Biofuels and the Science of Seduction

We were talking to a smart woman about Oliver a few weeks ago, seeking her counsel about meltdowns and freak-outs and other pesky symptoms of childhood. My default response to aberrant behaviour is to reason: I work under the assumption that a calm and rational explanation of the aberrance will convince Oliver of the error of his ways, and help him return to the true path.

I take this approach not because there’s any evidence that it actually works, but rather from a firmly-held belief in the evils of Skinnerian behaviorism.

In other words, although I know in my heart that “Oliver, calm yourself down or you’ll have to do without your Nintendo for the next week” is an approach that will actually get results, I’ll ignore that, and opt instead for something like “Oliver, your reaction to the fact that you have to turn off the TV and go to school is unreasonable; education is an important aspect of a well-rounded life, and it’s important that you realize that.” And so on.

This approach achieves shockingly poor results. But then I probably don’t have to tell you that.

I thought about this last night as I sat in the middle of audience at a Public Forum on Biofuels.

While nominally a forum on making fuel out of stuff you can grow, it was really more a forum on the evils of transnational capitalism.

While the stuff of the debate may have been corn, palm oil, sugar cane and cellulosic ethanol, and the actors companies like ADM, Cargill and Goldman Sachs, you could have easily modified the sentences to change the subject to nuclear arms, or high-cost prescription drugs or climate change, and and the object to Halliburton, Pfizer or Royal Dutch Shell, and the rhetoric would have gone pretty well the same way.

This is not to suggest that the speakers weren’t engaging, or that I doubt the truth of what they had to say about the horrors of the biofuel industry and the havoc it can wreak on the environment, the economy, and the population. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see clearly that the corporate agenda is to cast the biofuel industry in the image of the fossil fuel industry (and the arms industry, and the pharma industry, and…) that came before it.

Veracity is not a problem the anti-biofuel slash anti-capitalist camp faces: they’ve got veracity coming out their ears.

Where they fall down almost completely, however, is in the assumption that’s enough.

Like me with Oliver, the assumption appears to be that if you calmly and rationally outline the truth of a situation, self-directed behaviour modification will follow.

But it almost never does.

And yet, like me and my aversion to Skinner, there also appears to be a strong distaste for adopting any of the methods of allurement that the capitalists use to sell what they sell.

All the sincere public forums in the world will never match and well-produced propaganda videos and pictures of happy palm oil workers. To say nothing of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, CSI: Miami and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

What seems to be left out of the equation is that convincing is an art. Trying to change people’s minds about something, especially when “something” is the free and easy life of cheap sneakers, discount air travel, and oranges in January, requires magic.

And there was no magic in the air last night.

There were plenty tragic tales. And statistics. And pictures of devastated environments. Lots of education. Even a couple of good lines. But no magic, no seduction, and more well-intentioned rambling than effective rhetoric.

And so while we may have all left the forum better-informed, we didn’t leave any better-equipped to topple capitalism than we entered.

Since our talk about Oliver, I’ve been making selective moves out of my anti-Skinnerian comfort zone. I haven’t locked him in a box, but I’ve been experimenting with the science of obvious consequences, being more selective about what’s an issue and what isn’t, and trying out different approaches to freak-outs. I feel queasy when I do it — “he should just understand that what he’s doing is wrong!” — but I grit my teeth and forge on through.

And, somewhat to my surprise, it works.

Not all the time. But more often than not.

If we’re going to prevent ourselves from destroying the planet, or at least making it even more of a living hell for even more of the planet’s population, I think a similar change in mindset might be needed.


Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on April 29, 2008 - 15:16 Permalink

So true Peter — as one who so guilty of thinking that argument would win.

Learning the hard way that context is a good place to start — not with Oliver — how can we talk in any way about biofuels when most of us are blind to the immediacy of what is before us?

On PEI 66% of Island families earn less than $35k a year. With rising oil costs food, a car, home heat are going to be beyond what they can manage — I think that this is our immediate context — most Islanders are going over the cliff in the next year. What will be the political response?

It’s larger. Imagine you are Sandy MacDonald with all the buses to run and schools to heat? What is his plan? At Dalhousie this winter their heating bill is $600,000 over budget. Is Sandy’s plan simply to ask for more money? What about next year?

I say this not to attack Sandy but to point out that I don’t think we are worrying about the right things right now.

All our lives are lived on a key assumption — that oil is cheap and available. I don’t think we can count on that any more. Nor can we hope that government can make this go away.

I think that it will only be when we all see the shit, that we might have a chance to come together and ask our selves — what can we do together to keep life going here.

Dominique's picture
Dominique on April 29, 2008 - 18:29 Permalink

Sincerity in a public forum will only get you so far. Convincing, in the hopes of creating engagement, is indeed an art. It requires equal parts information, appropriate use of language, storytelling that hits home and oratorical skills — when an oral presentation is the vehicle. Public forums or public information sessions are not, at their very core, designed to create engagement. Their first and foremost raison d’

Hans's picture
Hans on April 29, 2008 - 18:45 Permalink

Good point.

Billy's picture
Billy on April 29, 2008 - 19:31 Permalink

Very good post Peter.

I run biodiesel in my car here in Seattle. It’s extremely eco-friendly, however, as it’s grown right outside the city, manufactured in a plant in the city, and supports local farmers. Biodiesel from soy results in a 78 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.

I totally agree with you on your points. I look forward to meeting you and talking in person.

PFA's picture
PFA on April 29, 2008 - 20:20 Permalink

I, too, sat through the nearly 2.5 hours of presentation last night. I’ll tell you, I wasn’t all that impressed either. There was no real discussion on the issues affecting PEI, nor any real solutions to the problem. It was quite a shame too, considering that nearly 100 (maybe more) people had come out to hear about the agrofuels debate and, instead, got a smattering of statistical information, a heavy dose of partisan politics and a heaping dose of guilt on our affluent lifestyles. (My favourite was the fellow at the end who accused us of being complicit with colonialism by consuming fossil fuels. I wonder how he got from the Nigerian Delta without using fossil fuels — or maybe he was entitled to those fuels)

I wonder if anyone, anywhere, in PEI is going to be looking at real solutions and real opportunities for change on the Island. As Helena said, the Island has the ability to completely transform itself and become an example for the world around us.

After last night I felt as though I should have brought my tinfoil hat along. Nobody is going to believe us if last night is a representation of the sales force we have selling our sustainable future.

oliver's picture
oliver on April 29, 2008 - 21:48 Permalink

Everybody ought to watch The Persuaders. A little lizard-brain logic is liable to be prudent, but if you don’t believe there’s wisdom in crowds of lizards, you can’t forge reasonable agreement without appeal to reason. Even if we like being lizards and need consequences like taxes and penalties to keep us in line day-to-day, we need to be more cerebral when we make policy. Then I suppose we need to be both when we design the consequences, enforcement and rules of appeal, or else the administration of our reasonable policy will be inhumane. We call it “unreasonable” to expect a child to behave according to reason in every situation we expect adults to do so, and to penalize them the same. Maybe we should call it being “inhumane” though. We’re expecting reason, but lacking the humanity to appreciate how hard it is sometimes for others to behave reasonably. (Funny: the “Are you human?” codeword I’m being asked to type is “Hague,” where “crimes against humanity” are judged. A coincidence Peter? Or is your Web site analyzing what we comment?)

oliver's picture
oliver on April 29, 2008 - 21:58 Permalink

There’s activism and “leadership,” and then there’s policy making. The former has to be more lizardian and “veracity-neutral” (“Yes we can!” need not prove true or even appear probable to the best scientific minds in order to be a good thing to lead a chant in)

oliver's picture
oliver on April 29, 2008 - 22:04 Permalink

Veracity neutral” speech is like the concept of “lies we tell to children,” like leadership overlaps with parenting.

Leo's picture
Leo on April 30, 2008 - 12:35 Permalink

Why shoot the messenger? I think that what happened Monday night were badly needed facts about this issue and its impact on people around the world and the fact that it is portrayed as a solution to the looming climate crisis which is now unfolding. It is true capitalism and its messengers are dominating (what else) the corporate controlled media. I cannot be struck by watching what happened during the OPEC oil crisis and teh reaction that happened with governments and citizens acting together with some real solutions (PEI’s Institute of Man and Resources, solar energy, alternative fuel research) and the positive energy at that time compared to the climate change issue which is more real and more critical while governments busily move deck chairs on the Titanic and while cynical players like Bush and Exxon Mobil stand in the way of any real change and subvert what is needed while promoting self interested schemes like biofuels — I think the solution is if you want to criticize the message then what are you going to do about it and how can you play a role in changing the dialogue to reach a wider audience -even at 100 people which is a great turnout on PEI -it is easily outstripped by the number of people out to play Bingo at the Murphy Center -help be part of the solution as well as assisting others who are doing their past to get the message out. I hope that we can come out of these events with an action plan to do something more than being depressed about the state of teh world so maybe such events should be sesigned differently as I think like Margaret Meade that a small number of dedicated people can help change things.

Marian's picture
Marian on April 30, 2008 - 13:45 Permalink

I think we should be wary of arguments that start by comparing grown ups to children. A lot of harm can be done by treating adults as though they weren’t adults. On the other hand, a lot of political discussions have become preachy, which is different than being rational or informational. Preachiness is a problem (i.e., telling people repeatedly that doing x is stupid STUPID, STUPID!!!). Humour and charm are the antidotes.

Marian's picture
Marian on April 30, 2008 - 13:55 Permalink

Incidentally, I do the same thing with my son: outline all his options explain why this or that thing is probably the best choice given the circumstance blah blah blah. It doesn’t work for me either. My son counters by calling grown ups Blah Blah Monsters.

Alan's picture
Alan on April 30, 2008 - 14:32 Permalink

…It’s extremely eco-friendly, however, as it’s grown right outside the city, manufactured in a plant in the city, and supports local farmers. Biodiesel from soy results in a 78 percent reduction in CO2 emissions…

That also means it is using land not being used for food. For some “eco-friendly” now means hunger. We have to be sane about things that appear to be such easy answers. I have the same issues with rearing and, I hope, perhaps a more severe case than you having had to deal with me getting thumped around the head by a grade one kid for a while on a very regular basis. In the end, team sports were banned for over a year. It was an atomic response but I think that the first lesson in consequence (FLC) to very bad behavior (VBB) needs to be severe in that a specific but most favorite thing has to be part of the equation. As a reult, we made great progress without making the kid’s whole life a lesson on manners and I do not get thumped in the face anymore.

Kids have to be given the right to learn who they are and learn that they can make mistakes but there has to be a limit. Same with biofuels. My limit is third world hunger as the price of a yupppie eco-dream and the gaping maw of industrial agriculture.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on April 30, 2008 - 22:31 Permalink

We’ve discovered over time that ‘freak-outs’ must have firm consequences that are explained, calmly and rationally, when a freak-out isn’t happening (then sticking to the enforcement of whatever consequence with the same calm rationality). And, yes, this really works. For the life of me I can’t imagine how it could be made to work at a public meeting unless I ruled with my queen as absolute despots (benevloent, of course).

oliver's picture
oliver on April 30, 2008 - 22:55 Permalink

A lot of harm can be done by treating adults as though they weren’t adults.”

What’s an adult though? As Whitman said, we contain multitudes. At the very least, it’s commonly recognized that we each have our “emotional self” as well as our “more rational or more reflective self.” Different adults on different issues also will be differently vested and differently capable of deliberating dispassionately. Or even given adults of like mind, if the like mind is that they’re carrying weapons and calling for blood, they’re liable to need more than reason spoken to them, if you want to persuade them against murder.

Alan's picture
Alan on May 1, 2008 - 01:19 Permalink

Hence the oft heard comment “Whitman-schmitman“…

Marian's picture
Marian on May 1, 2008 - 14:08 Permalink

Different adults on different issues also will be differently vested and differently capable of deliberating dispassionately.”

This sort of comment used to mean that everyone was capable in their own way, but
lately it has come to mean instead that everyone is disabled in his or her own way. Why is that? It seems like a move in the wrong direction. There are worrying implications as well: such as, who will rule over
these not-quite-fully adult persons. There will no doubt be an elite group of people who are capable of deciding who is and who isn’t able. The rest can be excluded as not fully adult?

Or even given adults of like mind, if the like mind is that they’re carrying weapons and calling for blood, they’re liable to need more than reason spoken to them, if you want to persuade them against

I think we can assume exceptions here for the criminally insane or just the criminal. That does not mean that ordinary citizens need to be treated as though they were children.

oliver's picture
oliver on May 2, 2008 - 23:46 Permalink

That does not mean that ordinary citizens need to be treated as though they were children.”

I imagine we want the same thing, but just see worrying implications in the language with which each other advocates it. It sounds like the “Moral Majority” to me to talk simply of adults and children.