Stephen Bosch

Stephen Bosch

Debates worth having, people worth debating

16 Jul 2021- Stephen Bosch
9 min read

There are two kinds of debate. There’s debate that leaves all its participants better informed, rich with new insight and new questions. Then there’s “debate” that is in reality an exchange of provocations that leaves everybody angry and frustrated.

The second type of debate can be found in an abundance that correlates inversely with the ease and speed with which it is produced. You’ll find it in the comments under news articles, on Facebook and Twitter, in various internet fora and on partisan news channels.

The more someone is actually contributing to society, the less time they typically have for debates of type 2 because their work consumes the bulk of their mental effort.

But it might also be because they recognize that debate is not an intrinsic virtue: Pointless arguing is often sold as debate and can become a dangerous waste of time in an emergency.

The trouble with this, dear reader, is that strongly formulated opinions can push your primal buttons. They can suck you into unconstructive online exchanges that waste your time and drain you emotionally. Worse, this can happen without you even noticing it until hours or even days have passed.

So it was with me this week when I opened a newsletter I’m subscribed to and read this:

Steven Pinker has a great longer piece on it, and if you want a laugh, check out the deaths per terawatt hour from all energy sources. Solar kills more people than nuclear...

Nuclear is incredible, it's such a slam dunk solution. Politicians saying we need to do something about global warming who aren't also pushing for more nuclear energy care more about their votes than actually saving the world.

I’ll spare you the narrative of how the next 24 hours went in my world.

I first learned of the climate problem in 1985, when I was 11 (back then, it was called the “greenhouse effect”). By the mid-nineties, while still planning a career in architecture, I had taken an active interest in energy-efficient construction.

I lived in a region whose primary industry is fossil fuels (perhaps I should say was; that industry is now at the beginning of its terminal decline and the people there are bickering over whose fault that is) and participated in more debates over sustainability and climate change than I can count. It was tough going in those days. I was surrounded by people whose livelihood depended on this industry that I could see would have to disappear if we were going to survive.

I’ve spent the last decade learning about and working on practical problems and challenges in the renewable energy sector. There were many questions I used to have, like “Can these energy sources really meet all our energy needs?” or “Will we be able to afford it?” that seem downright quaint to me today. Past claims about unachievable renewable targets in Germany’s electricity sector are one striking example. Those claims now lie somewhere forgotten. Germany’s most recent target was 35% renewables in the electricity sector by 2020. The target that replaced it was 45% by 2025. In 2020, over 50% of the electricity produced in Germany came from renewable sources, and this is even though governments openly hostile to renewables have been riding the brakes on more renewable energy development for the last ten years.

No serious actor is debating whether a transition to an all-renewable electricity system is feasible anymore. The quibbles are about exactly how, when, and who should pay for it. The old negative narratives exist primarily to protect entrenched interests. I have every reason to believe that there are similar false beliefs waiting to be exposed in other industries and sectors.

I used to think that if you presented people with the science, with the facts, you could persuade them. I mean, once the facts are on the table, it’s obvious what we need to do here, right? That turned out to be completely wrong. I’m embarrassed that it took me years to realize how much valuable energy I was wasting.

For me, one positive thing about getting older is that, as my time left dwindles and its marginal value increases, my nose for time-wasting activity has become more acute.

I have neither the patience nor the emotional reserve for endless discussions about matters that are settled anymore. I - we - simply do not have the time.

People worth debating

Repeated reintroductions to debates I thought were settled made me realize something: climate change awareness spreads like any other new idea. You can also allocate people to Everett Rogers’ ideal types according to their resistance to the idea of anthropogenic climate change:

Probability density function of the ideal adopter types (Rogers 2003)

  • Innovators have resources, an appetite for risk, tolerance for uncertainty and the ability to stomach failure (ability to accept being wrong).
  • Early adopters are opinion leaders in their community. They are more cautious but confident and well-informed. They give the new idea the proverbial “stamp of approval.”
  • The early majority adopt the new idea willingly but are not opinion leaders; they take their time to be more deliberate in their evaluation of the idea.
  • The late majority are skeptical and resistant. The resources of the late majority are scarce, so their tolerance for uncertainty is low. Adoption may become imperative for economic (“nobody will do business with me anymore if I don’t take this seriously”) or social reasons (“nobody will talk to me at the bar/restaurant/park/country club anymore”).
  • The laggards are the traditionalists. Their resources are even more limited than those of the late majority, so they cannot afford any failures. They orient themselves to what worked in the past, and are the very last to adopt anything new.

Framing it in terms of Rogers’ model of diffusion led me to another insight, which is that your control over the diffusion of this idea is more limited than you think. This is a complex, multifactorial process. People in the right places, such as politicians and businesspeople – Rogers would call them ‘thought leaders’ – can influence it, but if the system has a strong attractor to the status quo in it or vital motivating factors are absent, people won’t adopt it.

It’s assumed that adopters of an innovation are normally distributed. Rogers doesn’t pretend that this is anything other than an idealized model of how this process unfolds; it’s why he calls his types ‘ideal’. But any given person you speak with will belong to something resembling one of these five groups with a certain unknown probability. They might be an innovator or a laggard. Which one they are will influence how they respond to what you have to say, and you have no control over this. This is a good thing to keep in mind, especially in those discouraging moments when you feel like you are shouting into a hole in the ground. Importantly, know that you can encounter laggards long after the matter has, for all practical purposes, been decided. The trick is to recognize them immediately when you do.

Within a given type, there’s also an adoption process. Particularly for those we might place in the late adopter or laggard category, I’ve found that their arrival in climate awareness roughly follows the Kübler-Ross model of grief:

  • Denial: “This is a hoax! This is a lie! This isn’t happening! This won’t affect me.”
  • Anger: “Whose fault is this? You’re taking away my freedom!”
  • Bargaining: “If I buy some offsets and an electric car, I can keep living the way I’ve been living and everything will be okay, right?”
  • Depression: “All is lost! It’s too late! What is the point in even trying?”
  • Acceptance: “Okay. I understand. This really is happening. What do I do now?”

Whichever one of Rogers’ ideal types the newsletter author I referenced above might belong to, I’ll wager that they are somewhere in the overlap between the Anger and the Bargaining stages. (This person is about to become a first time parent. Coincidence?)

It is impossible to usefully absorb all sides of what remains of the debate, such as it is. You are not missing out on anything by selectively muting those participants in the public discussion who are too far behind you to understand any arguments you might make or who are unreceptive. Trying to convince these people of the error of their ways is not unlike trying to convince an Old Order Amish to get cable TV.

It is much more efficient to let reality do the talking and get on with the really important work. Yes, you need to be selling, as we all must (everything is sales). But you need to sell to qualified leads, to borrow a term from sales and marketing. Trying to convince somebody who neither needs nor wants what you are offering is wasting both your time and theirs. There must be some prospect that your lead can be converted to an ally in the endeavour quickly.

Brandolini’s Law says that the time and effort required to debunk bullshit is always many times more that needed to produce it. It is a real thing. Learn it and learn to recognize when you are engaged in an argument over bullshit, then pull the plug.

You do not need to persuade all of the people. You need only persuade enough of the right people. The people on the left side of Rogers’ type distribution, the ones who can help you now, are the ones you should be having debates with.

The revolution is already happening

Do you feel like things are dire, and yet nobody who matters is really listening? Maybe the change you want to see is already underway.

The essayist Tanner Greer writes:

[...]Generational churn helps account for the “gradually, then suddenly” tempo of social revolution. Cultural insurgents win few converts in their own cohort. They can, however, build up a system of ideas and institutions which will preserve and refine the ideals they hope their community will adopt in the future. The real target of these ideas are not their contemporaries, but their contemporaries’ children and grandchildren. Culture wars are fought for the hearts of the unborn. Future generations will be open to values the current generation rejects outright.

This will not be apparent at first. Beneath the official comings and goings of the cohorts above, a new consensus forms in in the cohorts below. Ideas will fester among the young, but their impact will be hidden by the inability and inexperience of youth. But the youth do not stay young. Eventually a transition point arrives. Sometimes, this transition will be marked by a great event the old orthodoxy cannot explain. At other times it is simply a matter of numbers. In either case, the end falls swift: the older cohorts suddenly find themselves outnumbered and outgunned, swept up in a flood they had assumed was a mere trickle.

For them it was a trickle. They spent their time with members of their own cohort. The revolution occurring below did not echo in their souls. It won no converts among their friends, nor even among their rivals. The new values remained the preserve of weirdos and extremists. Not so for the rising generation!

The rising cohort has many reasons to thirst for new ideas. Old orthodoxies, designed to solve the problems of a past age, will have difficulty explaining crises in the new one. These events will be formative for the new generation; a group of insurgents who can explain these formative events in terms of their own program will win converts to the cause.[...][my emphasis]

Be deliberate

What I’m saying is that you should choose your debating partners consciously. When you do this, you are also making choices about what you fill your mind with and how to spend your time, and those choices have real consequences.

Think long-term. You are imagining a new world. That is neither easily nor quickly done. Work on building the tools, trade skills, prototypes and scientific insight that will be needed to solve this greatest of all problems. Work on building the institutions that will house and share them with those seeking guidance when you are not there to help.

Speak to the young with enthusiasm. They are unburdened by orthodox thinking. They are waiting to surprise you.

In the end, other people are most likely to be persuaded by the quiet example you set. Keep telling your story to those who are ready to hear it. Don’t worry about the others.

And when you feel hopeless, take heart. There is enough meaningful work to do in this crisis to keep you constructively and even happily busy for many lifetimes without you ever needing to be saddened or discouraged by endless, pointless debates devoid of insight. Find your people. They are all around you.

The question you should ask and answer is, “what is my role in this emergency?” Do you want to be the proverbial (or literal!) firefighter dealing with the crisis as it unfolds? The designer trying to build systems so that it doesn’t worsen? The scientist working on lasting solutions? Or do you want to be the grief counselor who provides a punching bag to the distraught who are only now realizing what they’ve lost? All of these are important roles.

Pick yours, and get to work.