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How To Have Those Difficult Christmas Dinner Table Conversations About Clean Energy

Here is a list of strategies to broach clean energy solutions with folks that aren’t as accepting as you’d like.


Photo: Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica

Our traditional holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan bring multiple feelings to the surface that (generously) stay submerged for most of the year. On holidays, we find ourselves facing claustrophobic settings with relatives who spark a bit of internal craziness that rises up within us. In the politically divided US these days, difficult family conversations seem more emotionally-charged than ever.

The weight of our collective cultural conscience is heavy these days in the clean energy world. But if we are to believe in democratic forces to shape our lives, then we must find our voices and agency. Citizen activism is more imperative than ever, with the looming human existential climate crisis. Starting with small, productive conversations about clean energy solutions may seem trite, but, as the aphorism goes, practice makes perfect.

Here’s a list of suggestions to have those difficult conversations about the need to adapt to clean energy solutions — quickly.

Tell a story about yourself in relation to clean energy

I’m a Sunrise volunteer. I help the youth who are advocating for a Green New Deal by responding to national emails. Occasionally, we receive correspondence from people who challenge that the kids just aren’t doing enough to avert the inevitable — that by outing the fossil fuel billionaires, the Sunrisers are just redirecting the responsibility away from themselves to others.

I respond by describing my own attempts to limit my carbon footprint. I write back and tell them that I drive an EV when I have enough range — haven’t eaten red meat since 1980 — use a pellet stove for heat, rely on breezes to cool in the summer over AC — recycle/ reuse/ reduce plastics — compost food waste — plant trees, don’t plant grass, don’t use chemicals in my yard — write about sustainability issues– cut back on buying clothes due to supply chain pollution — and I keep searching for more ways to reduce my carbon footprint.

Sometimes modeling a lifestyle that is manageable helps to make the abstraction of clean energy more accessible.

Practice on a sympathetic relative first

Have you always had a good relationship with ole Uncle Frank? Maybe you and he had a side giggle once upon a time when Aunt Mary’s bragging about her pierogies didn’t quite meet the muster. So use Uncle Frank’s goodwill to your advantage. Share with him some of your ideas in an informal tone but with a series of viable bits of evidence. Assess his old world reaction, and learn from what you see in this ally’s facial expressions. If he runs over to talk to Aunt Genevive about helping with dishes, you know that you’ll need to rethink your approach for the next difficult conversation on clean energy.

Ploy them with beverages & yummy foods

Photo: Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica

Often, people are much more willing to talk about difficult subjects — especially those that clash with their own culturally transmitted belief systems — if they have a favorite drink or appetizer or desert offered to them. So ask if you can grab your relative a little nibble before you start in on a list of life-altering clean energy suggestions.

Since many of our societal challenges flourish when people feel excluded, sharing food and beverages establishes feelings of warmth and conviviality. The act of coming together in conversation around food can be a powerful tool to bring communities together, share ideas, and drive change toward embracing clean energy solutions.

Ask permission to discuss the subject first

People want to know that their feelings and perspectives are valued during conversational exchanges, so ask before you start in on a clean energy diatribe. Praise the person’s ability to engage in difficult conversations and offer positive reinforcement for your relative’s willingness to take a risk and enter into an area that’s likely unfamiliar. This type of positive reinforcement is a good entree into encouraging people to be open to systemic change through identity work and an increasing sense of self-worth.

Giving them permission to enter into a difficult conversation about clean energy can open up all kinds of possibilities. They’ll learn that a  clean energy economy isn’t a question of “if” but “when.” Communities across the US are realizing that smart investments in clean energy protect our health, attract new business, create jobs, and build stronger communities for our families.

The choice for a faster transition to clean energy is ours to make.

Make the global local

It sure is a lot easier to talk about a subject if you can find commonality. Engaging people in serious conversations works best when it’s on an in-my-backyard level. Then start to infuse a few details about the why and how.

“Boy, it sure is snowing earlier this year than usual! Then again, I didn’t get a frost ’til nearly Halloween. What about you?”

“I heard you had flooding in your basement again this spring and had to install a sump pump. What was that like?”

Establishing shared goals for both of you is crucial for effective knowledge sharing. Discuss how the reality of clean energy is available today. Your relative could probably switch to clean energy right now, as many utilities offer it as an affordable option.

Access their prior knowledge about clean energy

Photo: Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica

Confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true.

Our emotions are much more powerful than our reason, and we tend to go with our guts when perceiving new information. So get the conversation started by asking them what they already know about clean energy solutions.

In that way, you can build from their existing knowledge base. Teachers call this “scaffolding,” in which a learner is moved from their current understandings, step-by-step, to new levels of meaning.

Draw upon your knowledge of emotional intelligence

Use empathetic listening and echo the emotions you see emerging as you and your relative speak about clean energy. Share mutual concerns about your relative’s health and the health of friends and family around the dinner table. Rather than conforming to a standard of minimal adherence to good clean energy practices, be aware that your relative may wonder if clean energy is practical. People ask, is it possible that wind and solar can power the US? When? Help to bridge those gaps in knowledge through addressing and developing your own self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skill — all of which are vital for successful activism.

Be ready with info sources — in case they’re receptive

It’s true that, to be convincing, you should try to reach people on a personal level by appealing to the things about which they care. But it also doesn’t hurt to have ready a couple of suggested resources for reference if you find you’re making headway. Sometimes just mentioning a news and information site like CleanTechnica is enough — you who are out there reading this are already aware of the different topics and approaches that our online magazine takes. But people with little experience in how to learn more about clean energy probably don’t have knowledge where to start.

No, don’t get into the latest peer-reviewed research, but you could mention the UN climate commissions as a reliable resource. Having a set of talking points or sharing the insights of a youth like Greta Thunberg could make an impact.

For example, since we’re immersed in a 21st century literate world in which visual texts offer new ways into understanding our worlds, you might want to point your relative to this series of TED talks about renewable energy curated by the Climate Reality Project.

Draw on aesthetics to describe a clean energy world

A 100% carbon-free economy would transform the transportation and industrial sectors. The costs for wind and solar energy continue to plummet, and capacity is scaling up rapidly. A world powered by clean energy is within reach, so describe your vision for a clean energy world. It’s healthier for us, helping to ensure our air is clean and water is safe. And, it can bring local, good paying jobs that cannot be outsourced.

Reliable, affordable energy to power your home. Gentle turning blades of wind turbines. Quiet and reliable transportation. Battery storage to provide constancy. Water sources that are healthy and secure. Jobs that pay well and offer career stability.

Don’t give up — keep sharing what you know as a clean energy emissary. By wide margins, people in the US prefer local clean energy.

Writer’s note: I mentioned Ramadan in the opening. While Ramadan was celebrated in spring this year, it’s important to try to be inclusive in all social matters.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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