Questions about energy production have emerged afresh in recent days, with Australia’s federal opposition party announcing a plan to build seven nuclear power plants as the keystone of the nation’s future energy mix. Meanwhile in my home town the federal government announced approval of a large offshore wind farm zone.

So there’s a lot of energy in the energy debate at the moment.

And of course each plan – be it a nuclear or offshore wind – has its committed devotees and its strident detractors, and each group is investing a lot of energy in convincing others that ‘you’ are wrong and ‘I’ am right.

In doing so I think there is a lot of misplaced effort because it seems clear people really aren’t arguing about energy. That’s just the label on the box. What we are really fighting over are things like:

  • Trust. If I don’t trust you why would I trust your ideas? I don’t believe anything you say.
  • Politics. How can my team get an advantage here? Why should I believe you when you are obviously being political?
  • Power. Who gets to be heard and whose view is given credit? How does this debate help me wield influence? How do I prevent them from wielding influence on this?
  • Control. How do I maintain a sense of agency in a fast-changing world?
  • Certainty/uncertainty. What feels like common sense? Which set of ideas seems to match what I think about how the world works?
  • The need to win. I really want to beat those guys, be seen to win the argument and show the world that they were wrong.
  • Relationships. People I like think this way, people I don’t like think that way, so how can I build credit with my tribe?

These are all very human drivers of behaviour.

Yet we try to win arguments about things like energy policy with ‘facts’. In reality, they often come a distant last in this race.

Only last week our Commonwealth Scientific Agency, the CSIRO, released the findings of their updated review into the comparative costs of different energy sources. Some would say the numbers clearly demonstrate that nuclear is likely to be the most expensive option of all. Yet we all have a tendency to simply ignore this type of data as we prosecute our various arguments. Why? Because it isn’t about the facts, and the facts are contested in any case. Why? See list above.

In an effort to convince others that we are right and they are wrong, and much like energy policy itself, it’s easy to invest our effort in a strategy that provides a poor return. If we try to rely on the facts alone it’s likely we are wasting a lot of effort. If we really want to connect with others and convince them we need to work on relationships, on trust, on control.

This means listening, engaging, learning together, even being prepared to be mistaken about some things. If we really want the best outcomes this is the work we need to be doing.

When seeking to convince others, where are you putting your energy?