Can a movement with the truth on its side abandon dry numbers for truthiness?
by guest blogger Molly Davis
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Today’s ASPO-USA conference in Washington, DC, is by far populated with people who support the idea that oil and gas supplies (or at least our ability to access them without serious environmental impacts) are peaking and that the results will prove both economically and socially disruptive.
But among this group, almost all of the messaging experts say the movement’s narrative has failed to influence policymakers — or even the major environmental groups. One panel focused specifically on finding an alternative way to get the word out.
David Room, a co-founder of the California-based environmental group Bay Localize and a board member of ASPO-USA, said at the panel on messaging that the Peak Oil narrative is just one of many that he sees breaking down, at least on a personal leve, in the face of today’s harsh and complicated realities.
“I see there being a problem in terms of the narrative space,” Room said. “And I actually think of it as a narrative dissonance, as there’s multiple stories in our head that we’ve been sold.”
He cited the American Dream as an example of one narrative that has failed the public. He blamed that failure for the rise of strong bipartisan anger in national politics, for example among the Tea Party.
“Is it possible to have a viable, inspiring [Peak Oil] narrative that people can see themselves in and can see their role, and therefore kind of step into the kind of preparations and mitigations that we need to be moving into?” Room asked. “I don’t know, but we haven’t tried.”
He said that such a transformative narrative must include a realistic appraisal of current conditions, an understanding of collective values, and an evaluation of the choices — followed by a decision.
“We need to be exploring what the possibilities are and finally saying ‘yes’ to some things,” Room said, adding that the narrative must be more inclusive than the mainstream environmental movement. In particular, he said the Peak Oil movement must reach out to those groups — such as low-income communities and communities of color — who are likely to feel the most immediate impacts of a Peak Oil crisis.
Tyson Slocum, the director of advocacy group Public Citizen’s energy program, said that his group has zeroed into the most successful narrative arc: The fossil fuel industry is the enemy.
“You have to create an enemy,” Slocum said. “And I know this might be controversial. There might be people who work for the oil and gas industry in this room, but there’s no other way.”
Slocum reached this conclusion because, as he puts it, relying on facts alone is failing.
“To me, when the issue of peak oil comes up, the facts are indisputable,” Slocum said. “We know that the easy way to get at oil is disappearing and that we’re in a new age of extraordinarily expensive unconventional oil and gas, that global consumption led by emerging countries like China and India are driving global competition and costs up.” He said the cost of oil and gas is slowing the economic recovery and exaggerating the trade deficit.
“These are all facts that are well known, but yet what was one of the dominant energy narratives of the 2008 presidential campaign? Drill, baby, drill,” he said, pointing out that this successful narrative forced then-candidate Barack Obama to support expansion of offshore drilling, and subsequently President Obama to announce in March 2010 — roughly two weeks before the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig sank — to announce his policy carrying out this expansion.
Slocum acknowledged that his own group has succeeded with the “demonizing” strategy when the facts themselves weren’t enough of a game changer. He pointed to financial services reform as an example, where Public Citizen carried out a campaign that demonized key Wall Street entities and made the case for more stringent regulation.
“It is a tactic that we have used with enormous success time and time again,” Slocum said.
Sharon Astyk, an author and ASPO-USA board member, said that fear can be a valuable tool to reach people with the Peak Oil message, but warns messagers to avoid using dystopian fantasies.
“Fear is an integral part of the story,” she said, pointing out that much of the work to lower the cigarette-smoking rate was accomplished with “lots of pictures of diseased lungs, lots of pictures of dying people.”
She said that writers, such as herself, are important to the movement because they can help to craft a narrative that emphasizes meaning rather than data.
“We don’t have to be truthy,” she said, referencing comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe speaking with a conviction that, in the mind of the listener, is often tantamount to truth regardless of what is being said. “But we do have to recognize that as a society we’re accustomed to equating truthiness with truth.”
She said that creating a narrative middle ground between utopia and dystopia is “going to be one of our central projects” as members of the Peak Oil movement. She adds that although creating an “agitprop” campaign to spread the movement’s message will often require oversimplifying it, there are more narratives at hand than just the simple “Oil and gas are the enemy” story.
But Richard Abraham, author of the book The Dirty Truth, warned against adopting too shallow of a message. Abraham, who is originally from Mississippi, compares the Peak Oil movement in this sense to the Civil Rights movement.
“Those battles weren’t won by oversimplifying issues,” he said. “We educated people. We didn’t just play to people’s fears. And I think we want to be careful about oversimplifying issues because one of the problems right now is we have an electorate that is not well informed.”
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