Danger: Silly Season Ahead

Here’s a musical experiment for you:  play a song such as “Penny Lane” from The Beatles (or, if you prefer classic rock, “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin will do nicely) on your sound system…but with the balance set all the way to one side or the other.  There will be enough recognizable content for you to still recognize the song, but you will not be able to hear the whole song, and will miss many important elements.

This is like getting your information on topics of the day from Fox News or MSNBC:  significant portions of the story being reported upon will simply not be heard.

If you play “Penny Lane” (or “Whole Lotta Love”) through an old monophonic transistor radio, you will hear both “sides” (as it were) of the song.  But, the fidelity will be very poor, and you won’t hear the nuances and richness of the song.

This is like getting your information from the USA Today, or most local newspapers:  any deep appreciation of the underlying issues will remain out of reach, because it is inherently lacking from the reporting.

As we move into the so-called “Silly Season” of election politics, in an era of “sound-bites”, incumbents and aspirants — and perhaps more importantly, thanks to the Citizens United decision, the flotsam of PACs and SuperPACs that wallow around the political discourse — are flinging about half-truths about all sorts of important issues. 

Most of these issues — health care, fiscal policy, immigration, “values” — are ones in which I claim no sort of expertise, and accordingly I will not render any public assessments on them. 

However, a large number of polemical skirmishes on the 2012 political battlefield are shaping up to be based on energy and environmental topics.  The list is long:

Keystone XL pipeline.  High gasoline prices.  EPA regulations.  Fracking and shale.  Nuclear energy.  Energy independenceSolyndra.  Extension of the wind production tax creditSubsidies to fossil fuels.  Dumping of solar panels from China.

The airwaves are crackling with a cacophony of messages for and against these issues…and I’m hearing lots of misstatements and oversimplifications.

I’ve been ruminating on the advent of Politifact, that aims to prove or debunk political claims in as unbiased a fashion as possible, and thinking that there ought to be some similar effort focused on the issues of importance to us in the cleantech community.  Maybe someone will take this on…

…But, in the absence of such an effort, and lacking the personal will to tackle it comprehensively on a topic-by-topic basis, I will use the remainder of this post to offer general advice to thoughtful citizens wishing to weigh energy and environmental issues in something other than a knee-jerk or dogmatic fashion. 

First, I am reminded of some advice from mentors upon beginning my career in the late 1980’s, as an economic analyst of various energy and environmental policy issues on behalf of (primarily) Federal clients:  “Be an ‘equal-opportunity offender’.  If you’re pissing off people on both sides of an argument, then you’re probably close to the truth.”

In my experience in the energy sector over the intervening 25 years, this is so much more a truism than can possibly be imagined.

The implication of this insight is that any message you might hear or read from any one source — unless that source is doggedly determined to be unbiased — is likely to in fact be highly biased.

If the only source of information you use to develop a perspective on energy issues is, for example, Americans for Prosperity, you will arrive at a selective and skewed view.  As noted in this articleThe Guardian recently reported on how AFP, and other groups of its ilk, are making a deliberate effort to discredit many policies to promote renewable energy, and so are unlikely to present any evidence that paints renewable energy in any positive light. 

Then again, it should further be noted that The Guardian is pretty well-known to have an agenda it seeks to advance.  Indeed, even most highly-respected newspapers known for excellent reportage — from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times — have editorial boards that are widely-recognized to have a distinct political philosophy that they aim to espouse.  So, one must always take what information is obtained, even from the most reputable of sources, with a grain of salt. 

Alas, there is little substitute for decades of direct experience in an industry, examining issues from multiple angles, working productively (or at least trying to) with people from across the spectrum of interests.  It could be argued that this is the only professional asset and advantage I have accumulated over the years.

In addition to being slanted and aiming to press forward a position — regardless of whether the facts fully support it or not — most reportage of energy and environmental topics suffers from woeful lack of basic understanding of science and economics.  Publishers and journalists are approximately equally guilty. 

And, with its grave innumeracy — and the consequent inability to make tradeoffs — the electorate is subject to being swayed and stuck to a position only because it sounds right, best “fitting” their pre-existing and fairly unmalleable mental model, coming from a source they unblinkingly accept.

In energy and environmental issues, just about everything involves tradeoffs.  There is no perfect solution, no silver bullet.  There are benefits, but there are also costs, to all possible options.  When confronting a world of this much complexity, it may be comforting for many to resort to idealistic dogma.  However, those positions — which tend to be on the extremes — is not where reality usually lies, and it’s not where the action is.

If you were to limit my intake to one and only one general information source, I would choose (drum roll, please) The Economist.  OK, this is surely no surprise to those who have followed me for awhile.  Sure, I was trained as an economist,  but that’s not why I endorse the publication.  Simply, I find its weighing of all the diverse factors, and its understanding of the underlying facts and evidence, to be more thorough and — yes, actually — fair and balanced than other outlets.

Even so, The Economist can’t cover all energy and environmental matters.  A better approach to developing a healthy and informed perspective on these topics involves more work, accumulating from a variety of sources from across the spectrum.  It is unfortunate but seemingly the case that certain media — and especially, the blogosphere — has joined politics in becoming an adversarial contest of opposing views, where one side or the other will not let certain facts get in the way of telling the story they want told.

In the upcoming Silly Season, I urge conscientious voters to weigh all sides of energy and environmental issues, from multiple sources of information, before coming to any conclusions.  Don’t take what is said by the Democratic or Republican candidate, or their PACs, as gospel.  Don’t blithely assume that what environmental advocates or industry trade groups are reporting is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

It’s a very rough generalization — and as Alexandre Dumas once said, “All generalizations are dangerous, even this one” — but I submit that most pro-environmental positions underweigh economic considerations.  It’s simply naive to argue for tighter environmental control and then dismiss any possibility of negative economic consequences.  And, environmentalists are sometimes prone to “sky-is-falling” hyperbole, which undercuts their credibility in legitimate policy debates.

On the other hand, self-interested messages from the conventional energy sector are often disseminated through the filter of so-called “astroturf” (phony grassroots) organizations, that sound as if they’re representing the views of Bob & Betty Buckeye but instead actually are reciting the scripts of oil, gas, coal and utility companies.  The old adage from Watergate still applies:  “Follow the money.”  It’s incumbent upon the citizen to pierce the fog and see through to who is paying a lot for these media buys so you can hear their opinion.  Also:  don’t forget that the conventional energy sector has a lot more money to throw around than the other side in telling the stories they want you to hear.

And, in the end, to maintain your sanity in the face of inanity, it’s a good thing to fall back on this gem of folk wisdom.

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  1. […] other.  There will be enough recognizable content for you to still recognize the song, but […] Cleantech Blog TAGS:  Ahead, Danger, Season, Silly This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012 at […]

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