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  • Writer's pictureDamian Costello

How to make progress when polarisation is accelerating disaster

Co-authored by John Alderdice

For decades, scientists have been warning of the dangers of climate change, but the masses don’t seem to be listening. There’s a tendency among environmentalist to think regular people are stupid or “truth blind.” We have been preaching to them for decades while demonizing those who ignore our pronouncements. This approach is clearly not working for the majority. Friends, I think it’s time we considered a radical change in direction. We need to find a way to get the broader public to engage wholeheartedly in the effort to save this glorious planet that we all call home.

The problem is that we have allowed the debate on the future of civilisation to become too polarised. It has become an over-simplified argument between two opposite ends of the divide: assertive environmentalists and aggressive capitalists. These points of view are typically associated with the left and right on the political spectrum. 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.

This polarisation has left people confused and angry and as a result they are easily manipulated by those willing to deliver the comforting lie that everything will be fine. We need to face the fact that those of us who are trying to tell the truth are 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 radically now, unless we are willing to radically change our approach.

I have come to this conclusion as a result of my involvement in Pivot Projects. I’m the leader of one of the workstreams - Economics, Law and Politics. In the beginning of my work with this group, I added my voice to the apocalyptic vision that we environmentalists use to try to scare people into action. I strove to illustrate the terrible things that can happen when a global economy obsessed with endless growth meets a planet of finite resources. I took the entrenched position: “My way or the highway.”

I have changed my view. I now realise that I was operating in an echo chamber. I’ve changed because of the time I spent with my Pivot Projects colleague, Lord John Alderdice. He is a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords but was best known to me for the role he played in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

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 terrorists. This was at a private meeting of the four of them in Parliament Buildings in Belfast in the early 1990s, in the midst of the thirty-year guerrilla war known locally as “The Troubles.” Faced with stalemate, Hume, a staunch pacifist, overcame his most deeply held beliefs, opened his mind, swallowed his pride, and radically changed his approach.

Lord Alderdice, who, as the leader of the Alliance party, was not affiliated with either side in the conflict, described the despair that descended on the room that day. 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, Alderdice had to reconcile himself with not knowing what would happen next and so he moved forward more in faith than in hope.

We know how things worked out. Hume’s gamble paid off and lasting peace was made. Hume received the Nobel Peace Prize, while Lord Alderdice, one of the primary ‘honest brokers’ in the process, went on to bring his experience to conflict hotspots all over the world.

This example of a war time pivot affected me deeply and it became clear that if society is now on a war-like footing, then our side needs a similar mindset change. I realised that Pivot Projects, like all environmental groups, needs to alter its approach, not to the science, but to its 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. When you really think about it, our sanctimonious attitudes must be difficult for regular people to distinguish from the patriarchal demeanour of the powers that be. We need to appeal to their hearts and, more importantly, to their gut. Regular people have a visceral understanding of fair play and an almost universal revulsion toward cheats and bullies. 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 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. 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. We must start to see the people, as the solution rather than the problem. Anything less is unfair.

The move towards a philosophy of fairness, will also allow us to empower the people by focusing on fairness issues in their own lives. We can motivate the environmentally inactive by asking them if their inactivity is fair to their children or their grandchildren. This more tangible approach is likely to be more effective than our current appeals to the abstract or the overwhelming.

Getting the masses on side also reverses the main advantage the 1% currently enjoys. It will allow us to use the levers of consumption to reverse rampant consumerism. When we identify that a business has a more ethical or more environmentally friendly competitor, it will allow us to mobilise the public to reward the alternative and boycott the transgressor. But this mass market power can only be used if the masses see us fighting with them for a fairer deal for regular people.

The response of the world’s population to COVID-19 has shown us that people can make global sacrifices if they think it’s fair and necessary, and if those sacrifices can be executed locally for the benefit of those they love. COVID-19 proves the potency of people power and that global efforts and local benefits are not mutually exclusive.

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.


A tribute to John Hume, Nobel Prize winner for bringing peace to Northern Ireland, who died on the 3rd August 2020.

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