Arguments With Your Allies

Image Credit: Chiltepinster, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped

I want to talk about a quandary I’ve encountered a few times recently, to which I still haven’t found any sort of resolution. It concerns people who have the right idea and intentions, and are helping to contribute a better world through lifestyle choices, yet have been grossly misled on a few key facts.

I’ve been doing a lot of travelling around Norway recently, and found myself at a bar just south of Jotunheim National Park last week after a long day of driving through valleys and mountains. We still had an hour to go, and since my fiancee was driving the rest of the way, I figured I’d have a beer. The bartender had no other clientele and immediately started chatting to us. They were delightful, and after I mentioned that I taught biogeography, we started talking about the impact human beings had on the planet. They told us a bit about their efforts to cut down on overconsumption, how we needed to stop using so much land, before taking a sharp handbrake turn into how climate change was nothing to worry about because the climate is always changing and it didn’t really have anything to do with humans.

As you can imagine, I was reasonably taken aback here. I made a vague attempt to point out that the climate was changing at rather a rapid rate, and that our carbon emissions may have something to do with it, but these comments were largely ignored. I chose not to pursue the subject, because they were a delightful person. But I left feeling slightly concerned that they could be so conscious of ecological problems and still be a climate sceptic. So here lies the quandary.

If someone has their heart in the right place and is making efforts to live a more sustainable life anyway, is it important to try and point out such a gross misunderstanding of a concept like climate change? Should an ecologist, climate scientist, biologist, or someone who is well-read and educated on the topic engage in that debate if the person is otherwise generally headed in the right direction? Are we engaging in a debate for the purpose of teaching something, or for the sake of being right?

It’s happened before when I’ve met environmentally-conscious people without a scientific background. I’ve had friends in Australia who have cut meat out of their diet completely yet think that the culling of kangaroos is an abhorrent process. Or who have cut plastic out of their lives yet think overfishing isn’t an issue. Part of me wants to have a conversation about a topic on which I clearly think they’re wrong. Part of me thinks why take the chance of them digging in their heels on this topic when they’re making positive efforts on so many other fronts. Part of me thinks I’m engaging a debate just to prove I’m right.

And of course, even a reasonable knowledge of environmental issues doesn’t guarantee that you haven’t made some error in judgement relating to sustainability or ecology along the way. I only found out a month ago that provided both are disposed of correctly, using plastic bags at a grocery store is more environmentally friendly than purchasing paper bags. And ideologies even within an environmentalist mindset may clash. Sure, organic food might release less pesticides into the environment, but they usually require far more land to produce.

I’d welcome feedback here. Have you been in a situation whereby you’ve felt someone has badly misunderstood a scientific concept, yet their lifestyle otherwise shows that they’re making efforts to be more sustainable? Do you start that argument? Does it ever turn out well?

One quandary I don’t have is whether or not I’ll visit that bar again though. Wonderful beer selection.

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