Breaking Out Of the Echo Chamber

Does ignorance to climate change make your blood boil? Do you feel discouraged from talking to your family about making changes? Can we afford to be thinking and feeling this way?  Let’s discuss effective communication on environmental issues.  

The temptation of surrounding ourselves with people who share the same opinions, passions and lifestyles as our own, is a dangerous trap. I often wonder, whilst reading these very UnEarth articles, how many of our readers are persuaded of anything new? Are we simply preaching to the choir and falling into the trap of the echo chamber? Are we protecting our identities, craving and engaging in social situations that seek only to validate who we think we are? I have written this before, but I am inspired to write it again, if we are going to save the planet, we need to work on effective communication with those who are not yet onboard. But how exactly do we do this?  

…if we are going to save the planet, we need to work on effective communication with those who are not yet onboard. But how exactly do we do this?  

Discussions on environmental issues are undeniably important in eliciting social change. They can induce growth at the community-level and eventually become political. However, the effectiveness of every discussion is definitely not equal. A recent study, in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, proclaimed that there are two key ingredients that encourage people to engage in discussing a topic, referred to as “response efficacy” and “self-efficacy”. Response efficacy is the perception that “positive, desired outcomes” will occur in the event of discussion, whilst self-efficacy is feeling certified to discuss the topic in the first the place. Many who consider themselves to be environmental activists will probably feel a sense of “self-efficacy”, but a conversation is a two-way street. Have you stopped to consider whether the person you are conversing with feels this way? As for response efficacy, I am certainly guilty of withdrawing from family discussions or refraining from expressing my opinions, with an expectation that I will gain nothing more than a heightened sense of environmental hopelessness, and a greater feeling of being misunderstood.  

So how do we remedy this? Well, the aforementioned paper tested how “knowledge-based intervention” affects these types of efficacy. By this, they mean educational experiences that are “simple, accurate” and “relatively uncontroversial”. Exposure to a range of educational experiences were found to improve both types of efficacy. However, the results recorded were not based on actual discussions, but on self-reported responses in a survey. As a result, we cannot draw any simple conclusions from this study. The concept of using “knowledge-based intervention” begs more questions than it answers. What type of educational delivery is most effective? Will people even come across opportunities to be educated about environmental issues, if they are not already looking for them? Let’s take a look at an example. Blue Planet II had many of us on the edge of our seats. Fascinated by the ocean’s mystery, we stay tuned whilst the creators carefully presented the links between human activity and the consequences of plastic pollution. In spite of this, a 2020 study declared this documentary was not enough to inspire social change.  

Whilst racking my brain, I recalled listening to a fantastic interview with Cassie Flynn, a strategic adviser on climate change for the UNDP, on the Friends of the Earth podcast “How to save the planet”. Flynn recalled a presentation she gave on climate change where she had a spontaneous spark of genius. She asked the audience if they enjoyed wine, and as expected, many of them did. She went on to tell them how climate change would affect their ability to continue enjoying that beloved glass of wine. Cassie identified the power of connection. Everything is connected and the climate crisis shows us this. When our conversations don’t feel connected, they create discord. This discomfort is harmful and goes against our natural instinct to feel connected.  Be relatable, what does this person care about? How does climate change affect them? If your capacity to discuss climate issues is centred around your own connections and fears, don’t expect people to bridge the gap for you.  

If your capacity to discuss climate issues is centred around your own connections and fears, don’t expect people to bridge the gap for you. 

Many of us will identify with different environmental causes more strongly. For me, it is a love for living organisms and a burning desire to conserve them. I love plants and animals and consider this love and fascination a huge part of my believed identity. When I perceive people to negate the importance of conservation, my identity feels attacked. It took me a long time to realise that many an argument I believed to be about saving the planet, was an attempt to defend my sense of being. But what about the other person’s sense of being? Perhaps the very changes you are suggesting, challenge and breakdown their identity. If this is true, can you really blame their reluctance? Stephen Covey’s popular book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, rightly names habit number 5 as “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Not only do we have to identify what issues will resonate with them, we also must be sensitive to the parts of their identity that are threatened. If we don’t step up and embody these principles, we will continue to have arguments, labelling others as ignorant, helping no one.  

We know that we have no time to lose. If we are going to orchestrate the great systemic shifts that will enable us to reduce catastrophic consequences, we cannot afford to reap anymore division. We need to help people make their connection. 

Art by Darcey Joyce 

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