Communication and Conversation

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the expert advice around communicating climate change. I’ve been even more frustrated than usual over the past six months as there has been a woefully simplistic public discourse about whether “fear or hope” are better ways of changing people, as if there is some easy dichotomy between the two (and as if our job is to manipulate others.) That’s why Peter Bowden and I used the first episode of our new Climate Workshop Podcast to muddy the waters of of this debate about how to talk about climate change. And now a recent study by UMass Amherst has also injected some complexity into this discourse with their shocking finding: Emotions aren’t simple.

But something I read from Wendell Berry today articulated why I have always been so skeptical of the field of climate change communications. Wendell writes, 

This is why I said earlier that I prefer conversation to communication. Communication, as we have learned from our experience with the media, goes one way, from the center outward to the periphery. But a conversation goes two ways; in a conversation the communication goes back and forth. A conversation, unlike a “communication,” cannot be prepared ahead of time, and it is changed as it goes along by what is said. Nobody beginning a conversation can know how it will end. And there is always the possibility that a conversation, by bringing its participants under one another’s influence, will change them, possibly for the better.”*

I think this distinction between communication and conversation is especially relevant in regards to climate change. The critical difference between the two is humility and a receptivity to learning. Climate change, as an infinitely complex and somewhat unthinkable problem, demands such humility and openness to continued learning as a requirement of credibility. 

But as Wendell alludes here, conversations cannot be commodified and standardized into a predictable package. That means a strategy built around conversations does not fit well into a funding model that demands measurable and deliverables. 

Conversations can’t happen with an expectation of certain results, either that we will change someone else or that we won’t be changed ourselves. They can only be done with a certain trust in ourselves, a trust in the others with whom we are talking, and a trust in the course of our shared life. Some might call it faith.





*Quoted from “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information” published in The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2005. p. 122


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