My kid’s seventh birthday and her friends came over — all lots of fun, laughs and cake. Our grown-up conversation turned to the environment and it quite quickly became clear that I was going to have a big conversation with someone who was adamant with their ‘climate change is a hoax’ opinion.
If you ever have to tackle these conversations, they can be difficult to manage. This person really wanted to have the argument too, so I was instantly on the backfoot. We started by talking about the science and, as is often the case, they were ready for this. The suredness of my understanding about the science, quickly become lost in the emotion of the argument. The science is often disputed by climate change deniers, their own sources committed to memory and true to them. So, take a pause.
In this situation I asked back very calmly, what is it about wanting to tackle climate change, and therefore improve the environment and reduce pollution, that is a problem? I asked this open question and waited for their reply. By using this technique, we both moved away from the ‘contentious’ science, and towards hearing the core problem. Importantly, this will usually lead to a place where we can begin to find shared values.
In this conversation, the climate change agenda was seen as an opportunity to take away our rights to technology, food or travel. There was a strong pushback against being taxed to pay for environmental improvements; state taxation and automony were highly important for this person. They were annoyed by climate celebrities. These underlying fears are not uncommon. Often people who disagree with the climate agenda are not given the opportunity to express them. I listened carefully and we began to find common ground.
We agreed that pollution and waste were real issues. We agreed that the bolstering of local communities and food systems would be better long term to empower people. We discussed the potential for cryptocurrencies, utilised much like the Brixton Pound, ensuring that wealth remains within and grows the communities it serves directly. We found those shared values and opened a much larger conversation, ranging from the taxation of robots to the realism of green growth in a capitalist system.
I think we both got something from the conversation. It is always good to find common ground with those who have opposing views. In fact I believe it is essential to have these conversations far more widely and freely than we already do. Difficult conversations are hard to start, but when we can have them both parties have the chance to explain their version of humanity. This is so important now. We all start off in different places, different social contexts and grow up with the prevailing views of our parents or carers centre-stage for many years. The algorithms of social media construct false walls, reflecting our own opinions back at us. In this environment, it is easy to believe everyone thinks the same way as we do, when we know that to be false in reality.
In the conversation I wasn’t trying to change their mind. Overcoming cognitive bias is a journey, one that should continue throughout your life. We are all products of the context in which we’ve been nutured. I watched a fascinating programme years ago, which explored inequality along one road in New York; one end inhabited by billionaires and the other ending in skid row. The interesting thing about the programme was how it explained that billionaires only hang around with other billionaires, they are their peers and utterly influenced by this small group, each discussing how to make their next billion. Blaming billionaires for continuing to pursue wealth whilst inequality rises globally is pointless. Their cognitive bias holds out for dreams of populating other planets, however unrealistic that might be, and cannot extend to the inequality found on their doorsteps; they just are not exposed to it. Tackling inequality needs strong policy ambitions, taxation of wealth and ensuring those without are raised up.
The difficult conversations we need to have, about the climate crisis, societal values, human rights and so much more, are desperately needed. They need to be proper conversations, not shrill responses to a few line post on social media. The collective nature of Citizens Assemblies are a great way to understand the overall feeling about a subject matter, from a cross-section that represents society. They are not without their limitations, which I link to here in order to combat my own cognitive bias.
By finding shared values we can start the redesign and transformation of our society collectively. Building an understanding and respectfully listening to different opinions is an important skill. For so many current agendas, from Black Lives Matter and modern Feminism to populist politics and culture wars, our shared values are the starting place.