we believe what we want to see: obama and KXL

© 350.org

Two weeks ago, Barack Obama got re-elected as President of the United States of America, and in his acceptance speech he referred to – gasp! – global warming:

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

Despite the press conference the following day in which he stated that climate change is real and anthropogenic but that the economy and jobs still reign supreme on his priorities list, environmental activists, groups, blogs, social media – everyone’s super psyched and cautiously but hopefully optimistic.

Neutral reporting is, I believe, impossible in a Foucauldian sense. The reporter does not exist in a bubble and has a life context in which she understands the story. We see the world through her words and, therefore, her eyes, no matter how hard she tries to remain objective. Even without the Foucauldian idea that our knowledge is placed and objective reality therefore doesn’t exist, neutral reporting is extremely difficult for interest and advocacy groups. We believe what we want to believe, and we see what we want to see. This is partly because our brains aren’t really able to cope with cognitive dissonance – holding two contradicting ideas simultaneously – and partly because faith wills realisation. That is, belief in something can lead it to becoming reality. Like with the neutron, for example. And simply through our discourse, simply by talking about something, we can change its development course.

I wanted some insight on the status and predictions for Keystone XL – the pipeline that, if built, would ship oil from the Albertan oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico – and searched for analyses online on the likelihood of Obama approving or rejecting the project proposal. It soon became clear that all stakeholders were simply choosing to believe or at least report what they wanted the outcome to be. It was unbelievable how polarised the opinion was in terms of “Will He or Won’t He?” Grist summed it up nicely:

No one knows how Obama will make his decision about the Keystone permit. But both opponents and proponents have arguments to cling to.

Essentially, those in opposition reported that he probably won’t (or at the very least, there is possibility that he won’t) because of the couple of words he uttered in his acceptance speech last Tuesday and the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about re-election, and those in favour reported that he probably will, because of what he said in the press conference the day after. Can this be considered a form of confirmation bias? The selective intake of information isn’t so much to confirm a belief as to believe in the possibility of a want.

Such wishful reporting goes beyond Keystone XL. Reading climate and energy blogs, environmental groups are optimistic. And I think it’s because they absolutely have to be. Otherwise, a fencesitter or someone on the other side would take it as a sign of weakness and admission of defeat, and thus claim victory. Claims of victory are almost as effective as actual victories in a campaign, given how easily the public swallows media reports. (This rabble.ca blog post makes the same argument but in the context of polling data in the run-up to the Calgary by-elections next week.)

I wonder how the new shale gas boom in the US is going to affect this. If it’s seen as contributing to “energy security” it might weaken that aspect of the pro-Keystone XL argument – though the jobs argument would still stand.

Oh yeah, 3000 people carried a giant inflatable pipeline over their heads and marched around the White House. Awesome. Thank you.


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