Published on December 11th, 2016 | by Zachary Shahan0
The Facts Don’t Matter, Ma’am — Seriously
December 11th, 2016 by Zachary Shahan
First of all, I think it’s worth explicitly stating what I’ve long seen as the core goals of CleanTechnica:
- To inspire more people to buy and use cleantech (especially solar power and electric vehicles) — since cleantech is widely acknowledged in the scientific community to be a critical solution if we are going to avoid runaway global warming.
- To provide useful information on cleantech, cleantech companies, and cleantech industries for people looking to make smart consumer decisions, for industry insiders looking to do their jobs well, and for policymakers looking to enact intelligent and helpful policies.
- To help inspire a social movement that leads to more thoughtful, positive, and sustainable life on this planet (and maybe Mars, now that I know Elon Musk is genuinely aiming to make our species interplanetary).
The basic aim of the site is simple: help living beings, and especially humans, as much as possible.
The key problem the site aims to help tackle is potential societal collapse and unprecedented human suffering from runaway global warming — as well as, on the side, the suffering billions of people from air and water pollution.
These problems — as well as the cleantech solutions — are based on sound scientific research. I’m not talking about “this is probable” kind of research results, but research results that are about as clear as the scientific research showing the Earth revolves around the Sun and gravity pulls us toward the ground.
Many of you readers here also try hard to make sure your basic assumptions, goals, and methods of achieving your goals are driven by sound science. But let’s be frank: everyone cuts a lot of corners — including you and me — because we have to make assumptions in order to function in this world. Furthermore, much of the population couldn’t identify sound science if it hit them in the head with a “Make American Great Again” hat.
Before going on and getting to the focus of this article, please also take a close look at these 8 things:
- This article. (At the start, it may seem like it was written by someone who did too much LSD — isn’t any LSD too much LSD? — but it’s actually an insanely well organized, well informed, and brilliant article. One of our readers passed it along to me — apologies for not remembering who that was.)
- This article.
- You surely learned about guerrilla warfare in elementary school, but have a look at that page for a refresher.
- Understand that Hitler was once very popular in Germany — he was. Understand that Trump’s first wife Ivana claimed that, “perhaps in a surge of Czech nationalism, Ivana Trump told her lawyer Michael Kennedy that from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed. Kennedy now guards a copy of My New Order in a closet at his office, as if it were a grenade. Hitler’s speeches, from his earliest days up through the Phony War of 1939, reveal his extraordinary ability as a master propagandist.”
- In case you didn’t know, my bachelor’s degree wasn’t in “cleantech engineering” or “Tesla blogging” (which would have been a weird major in 2000–2004). My bachelor’s degree — the heart of my professional approach — was in sociology (well, I dual majored in sociology and environmental studies, but we don’t need to jump into the nitty gritty of the latter quite yet). I got this degree from New College of Florida, the honors college of Florida — basically, a liberal arts college for hippies and other liberals who thought Harvard was too superficial or who couldn’t afford to go to an Ivy League school. One of my two main professors was genuinely “Dr. Brain” (his real last name) and he got his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. The point of this point is not to boast — honestly — it’s simply to make it clear upfront that I spent years studying sociology, social movements, social networks (before that was a common phrase co-opted by a certain form of social network), social theory, and sociopolitical systems and transitions. This education and focus continued while studying city planning in grad school, as the director of a nonprofit that tried to improve the transportation freedom and development patterns of a certain metro area, as an English teacher for thousands of foreigners, and as an obsessive blogger. All along the way, I have tried to keep learning what “moves people” and why. In other words, agree with me or not, CleanTechnica‘s focus and style isn’t simply reactionary and “blog from the hip” clickbait — it’s based on decades of learning and an overall goal to help society help itself.
- Don the Con’s election tactics and statements may have seemed idiotic, but you have to have HUGE blinders on to not recognize that they were effective. (In other words, idiotic ≠ ineffective.) Seriously, whether you’ve already done so or not, try to understand what you did not understand when you thought that Donald Trump could not be elected president. This educational course should not be over yet, and I hope it continues for each of you for years, since it will make you and others (including me!) more thoughtful and effective.
- There’s not much CleanTechnica or many of you (who, to be frank, are organisms of CleanTechnica) can do to stimulate technical advances in cleantech, but I think there’s a lot we can do to shape the narrative and stimulate action — on the consumer level, on the cleantech corporate marketing and management level, and on the political level.
- I’m not finding the study now to link to it, but one scientific study conducted in recent years found that, if comment threads under an article get quite negative and argumentative, no matter what the content of the article or these comments was (no matter what the actual points of the article or discussion were), people (let’s call them “bystanders”) would in the medium to long term come away with a negative opinion of the main topic of the article. Let me put this in other terms: People are so superficial and so influenced by emotion that the actual content and logic often don’t even matter — just the take-home emotion connected to a topic. Let that superficiality sink in for a moment.
And … below is one more list before I delve into the actual article (because, you know, the 989 words above aren’t at all the article). The following are 10 key messages I think the “cleantech movement” or the “humans for the betterment of humanity and other species movement” should be driving home (repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, and repeat until you can repeat no more — and then repeat 3 more times):
- Solar energy is often cheaper than coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy. (This is especially true if you take into account very real but under-acknowledged health costs — trillions of dollars in costs — but it is often true even if you don’t count the tremendous cost of cancer, heart disease, and premature death and suffering.)
- Wind energy is typically cheaper than coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy. (This is especially true if you take into account very real but under-acknowledged health costs — trillions of dollars in costs — but it is often true even if you don’t count the tremendous cost of cancer, heart disease, and premature death and suffering.)
- Electric vehicles are ~30 times better than gasoline or diesel vehicles. They are better in so many ways that there’s basically no good reason they won’t see this kind of exponential growth curve:
- Clean energy and electric vehicles are top job creators. They are huge economy boosters. The communities and societies that most support cleantech will most benefit economically and financially.
- Climate change threatens to destroy human society. More war. Massive migration like we’ve never seen and the challenges that result. Massive premature death and suffering from superstorms, drought, floods, and new diseases.
- Cleantech is just more fun.
- Cleantech is cool.
- Republican voters overwhelmingly support clean energy. But Republican politicians are heavily bribed by the pollution/death industry and heavily opposed to clean energy. They push pollution more than almost anything else — perhaps more than anything else. (Though, low taxes for the rich are probably more important to them.) Republican politicians are not following the wishes of their constituents on energy and pollution matters.
- Republican voters want good health. But Republican politicians heavily support fossil fuels (the pollution/death industry) and don’t seem to care that they harm human health (your health? your kids’ health?) in the process. They don’t seem to care that their policies cause more people to die early, cause more people to get cancer, cause more people to suffer and die from heart disease, and cause more kids to develop asthma as well as worse health problems.
- The focus of Republican politicians at the federal level is very heavily to help rich people pay less in taxes, help corporations pay less in taxes, and weaken regulations that protect American health and safety. Helping the super rich while hurting the middle class and poor is what they actually draw hard lines on and work for when elected to Congress or the presidency.
Now, let me be frank once more: this article is aimed at cleantech “leaders.” We publish a lot of different articles here, and they are aimed at different communities of readers. Articles like this are to hopefully help people who want to be sociopolitical leaders on cleantech messaging. I know that articles like this one are irritating to some people.
The Content of What You Say & Write Often Doesn’t Matter. It’s the Emotion You Generate that Matters
With that short preface out of the way, let’s get to the core point of this article.
I’ll do that by being a bit blunt about CleanTechnica‘s own work: We’ve published 9,653 articles in the “Solar Energy” category and 5,946 articles in the “Electric Vehicles” category. If the aim is to help society, let’s ask ourselves, what could these articles have actually, practically achieved?
- They could have inspired people to buy solar panels and electric vehicles. Or not.
- They could have inspired people to inspire other people to buy solar panels and electric vehicles. Or not.
- They could have inspired people to improve solar products/markets or EV products/markets in some way. Or not. (Though, I’d argue this is really just a subset of #2.)
What else could they have achieved? Very practically speaking, how else could we have been useful?
Well, we could have simply provided entertainment, if you want to count that as a practical achievement. But if entertainment was the pure aim, I think we would have chosen a different topic, so I’d say that’s just been a side-effect … or a tool in the process.
With all of that in mind, whether it’s promoting cleantech or promoting something else, I think it’s important to remember that the facts typically don’t matter — it’s the emotions generated that matter. (Remember the point above regarding negative comment threads.)
People are swayed by simple physical realities to some extent, but they are more heavily swayed by norms, emotions, dreams, peer pressure, and rhetoric.
An early thing you learn when studying economics, political science, and sociology is that models assuming people are rational actors are deeply flawed. Yet, we still rely on such models a great deal. This is like relying on the formula 1 + 10 = 1,000 when doing our accounting. But we still do it.
I think it’s important to realize this if you want to influence more people on cleantech matters. “Just the facts, ma’am” only gets the job done for a small subset of the population. If you are such a person, this is perhaps hard to believe or understand. But believe it. Understand it. The facts are almost irrelevant when it comes to the art of persuasion. Look at the results of the recent US presidential election for a reminder of this. Or, again, read this article and this article.
Does that mean we shouldn’t focus on things that are true? Of course I think we should focus on things that are true! But I think it’s critical to focus on messages that move people emotionally, that in some way connect to the things they most care about. Aside from the messages, pay attention to the people you are communicating to and what style of communication might be most influential for them. Don’t just whip out a PowerPoint presentation everywhere you go. Haha — you know not to be so absurd as to do that, but how much do you consider what genuinely matters to the people you talk/write to, what touches them emotionally, and what values, ideas, and norms strongly affect if they accept something as true and important or not.
Social movements, imho, should be based on things that help society as a whole as much as possible, but remember that the likely effect is not really what pulls people into a social movement. It’s interpersonal connections, deep concerns and identity, and powerful but very simple messages — repeated, repeated, repeated, and repeated.