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Limits of Persuasion

Limits of Persuasion

Talking one-on-one and and addressing a zillion groups during my 16-month campaign for U. S. Congress produced several lessons. One is that the “common good” is a very weak reed on which to build support for political solutions. People I interacted with focused on individual short-term interests and on supporting whatever groups – ethnic, geographic, social or whatever – he or she most identified with. My commitment was to push for solutions which in my judgment offered the greatest good for the greatest number, changes which promised maximum overall net benefits. The shipwreck Congress we’ve seen since the 2010 election teaches us, if we didn’t already know, that the political forces which really matter are individuals and groups pushing narrow special interests, advocating loudly and with money, for themselves or for their team. The common good is buried as a quaint, unrealistic notion of idealists.

The insights of the world’s foremost evolutionary biologist, Edward O. Wilson, helped put my campaign in perspective. Wilson’s science gives a genetic explanation for our split human natures, of our being both selfish and altruistic, both self-centered and willing to sacrifice ourselves for others. Human beings became earth’s dominant species because we did so well both in social cooperation, which produced agriculture, cities and so forth, and in competition between individuals and between groups, which produced excellence. The most fit individuals, and the most fit social groups or tribes, survived in competitive natural and social worlds. We descendants of those survivors are both fierce advancers of our personal interests and strong, instinctual supporters of groups we identify with, even when protecting our group may sacrifice us, as in war. Biologist Wilson puts it this way:

The expected consequences of this evolutionary process in humans are the following: … An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.

I plead guilty to unreasonable expectations in my environmental advocacy. Along with many other environmentalists, I have hoped that spreading awareness of scientific facts will produce change. We have strong evidence that humankind is consuming more resources and causing more pollution than the planet can handle, if climates are to remain within human comfort zones. The science virtually shouts that persistent excess consumption will lead to severe deterioration of natural systems in the near future. But taking effective actions against climate change must often conflict with our basic natures. We are wired to be selfish, to resist making changes that will lessen our own present comforts in exchange for lowering the odds of bad events happening to everyone in the future. Second, we are wired to be loyal to groups we identify with and to defend those groups. There are large climate-change-denier groups of Americans, and members naturally defend and protect group beliefs against assault by inconvenient facts, often with strong emotions.

You gotta love people. We’re complex, conflicted, creative, we’re conquerors. And we’re the best game in town.


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