By Fabian Bargout
2016 was the year of make believe. The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is “post-truth”, an Orwellian neologism that one would expect to find in one of Frank Underwood’s monologues, rather than on the Economist’s leading cover. But considering the unforeseen outcome of the US election and the chaos of the Brexit circus show, reality has actually surpassed the grandiose fiction of TV. For sustainability proponents, there is actual cause for concern, as uncertainty clouds hopes for change.
The advent of the post-truth era has hindered long overdue multilateral efforts to address environmental and economic imperatives. On the environmental side, simply by announcing executive appointments, President-elect Trump may well have effectively killed the Paris Agreement – something he already said he wants to quit. While China has reaffirmed its commitment to Paris (which, like the US, it ratified, too), it is uncertain whether it would really implement Paris if its main competitor opts out. (For more discussion of the future of Paris, see my colleague Laurent’s recent post.) In the worst case scenario, a domino effect would ensue, whereby industry-heavy, illiberal countries would refrain from ratifying Paris. And if they choose to ratify it, they might do so only for PR and diplomatic reasons, with no intention of enforcing it. My colleague Tiran’s forthcoming post nuances my apprehensions from a microeconomic perspective, but the shadow of America’s Denier-in-Chief is destined to loom over any hope of sunny ways.
Just a few months ago, the Paris Agreement seemed poised to succeed where Kyoto never did. However, by electing Trump, Americans may have decided otherwise. We must win them back.
Facts: Irrelevant & Unimaginative
The big lesson of 2016 is that the masses do not seem to care anymore if a narrative, yet alone a simple statement, is true or not. In Gorgias, Plato illustrated the public’s vulnerability to rhetoric by contrasting the performances of a physician and a Sophist posing as one. The assembly, Plato’s Gorgias argued, would believe the Sophist and banish the doctor, despite the physician’s factual pretension. In the post-truth era, the assembly would simply not care whether the Sophist’s speech has any semblance of rationality, as long as they “feel” his assurances should be true. Michael Gove, former Justice Secretary and prominent Brexiteer, rightly said that “people… have had enough of experts”.
In 2016 experts failed the rhetoric test. In both Britain and America, Remainers and Democrats made experts catwalk all over the media to preach their sides’ virtues. Their opponents, by contrast, drew a narrative that appealed to instincts instead of reason. Not only did they tap into people’s emotions, they also performed their narrative, thereby further convincing people of their message’s authenticity. They did not pretend to be experts, and they did not try to address experts’ criticism. They knew veracity has become irrelevant in the public sphere, and that the public debate has become a show to play.
Acknowledging experts’ failures, Stephen Hawking warned them to steer clear of their ivory towers in order to regain the masses’ trust. But humility is not enough. Activists and policymakers should learn that projects, however sound they are, would crumble if they lack tangible popular support. Sound, but controversial policy is unachievable without a concerted, sensational narrative that captures both hearts and brains across the ideological spectrum.
Rhetoric over Substance
So we should engage in the rhetorical game, too. Documentaries, open editorials and letters, and TV appearances are often dry and fact-heavy and, anyway, they are inadequate mediums to shift peoples’ opinions, as people increasingly get their news from sources within their echo chamber-like ideological bubble on social media. Indeed, in spite of the green agenda’s long and seemingly successful campaign to shift public opinion, still over half the American population deems climate change not worth a single penny.
That is why the green agenda should concentrate its efforts on finding new ways to communicate its message. As for means to reach the masses, green organisations should cozy up with Hollywood to produce green blockbuster films (such as the The Day After Tomorrow and The Road) instead of documentaries. To effect a positive impression, they should, for instance, resort to ad campaigns instead of protesting or trade well-researched articles for speech-like, sensational opinion pieces.
Compare, for instance, this article by Al Gore and this one by PM Justin Trudeau. Both articles appeared in publications destined to the “elite”. While the articles have different topics, it is interesting to note each author’s tone. Trudeau is very light on facts, and he founds his position on universal values. Al Gore, instead, builds a step-by-step rational argument. On the one hand, had Al Gore published his article in today’s cynical world, he would have been offhandedly dismissed as an intellectual talking down to commoners. On the other hand, while Trudeau is often criticised by intellectuals and experts as a lightweight, he certainly connects with the masses, and his message is generally well received.
To ensure the green agenda does move forth with sufficient popular support, we must learn from Trudeau: in the public debate we must overlook details to focus on rhetorical effect, and trade policy for story. However, subtlety is key. As 2016 has shown, even legitimate fear-mongering backfires.
“Failings of the Global North” by Guest writer Elizabeth May, MP, on our blog
“The post-truth world: Yes, I’d lie to you” by The Economist
“This year was an environmental wake-up call: U.S. green movement needs a new message” by Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash, in The Conversation
“From Deliciously Ella to Donald Trump: the evolution of ‘truth’” by Hadley Freeman, in The Guardian