Why, When We Know So Much, Are We Doing So Little?: Jim Hoggan on the Polluted Environment and the Polluted Public Square

“Speak the truth, but not to punish.”


These are the words the famous Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh told DeSmogBlog and DeSmog Canada founder, president and contributor James Hoggan one afternoon in a conversation about environmental advocacy and the collapse of productive public discourse.

Over the course of three years James (Jim) Hoggan has engaged the minds of communications specialists, philosophers, leading public intellectuals and spiritual leaders while writing a book designed to address the bewildering question: “why, when we know so much about the global environmental crisis, are we doing so little?”

Hoggan recently recounted some of the insights he has gained into this question when he spoke at the Walrus Talks “The Art of Conversation.”

He begins with the basic axiom shared by cognitive scientist Dan Kahan, “just as you can pollute the natural environment, you can pollute public conversations.” From that the logic follows – if we’re serious about resolving our environmental problems, we are going to have to attend equally to the state of our public discourse.

In Canada, says Hoggan, we face particular challenges when it comes to polluted pubic conversations, especially with the heightened tenor of rhetoric regarding environmentalism and energy issues surrounding the oilsands and proposed pipelines.

"The ethical oil, foreign funded radicals campaign," he says, "has made Canadians less able to weigh facts honestly, disagree constructively, and think things through collectively."

You can watch a short video of Hoggan’s talk on The Walrus, or read the transcript below:

Good evening, I’m Jim Hoggan. I wanted to start by saying I’m not speaking here as the chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, but as the author of a book that I’m writing called The Polluted Public Square.

In this book I’m on a personal journey to learn from public intellectuals. I travel from Oxford, to Harvard, to Yale to MIT; I had tea with the expert on public trust in the House of Lords dining room; I spent a week with the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh; I traveled to the Himalayas to interview the Dalai Lama. So I’ve spent three years on this journey. Originally I thought I was writing a book for other people, but I realized as I was going through this that I was actually writing a book for myself.

The book is about this question of public conversations and the state of public discourse. And the specific question I asked all of these people, was “why is it, in spite of all this scientific evidence, from experts in atmospheric, marine and life sciences, are we doing so little to fix these big environmental problems that we’re creating? And why isn’t public discourse on the environment more data driven? Why are we listening to each other shout rather than listening to what the evidence is trying to tell us?"

One of the first interviews I did was with a Yale Law School cognitive scientist named Dr. Dan Kahan. He had part of the answer for me. He said, “just as you can pollute the natural environment, you can pollute public conversations.”

He said that healthy public discourse is a public good that is every bit as important as the natural environment; that we should be willing to protect, consciously protect, the state and the health of public discourse; and that we were in Canada and the United States suffering from he called a ‘social pathology.’

And this kind of healthy public discourse, or healthy attitude to public discourse, is certainly something that we’re not paying much attention to in Canada these days.

In 2012 – let me take you back to something the Conservative government would probably rather we all forgot about – in early 2012 some folks in the oil and gas industry launched a PR campaign with this message: ethical oil is like fair trade coffee. It’s like conflict-free diamonds. It’s morally superior.

In 2012 the oil and gas industry worked closely with the Conservative government to convince Canadians that British Columbians who opposed tankers on the coast of B.C. were extremists working for American business interests.

Now, environmental activists have been polluting the public square for a long time: they’ve called the oilsands heroin, they’ve called it blood oil, they’ve called oil companies environmental criminals engaged in crimes against humanity.

Now who would have thought that this level of rhetoric could be raised any higher? But it was.

Senator Mike Duffy called B.C. charities “un-Canadian.” The minister of environment accused them of money laundering. The PMO called them “foreign funded radicals.” Senator Don Plett said, where would environmentalists draw the line on who they receive money from? Would they take money from Al-Qaeda? The Taliban? Hamas?

So in 2012, as Terry Glavin put it, suddenly we had sleeper cells of Ducks Unlimited popping up across Canada.

Now I’m not suggesting equivalency here. These environmentalists have the evidence of climate change on their side. They’re arguing against the inaction from an industry that’s in a lot of trouble as the world realizes that their product is changing the climate. And they haven’t done a very good job of handing that trouble.

I met a guy in Harlem at a coffee shop. His name is Jason Stanley and he writes for the New York Times and teaches philosophy of language and a class in democracy and propaganda at Yale. And he said that when oil from Fort McMurray is called ‘ethical oil,’ or coal from West Virginia is called ‘clean coal,’ it’s difficult to have a real discussion about the pros and cons. He explained that these kinds of improbable assertions, where words are misappropriated and their meanings twisted, are not so much about making substantial claims, but they’re about silencing.

He called them linguistic strategies for stealing the voices of others.

He said Fox News engages in silencing when it describes itself ‘fair and balanced’ to an audience that is perfectly aware that it is neither. The effect is to suggest that there’s not such thing as fair and balanced. That there’s no possibility of balanced news, only propaganda.

Canada’s public square is polluted with a toxic form of rhetoric that insinuates that there are no facts, there is no objectivity, and that everyone is trying to manipulate you for their own interests. Our belief in sincerity and objectivity itself is under attack. So when everything is mislabeled and you can’t trust anything that anyone says, why bother with the public square?

The American linguist Deborah Tannen puts it this way: when you hear a ruckus outside your house at night, you open the window to see what’s going on. But if there’s a ruckus every night, you close the shutters and ignore it.

The ethical oil, foreign funded radicals campaign has made Canadians less able to weigh facts honestly, disagree constructively, and think things through collectively.

Now how you clean up the public square – my book is 120,000 words – that’s a big question for a seven-minute speech.

But let me say this: “I’m right, your wrong. Let me tell you what you should think” is not a great communications strategy.

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt told me that, and also said it doesn’t work because we all think we’re right. Haidt argues that people are divided by politics and religion, not because some people are good and others are evil, but because our minds were designed for ‘groupish righteousness.’ Morality binds and blinds us. Our righteousness minds were developed by evolution to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth. Haidt suggests we step outside the self-righteousness of what he calls our moral matrix, and look to the Dalai Lama to see the power of moral humility and that we take the time to understand the values and worldviews of people we strongly disagree with.

I also interviewed Ted-prize winner Karen Armstrong who developed the charter for compassion. She put it this way: we must speak out against injustice, but not in a way that causes more hatred. She told me, remember what St. Paul said: charity takes no delight in the wrongdoing of others.

So my time’s up, but I just want to say one more thing. Since the 60s I’ve been reading Eastern philosophy and following particularly Zen Buddhism. So a little while ago David Suzuki and I were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with the famous Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. And he kept saying to David, people don’t need to know more about destroying the planet. They already know they’re destroying the planet. You need to deal with the despair. So I kept listening to him and it sounded to me like he was saying we should go meditated.

So I said to him, “in Canada, Canadians expect the David Suzuki Foundation to speak up on behalf of the environment. You’re not saying we shouldn’t be activists?”

It’s hard, I’ve been trying to think of how I could describe the way he looked at me. But it was with this kind of silence and deepness that I can’t remember having anyone look at me like that before. So he looked at me and he said, “speak the truth but not to punish.”

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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