What kind of rhetoric creates social change?
In the course of questioning James Lovelock’s apocaphilia, Jon Lebkowsky says this:
A solution to the problem of global warming begins with a cautious, balanced, and rational approach, and getting there is as much about our psychological and social frameworks than our ability to analyze and predict.
The latter half of that statement seems obviously true. But why should we believe that, among our many "psychological and social frameworks," the "cautious, balanced, and rational approach" is the most important or the most effective one?
It would be nice if being balanced and rational were the first step toward solutions. That would certainly play to the strengths of most environmental thinkers and writers, who tend to be white, affluent, highly educated, wonky nerds. (Please understand, this is no knock on Jon — I’m a proud member of that very demographic.) It’s certainly something they/we tend to take for granted.
But what evidence is there that balanced and rational approaches are the most effective at creating social change? It’s perfectly fine with me if people want to claim that staying within the careful bounds of scientific consensus, eschewing exaggeration or charged rhetoric, and using fact-based, reasoned debate are virtuous in and of themselves. Lots of people, myself included, think so. It’s fine with me if people have an aesthetic preference for that kind of writing. It’s fine with me if people want to say that balance and reason are primary virtues — that the ends (creating social change) do not justify the means (non-balanced, unreasonable rhetoric).
But making the claim that balance and reason are the most effective psychological and social frameworks through which to create change is something else entirely. I just don’t see much evidence for that. Most social change seems to me to proceed via the limbic system, not the frontal cortex. It happens via values and narrative, identity and status, not platonic devotion to empirical truth. It happens backwards and sideways and irrationally, not rationally, step by step.
This is not an insignificant point. I happen to enjoy the engineer-centric tone of most green writing. But let’s not fool ourselves.