What I Learned From a Week of Responding to My Haters

Scenes from my inbox.  (Screenshot: Brian Kahn)
Scenes from my inbox. (Screenshot: Brian Kahn)

When you write about the climate crisis, getting hate mail comes with the territory. It shouldn’t, of course, but I’ve gotten used to it over the years. Mostly, I just brush off, though I’ll admit the occasional threats of bodily harm do get to me.

But last week, I decided to not brush off the haters. As you can perhaps tell by the screenshot above, many people were upset about a piece I wrote about Exxon, which was taken off the Down Jones Industrial Average after a 92-year run. It was… not well received by some. The emails dribbled in at first and then turned into a firehose (some responses to a piece on Hurricane Laura turned. Rather than ignore the stream, I wrote back to every email I could, including one with the subject line “You’re a fucking fool,” and the body that read, “Just saying dumbshit! Sent from my iPad.” The experience actually taught me a lot and gave me a strange hope that the new climate movement’s focus squarely on justice and telling stories can win over people, including those in the heart of oil country.

It’s important I give you a little background on the Exxon article and How the News Works in 2020 before we dive into this. The Exxon piece ended up on Google News and Chrome Suggestions, two services that hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people use. That meant this piece left the Earthersphere and the context it provides as a site that does analysis and is unafraid to call out oil companies on a decades-long campaign of climate denial, reaching the eyeballs of people who were perhaps just expecting some CNBC-type wrap-up.

There’s a whole piece to be done on how the contexts in which we consume information through services like Google News and social media contribute to polarisation and general chaos and contribute to the death of local journalism, but that’s for a media reporter much smarter than me. Ditto for how the internet has flattened people’s ability to just say whatever they want without a second thought. The thing here is that people who don’t normally read this site saw my piece, and they were pissed.

Many of the emails I got were angry about what I wrote, calling it biased.

“I’ll put my money on you being a tree-hugging liberal that believes in the Green New Deal and has a couple of pet cats at home,” one email read. (Fact check: I only have one cat, but he is the size of two cats.)

While many got my politics correct, they’re informed by reality. The “bias” readers saw was just not what most are used to reading. Financial coverage is biased towards the dollars and cents about oil companies. Political coverage may highlight their influence and lobbying. But both approaches sweep under the rug decades of misdeeds, from lying about the climate crisis to human rights abuses, to the fact that a tiny, tiny group of people have gotten wealthy off those strategies.

My bias is that I want us, first and foremost, to have a habitable planet. It’s also important to me to point out what stands in the way of that since we don’t get to have a nice, human-friendly planet without ending the oil and gas industry. And just as important, everyone — with exception of the folks who actively pulled the levers of power to push us to the edge — should have a part in creating a more just and sustainable future.

A number of emails also framed up a series of “gotcha” scenarios about my fossil fuel use. My personal favourite was one calling me “Mr. Pirate” and asking me if I travelled abroad by sailboat or paragliding. Honestly, it’s one of the most original insults I have received, and I had to respect it. Others pointed out I surely used the internet, took hot showers, charged my phone, and all the stuff that I indeed do and (sometimes) enjoy.

This doesn’t prove I’m a hypocrite, though, but rather that fossil fuel companies have spent decades strangling out their competition and buying off politicians to become the only game in town as far as energy goes. The emails framing this as a gotcha revealed how Big Oil has duped us into thinking personality responsibility and purity are the only ways to address the climate crisis.

Environmentalists have also played along with this for decades, espousing the virtues of recycling, turning off the lights, or going vegan, sometimes in holier-than-thou terms. Telling people to stop doing the things they like to do is the exact wrong way to win people over and obscures the real, systemic problems.

I decided to write back explaining all of this while treating my haters like decent people even if they hadn’t afforded me the same. I’m a big believer in thanking people (owing to my Canadian wife rubbing off on me), so I also did that. And I admitted that I really did fuck up in not making clear that I think it’s important that fossil fuel workers are welcomed into the future we build together.

The responses I got back were surprising. Most people said they were surprised I wrote back. Many apologised for being mean, with one person noting the stress the pandemic was putting them through. (They’re not alone). But most surprisingly of all, many folks said they agreed with me on the need to get off fossil fuels, that the system was propped up by monopoly, that the political class had failed Americans, and that all communities needed to be part of a transition to a post-fossil fuel world.

“Your bias is so blatant that it makes the rest of your content worthless,” one reader wrote to me in their first email. “If you want to be a bellyaching snowflake, then carry on. IF you want to be an objective reporter, please learn both realities and the facts of the real world. Your intelligent, fact-based retorts are welcome. (I hold out little chance I’ll receive any.)”

I wrote back laying out the case I mentioned above and ended up having a really pleasant conversation that was also a bit profound. By the end our talk, after I mentioned I sometimes got tired of doing this and wanted to go back to being a naturalist, my newfound bud offered me this advice:

“I’d challenge you to do more. Where and how can you apply your particular God-given skills to make our world a better place? Think about it. We need you. Maybe I’ll see you down the road.”

I should add the caveat here that I realise full well I’m a white guy who can can push back on people and have a much better chance of people listening in good faith than someone who is a woman, nonbinary, or a person of colour. Still, talking with people who at first seemed to fundamentally disagree with me about imagining a better, oil-free future made me realise how powerful the vision of something like the Green New Deal is, at least in a vacuum where Fox News isn’t playing in the background. The principles of the Green New Deal and the future the new climate movement is envisioning aren’t based on depriving individuals of what they like or need or making judgments of everyday people caught up in the system. It’s about creating a country — a world — where everyone has an opportunity to thrive. Who wouldn’t want that?

I often find myself coming back to Naomi Klein’s foreword in A Planet to Win. Speaking of the climate strikers in the streets, she notes they were from “generations who had grown up under neoliberalism’s vice grip struggled to picture something, anything, other than what they had always known.” But the same may as well be true of Baby Boomers, the younger of whom came of age voting in an era where Ronald Regan and trickle-down economics, along with the idea of “starving the beast” (aka the government), had taken over the Republican Party.

Elected Republicans have spent the past few decades trying to convince Americans that government is broken by breaking the government while letting corporate interests grow in power to the point that they feel monolithic. They’ve also waged a culture war on just about everything, including climate, ensuring a collective continued failure of imagination for anything better. Meanwhile, elected Democrats have largely come to agree with this world view, just nibbling around the margins to try to make an unjust system slightly better.

In chatting with random people who angrily emailed me, it became clear that allies for building something better are everywhere. We just need to have open, honest conversations about how to do that and find ways to work through our disagreements.

I don’t mean to get all David Brooks or Harper’s letter writers and say civility is going to save us all. Because it’s not. The dark forces of white nationalism toting AR-15s in the street or cops disappearing protesters are not going to respond to emails thanking them for their opinion. That is worthy of rage, full stop. Plenty of bad faith actors are also interested in predatory delay. That approach can be seen in the Republican plan to plant 1 trillion trees and call it a day or anyone offering incrementalism. Engaging bad faith with good faith is a recipe for losing sight of the real goal of saving the damn planet.

But winning a Green New Deal and a climate future isn’t just about beating enemies or only working with known allies. It’s about building a coalition and daring to fix what’s broken. And if my one week of email chats is any indication, there are more people ready to join than it might seem.