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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

The Downside of Being Reasonable
April 24, 2012 - 2:15pm

In a recent post, David Roberts describes the downside of being reasonable during discussions about ecological sustainability and climate change. His main point is that in order to win (effectively, if not technically), all that unreasoning climate denialists have to do is to refuse to budge regardless of the evidence and logic against their position. Eventually, any reasonable person gets to the point of walking away or dismissing them as stupid or agreeing to disagree. Any of those leaves them as the last combatant in the arena, such that the last man standing wins by default.

Roberts's anecdote puts me in mind of the old advice not to try to teach a mule to sing -- it's unlikely to succeed and makes you look foolish. (If I were in a less kind mood, it might put me in mind of advice never to wrestle a pig -- you get covered in mud, and the pig enjoys it -- but today is a pretty good day, so that never popped into my mind.)

However, this little observation also corroborates two aspects of my recent thinking about evangelizing sustainability: make it about more than just the environment, and make it local. 

How long a reasonable person will argue a point depends on how important, how urgent, how immediate the point is to that person's experience. Climate change, as Roberts notes and has earlier described, is a "super-wicked problem," in large part because the effects of actions taken here and now are geographically distributed and chronologically removed.  Neither characteristic corresponds well with "immediate". So when it comes to defending the science of climate change alone, many reasonable people give the cause up as hopeless (on which count they're often right) after a fairly short effort.

But if we bring issues of social justice into the argument, at least some reasonable folks will argue far longer. And if we bring in economic sustainability/justice/equity as well, lots of reasonable folks will argue until the cows come home (if not longer). The impacts of climate change may seem distant, but the impacts of social injustice and lack of economic opportunity are felt much closer to home.  Especially these days -- the current school-aged populace considers social equity pretty much a bedrock principle, and some 50% of recent college graduates are feeling the impact of lack of economic opportunity.

If we make the argument specifically local -- if we make it about what's happening here, what's happening now -- the period of time that it's reasonable to hold fast to our position becomes almost infinite.   What would previously have been a scientifically-framed discussion about the predictability of decades-delayed global impacts becomes an ethically- and emotionally-framed argument about truth, justice and the American Way.

It might not turn each of us into Superman, but it might help us to be a little less reasonable.  In a good way.


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