Guerrilla War, Divorce, Gangs Hold Secrets for Defusing Climate Disputes
Good conflict is necessary. It's how people hold each other and themselves accountable. It shapes how groups compromise and propels personal growth. If good conflict was the only kind, we might have made more progress by now toward eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.
But there is also unproductive conflict, or “high conflict,” which is the subject and title of a new book by journalist Amanda Ripley. High conflict is rage unmoored from facts and circumstances that makes everybody worse off. It's propelled by political parties, group identities, humiliation, hatreds, enablers (including both social and mass media), and previous conflict itself. High Conflict is not a book about climate change and the topic is mentioned only incidentally. But climate change is one of the horses that high conflict rode into contemporary life, and Ripley’s book brings practical insight into how people fight and why. If we know what’s good for us, this non-climate book will make the end-of-year best-climate-book lists.
The history of conflict is a topic coincident with the history of humans, and Ripley fluently weaves the psychology and behavioral science driving it with fresh-off-the-vine takes on stories, some of which you’ve heard of and many you haven’t. They include the Hatfields and McCoys, the modern Middle East, Richard Nixon's daughters, and how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson started speaking again after years of brutal enmity. In addition to the science and historical jaunts, Ripley structures the book around several in-depth profiles of a divorce mediator, a former Chicago gang leader, a Colombian guerrilla fighter turned social-justice advocate, and an environmentalist who broke his own mold.
Mark Lynas is an activist and author whose confrontational manner fighting genetically modified organisms in the late 1990s and early 2000s ended in 2013 with a very public, very forthright 180-degree turn and apology. After years avoiding his own doubts (“Humans are very good at this,” Ripley writes), Lynas realized that science doesn’t support the charge that GMOs are bad, and can save many lives in only the way food can. He's an unfortunately rare figure in the kingdom of conflict, someone who became a more credible and effective advocate for his ideals just by stopping, breathing and looking around. “This was not a defection,” Ripley says of Lynas's reckoning. “Mark remained obsessed with fighting climate change and exploitative corporations.”
Climate change is paramount for Lynas. He’s written several books about it, including one of the subject’s most cleverly conceived and executed, Six Degrees (2007; rebooted in 2020 in the foothills of pandemic). “Put up your hand if you would like there to be a carbon fairy who could wave a wand and make all that fossil carbon just disappear,” Lynas asks audiences during large speaking engagements. Just 1% of people raise their hands, he told Ripley. That resonates with his sentiment that as much as people, "especially on the Left," want to solve a problem, they prefer to solve the problem their way.
There's a cognitive bias for that, and for many other mental traps that we regularly fall for on the way to high conflict. The La Brea tar pits are natural asphalt ponds in Los Angeles that are tens of thousands of years old. They’re famous in part for the thousands of skeletons scientists have found there, the remains of animals who attacked each other, got stuck in tar, died, drawing more animals, who got stuck in tar and died, and so on. It’s the controlling metaphor of the book.
There are entire popular-science libraries about the cognitive biases, and High Conflict may not diagnose new ones. What is essential, however, is some of the most important medicine societies need. It is what Ripley calls the “conflict hack,” or ways that individuals and groups can dial back the rage and transform high conflict into happy, healthy, run-of-the-mill, good knock-down-drag-out fighting. She’s been here before. In 2018, Ripley published “Complicating the Narratives” (the title of High Conflict’s last chapter), an essay about how journalism can reduce conflict with lessons that are applicable far beyond the newsroom.
At least three things about climate change make it a very different kind of conflict than the gang violence, guerrilla warfare or partisan strife covered in the book: The scale is global. It’s entrenched in the enabling infrastructure of modernity. And the clock is ticking. Ripley points to evidence that there may be ways out of self-propagating destructiveness, and it starts simply. Breathe, long and slow, the way trained soldiers do in combat. Recognize enablers of conflict. Shut them down. And get to work.
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