by reciting facts. You must understand people’s values (including your own) and frame the debate in ways that reinforces those values;
- If you find yourself occasionally drawn into online shouting matches, think about instituting a self-imposed response time delay rule;
- Do your best to not be morally outraged.
For anyone who wants to dive in a little deeper, I highly recommend the 2016 book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot – the Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up by James Hoggan, a book that should be required reading for anyone who wants to post anything online.