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Is anybody really listening?

From Monologue to Dialogue

I have probably heard at least one thousand talks about climate change over the past three decades, and I have been captivated by all of them. Over this period, thousands of experts and concerned

“I’m suggesting that there is the possibility for a transformation of the nature of consciousness, both individually and collectively, and that whether this can be solved culturally and socially depends on dialogue.”
David Bohm

citizens have been communicating the dangers of climate change, whether through lectures, interviews, articles in journals, newspapers, magazines, videos, or blogs. Art and literature also communicate the message, and it is coming across loud and clear: we need to address climate change right now. But is anybody really listening?

Eloquent words and colorful images are not enough to catalyze effective responses to climate change, for we are talking–often through monologues–about a transformation to sustainability on a scale that is unprecedented in human history. Most often the words fall upon an audience that is receptive and concerned. It does not take long before discussions shift from a focus on the problems and solutions to a question of how to convince others of the importance and urgency of addressing climate change.

Unfortunately, convincing is never a good starting point for action. It often triggers distrust or signals a lack of certainty; the convincers usually work so hard at it that they themselves can appear unconvinced. For messages about climate change to influence anyone’s viewpoint, there is a need to shift from monologues to dialogues.

Shared Meaning
Climate change means different things to different people, both within and outside of the science community. As geographer Mike Hulme (2009) has shown, there is no universal or shared meaning of climate change. While this may appear fine in a post-modern, relativistic world, quantum physicist David Bohm argued in his essay ‘On Dialogue’ that shared meaning is the glue that holds people and societies together; if this is so, how do we reach shared meaning on climate change? Hulme (2009, p. 355) contends that “we need to understand the ways in which we talk about climate change, the variety of myths we construct about climate change and through which we reveal to ourselves what climate change means to us.” From Bohm’s perspective, there is no better way to do this than through dialogue.

Bohm was convinced that collective thought is more powerful than individual thought, especially if people could think together in a coherent way. Unfortunately, when a diverse group comes together to discuss climate change — including in the annual U.N. Conference of Parties (COP) meetings—the event resembles nothing close to a dialogue. Framed as a “negotiation,” the goal of such talks is to reach consensus or agreement on measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For Bohm, such negotiations are useful for finding a common way of proceeding, but like discussions they are considered something that people seek to “win”, often by defending rather than questioning the fundamental assumptions associated with their opinions.

The yearning to “win” is something that shapes experiences in our everyday lives; we have perfected the use of analytical skills and rhetoric to support what we already believe to be true. We defend our assumptions as if they were “us” – and indeed they are often an intrinsic part of our identities and our ideas of who we are and what we stand for. We thus tend to focus on protecting our own meaning, rather than on seeking a deeper, shared meaning. With so much at stake, it is no surprise that discussions and negotiations become emotional and often lead to gridlock.

Collective Thought
Bohm was interested in achieving a coherent movement of thought and a coherent movement of communication, and dialogue was the answer. In a dialogue, participants leave their unquestioned assumptions at the door. Related to climate change, this could include assumptions that “climate change is natural”, or “the market will fix the climate change problem”, or “all solutions should be bottom-up”, or “all efforts are dependent on a binding international climate treaty”, or “the science on climate change is not certain”, or “we can adapt to anything”. The point is not to assess the truth of these, but to simply let go of them during the dialogue. As Bohm puts it: “You don’t believe them, nor do you disbelieve them; you don’t judge them as good or bad. You simply see what they mean – not only your own, but the other people’s as well.” From this position, there is room for the new to emerge; new and original thoughts can be generated, leading to new ways of seeing both problems and solutions.

Experiencing the power of coherent collective thinking is rare; most groups never move beyond fragmented discussions or frustrating negotiations. While these may be important first steps, the fact is that convincing and persuading others to agree with or buy into one’s own beliefs, opinions, and values demands a lot of energy. Judgments and even the mere intention to change other people’s minds can shut them down, rather than open them up to new perspectives and ideas. Dialogues, on the other hand, require time. Suspending assumptions and holding beliefs lightly is not an easy task, since they often create the lenses through which we view the world. Repeated meetings may be needed to surface the many beliefs associated with an issue such as climate change, and softening or letting go of these beliefs takes patience and practice.

The Attitude of Dialogue
Bohm believed there was tremendous power in coming together as a group with a willingness to listen and to discover a ‘truth’ that is different from those that are currently held. Such coherence is lacking in climate change debates, leading to a lack of significant real progress. Although it is not easy to convince people who have no interest in opening their minds to participate in a dialogue, Bohm did not see this as a problem: “Even if one faction won’t participate, we who are willing can participate in a dialogue between our thought and their thought. We can at least dialogue among ourselves as far as we can, or you may by yourself. That is the attitude of dialogue.” If society can be thought of as relationships that depend on shared meaning, then Bohm’s thoughts on dialogue suggest that the search for shared meaning should be of paramount importance in efforts to address climate change: “If we don’t share coherent meaning, we do not make much of a society.”

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