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Dunning-Kruger Strikes Again

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

tl;dr: People think they know sustainability, they actually don't.

One of my favourite topics for discussion is the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is a cognitive bias that results in incompetent people failing to realize that they are incompetent. Without any factual evidence whatsoever, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Dunning-Kruger exhibits itself in greater numbers among men, Americans, people without college degrees, and Cleveland Browns fans. I am sincerely hoping that at least some of you catch the delicious irony of that last statement considering the subject matter at hand!

I'm not sure exactly when I realized the paradox of knowledge, but it was probably much later than I should have. See, we all have a little Dunning-Kruger in us, don't we? The paradox I am referring to is "the more you know, the more you realize what you don't know." When someone praises my intelligence, I almost always reply by suggesting the exact opposite since there is just so much that I don't know, can't grasp, and will never understand. Currently at the top of that list is the ability to properly load and run a dishwasher, much to my wife's dismay.

Overconfident people are a dangerous lot. The peril is quite startling when it comes to the subject of sustainability. There are a lot of confident people who simply have no idea what they are talking about. The spectrum of people who overestimate their grasp of a concept is staggeringly wide. It doesn't take too much searching to find someone fairly visible talking about how "we need to stop using all fossil fuels entirely. "

Fossil fuels primarily consist of three different substances (Four if you count Orimulsion, but let's not complicate things, shall we?): coal, natural gas, and petroleum. Natural gas is the cleanest of the three and escapes a lot of scrutiny because of that. Combined with how cheap it used to be not too long ago, it is not the first target when considering the evils of fossil fuels. If you want to know why it has recently skyrocketed in price, explore the economic principles of substitutes, complements, and rivals. Or you can totally Dunning-Kruger it and just say that you already know!

Petroleum seems to be the most onerous of the fossil fuels. There are many reasons for this. Media optics of petroleum-related accidents are awful. When was the last time you heard of a catastrophic coal spill? Well, believe it or not, coal production can have a devastating result on the local ecology where it occurs. Top mining is the worst culprit, but that doesn't get nearly the same coverage as sealife tragically and helplessly coated in oil. There are many people who have a visceral response to the petroleum industry, and for very, very good reasons. Unfortunately, there are fewer substances known to man that are as pervasive in so many goods as petroleum. The following is a list of just some of the products that rely on petroleum to be manufactured:

That's quite a list, isn't it? It's not even complete. I couldn't fit in aspirin, luggage, toothbrushes, crayons, dishes, cameras, artificial limbs, dentures, soft contact lenses, drinking cups, refrigerators, eyeglasses, CD's & DVD's, anesthetics, telephones, etc. Can you imagine living in a world that didn't have those items? The list also does not include gasoline (duh!), something that the majority of us still rely on to fuel our vehicles.

We have embedded petroleum so deeply into our consumption habits that to live in a world without it would require the discovery of suitable alternatives. This inevitable disruption will result in higher prices, compounding already troubling indicators of inflation and recessions. You see, it's very complicated. If you remember from the chart above, that is the stage called the Slope of Enlightenment, and it takes quite a bit of work to even get there. That work is not something that most people want to perform. If there is a broad unwillingness to engage in the effort, then what is the solution?

Funny you should ask! This post is inspired by the upcoming World Listening Day on July 18. For those that are very familiar with R. Murray Schafer, you are probably somewhat miffed that I am completely missing the concept of acoustic ecology. Dunning-Kruger strikes again! Fear not, critics. Remember, all I said was that it was inspired by, not related to this very interesting field! What is acoustic ecology? Well, think of how the environment is impacted by the sounds of airplanes taking off. That is just a small aspect of the overall field, which "sounds" incredibly fascinating. Greenheart's take on World Listening Day is that perhaps we should start listening to the people who have the bona fides to contribute in this space. And sadly, there just aren't enough people doing that. I can vividly recall a very unpleasant and recent discussion I had with a very passionate and condescending campaign director for a candidate running for Congress here in Durham, NC. The director said that the candidate was a green candidate, and when I asked why she was making that claim, the answer I was given was because she wasn't accepting campaign contributions from Duke Energy. Nothing else was provided, just that. What an awfully low bar to qualify as a green candidate! When I pushed back on that, I was Dunning-Krugered to the point that it was clearly communicated that I really didn't understand this space. I, the former lead director of very successful political campaigns and the current president of a sustainability consulting firm had no clue what constitutes a green candidate. This is coming from someone who caucuses on the side of climate/sustainability advocacy! She had all the answers already. Sigh. People are simply just not listening.

The answers are complex. I am not an apologist for the oil & gas industry by any means. Having spent four years in that space did allow me to have a much broader understanding than a person who has never set foot in a refinery or gas plant. We simply cannot go cold turkey on fossil fuels. This is just one of many myths or fallacies that exist in sustainability work. Sustainability does not limit itself to "green", it does not mean it is only about climate and carbon emissions, it does not mean a lower quality of life because of sacrifice. If you believe any of that, I implore you to reconsider how knowledgeable you are about sustainability and perhaps consider listening to individuals who are constantly in this space. Listening to experts is not a sign of weakness. It makes for a better world, a happier spouse when they see a properly loaded dishwasher, and smarter people, which surely cannot be a bad thing, right? Unless you are a Cleveland Browns fan. Don't ever listen to NFL experts, because you're not going to like what you hear.

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