Step Away From the Funhouse

By Keith Kloor | March 15, 2013 11:19 am

Why do environmental debates almost always turn into polarizing slugfests?

Well, such debates focus on problems identified as significant threats to the planet and human welfare. People fight over how big (or negligible) a certain threat is and what the solution should be. The fiercest battles are between people who have different values, which turns into a clash of worldviews. When this happens, ideology and politics trump science. 

Climate change is the poster child for this today. The issue has become so contentious and polarized that civil discourse is nearly impossible. You’re either a climate denier or a climate catastrophizer. There is no middle ground permitted.

The same goes for our biotech dialogue. You’re either pro-GMO, in which case you are an unwitting tool of Monsanto, or you’re anti-GMO, which makes you an anti-science idiot. Not much room for nuance there.

Energy debates are no less simplistic. In this arena, though, we also see people with shared values who generally agree on the nature of an environmental threat (climate change), but who disagree on the solution. So here you’re either for replacing dirty carbon entirely with solar and wind power and gains in efficiency, or you’re pro fossil fuels. And if you say that natural gas (and nuclear*) can be a bridge to breakthrough technologies and a clean energy future, you’re sneeringly disparaged as a VSP (very serious person).

That brings us to fracking, the latest environmental issue to enter the funhouse and become grotesquely distorted. Once issues like climate change, biotechnology, and fracking enter the funhouse, good luck trying to separate fact from fiction.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times makes a good faith attempt with fracking. Check it out.

* A commenter reminded me of nuclear’s importance.

  • Richard_Arrett

    Don’t forget nuclear in the energy context. Many environmentalists reject nuclear as a bridge to breakthrough technologies – even though it is baseload and non-carbon generating.

    • kkloor

      Very true. I did think about that, but was thinking mainly of fracking while writing the post.

    • kkloor

      Per your nudge, just added nuclear into the mix.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

        Thanks Keith for your fantastic work

        I believe that biotech is a nascent technology, which like all other technologies has to work out its “growing-pain” bugs, and once it does it could deliver benefits in spades. As one example, I am excited about jelly fish proteins in oncology and neurology….know nothing much about its applications in plants.

        My bottom line is –I am pro responsible rigorous-science based GMOs. and against reckless GMOs. I believe the power of this technology in many ways is analogous to nuclear–it can power our homes or it can lead to a nuclear disaster a la Chernobyl, mostly due to human error. Chernobyl has lead to a lot of suffering and pain– my uncle, far removed from Chernobyl was diagnosed with leukemia within years of the explosion. I am worried about the Japanese exposed to Fukushima.

        Yet, I am very interested in finding out more about Gen IV molten salt reactors, because to a lay person’s eyes, Gen IV appear to offer benefits and safety features light water reactors can’t, by design.

  • Matt B

    Nothing new & it’s not just environmental issues that get the 4 legs good/2 legs bad crowd going, you get equally polarized and uninformed arguments about public education, medical care, the national debt, Wall Street and CEO pay, etc. There are strong points on either side of these issues but it is rare to see an article (like the fracking article you cite) that references the reasonable voices on either side so that the civilian population can make a reasonable determination on what path forward makes the most sense. As long as news keeps trending more towards entertainment I can’t see moderation and common sense being a media priority, since right vs wrong gets good and reliable ratings; just ask Rush & Maher!

    I love the right and wrong arguments…..always gets me back to one of my favorites!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkzb656WVuQ

  • Tom Scharf

    Environmentalists do tend to always identify an enemy group that must have restrictions placed upon them for the good of all. The benevolent dictator political model is very appealing to them. They never quite “get it” that most people do not trust them as an honest broker for solutions to many problems they identify (and these problems are valid in many cases).

    I had to laugh when nuclear was left out. You wouldn’t even know that nuclear technology even existed if you went by what shows up on green blogs. It’s invisible because it serves as an effective wedge issue against the more fundamentalist climate change advocates. They can all get along great as long as discussion of nuclear energy is verboten.

  • Tom Scharf

    The NYT post was a good article. I see they didn’t allow comments which would have attracted an extreme reaction I suspect. Pointing out that the real world near term choice is coal vs. natural gas and natural gas wins by almost every measure is not part of the messaging dogma allowable in some peoples minds.

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    Most people are advocates rather than being purely analytical. It’s also doesn’t help that many people simply have bad judgment when it comes to reading through material like this. You gotta A) have a reasonably high IQ B) be unbiased/have good judgment C) be really well informed. That eliminates about 99% of people out there. Problem is, everyone thinks everyone *else* is the dummy.

  • mtvessel

    What about the role of “science” in this? Advocates for contrary positions bring out the unalterable truth of “science” to show that they are correct and that their opponents are not only wrong but anti-scientific deniers. This is of course made much worse because many of these advocates make their living as scientists and have no qualms about exploiting the legitimacy of their profession to make statements that are far beyond the scientific evidence supporting them.

  • Buddy199

    “Climate catastrophizer”

    When do greens ever phrase the climate debate (or any debate for that matter) in anything less than apocaplyptic, Manichean terms? They bring that label upon themselves. If you reasonably question Chicken Little that makes you a climate denier, their unspoken equivalence placing you on the same moral plane as a Holocaust denier, which is why they chose that label rather than climate skeptic or agnostic.

    There has been a spike in global warming; that spike also directly corresponds with the spike in global prosperity over the past 150 years resulting from fossil fuel based industrialization: more food, improved medical care and public health, increased longevity and lower infant mortality, higher incomes and an unprecedented rise in human living standards with billions lifted out of subsistance poverty. What the actual effects of global will be for the next 100 years, if it does continue, and what should be done about it are still wide open questions

    While improved efficiency and pollution control are worthwhile goals, the idea that continued global prosperity can be fueled by solar cells and windmills is an unreachable mirage, not because of politics or public policy but because of physics and chemistry. The real alternatives to oil are natural gas and nuclear.

  • Raindog

    It’s true. What may motivate people most in these issues is the need for a bad guy – an “evil other.” I think many people gain a sense of identity and purpose from this “evil other” and therefore are not going to change their minds when a few pesky facts get in the way. Oil companies and agribusiness are great boogie men as are “tax and spend liberals” and “global warming alarmists.” It’s not very different from how Reagan used “the Evil Empire” or Arabs use the Israelis or Israelis use the Arabs.

    When an oil company or an agribusiness company does something that may actually benefit the environment it just doesn’t add up for someone used to using these as their “evil other.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/jake.neubauer Jake Neubauer

    It astounds me that solar and wind energy are discounted as “fairytale fuels” and are generally dismissed by the VSPs. They are not nearly as efficient as they need to be to power the world, but that does not mean that they will never reach the necessary efficiency. The Sun is an incredible powerhouse if you can develop technology to improve the efficiency of capturing that power – something that can never be done without subsidies and continued research dollars.

    What you do in the meantime to mitigate continued carbon-pollution and how you engineer around the already real and present effects of climate change are open questions for debate. The idea that we will never have to transition to renewable fuels, though, is crazy talk.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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