From the Publishers

"N" is for Nanninga

by Chris Klein
e generally don't get a lot of letters from readers here at ET - a couple a month. Therefore, it caught us a little off guard when we received a veritable flood this last month. All six (like I said, we don't get a lot) addressed Robert Nanninga's articles in the August and September issues.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised. His opinion pieces addressed death and religion - two traditionally sensitive issues - in his typical no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners style. One of the letters was mostly name-calling, but the other five expressed cogent positions, backed up with logic and information (e.g., scriptural quotes and historical references).
The mixture was a pleasant surprise - I cynically would have expected the ratio to have gone the other way. While I don't agree with all of Bob's positions, or with those expressed in the five reasonable letters, I do have a tremendous respect for one thing they all display: thinking. And being exposed to real thinking makes me think.
I need to distinguish here between thinking and opinions. As humans, we all have an opinion about just about everything. As Americans, we're proud of the fact, and are driven to share our opinions whether or not anyone wants to hear them. People with strongly held opinions are considered powerful and decisive; those who see too much of both sides are labeled as indecisive or wishy-washy. An open mind doesn't receive much praise.
Now, opinions do have some value: if you're in the street and a bus is bearing down on you at 50 miles per hour, you better have some ready-made opinions about the effects of high-speed machinery on the human body.
The questions is: what's behind the opinion? Ideally, an opinion reflects a decision informed by a careful weighing of the facts in the framework of the individual's personal system of values and ideals. Such opinions are constantly subject to reevaluation, and may be changed by new information or a perceived shift in circumstances or values. That is, thinking.
So how many of the thousands of opinions you hear each day are backed up by real thinking, as opposed to simply opinionating (no thinking)? My bet is, very few. It's great to be able to seem powerful and decisive without doing all that work.
Real thinking is tough; humans aren't designed to do it easily. In my college psych classes, I learned that we tend to remember things we agree with - that fit our model of the world - and forget the ones that don't agree. This isn't intentional; its just part of how the mind works. Without some effort, all those little pieces of contradictory evidence just slip away. You lose the basis of critical reevaluation.
The real problem with opinionating comes inflexibility: with no real basis in fact other than ego, change isn't possible without personal invalidation. When faced with a difference of opinion, there is only one defense: attack the character or integrity of the other person. As a case in point, just listen to Rush Limbaugh sometime and notice how many of his rhetorical attacks are based on personality instead of issues of fact or consistent personal values. Then listen or read anything by Ralph Nader. Both have strong opinions, but only one displays much thinking.
Of course, we don't have time to look deeply into every important issue: there's too many of them and too much detail. We have to depend on our leaders to do the thinking for us and base our decisions on trust.
Unfortunately, many of our committed, hard working leaders in the environmental community seem to have lost the power of thought. Recently, a friend of mine attended a meeting between a politician and some several of our local environmental "leaders" (I'm not naming names.) While there were substantive issues to be discussed, the meeting consisted mostly of personal recriminations: who was late to the meeting, who was invited and who wasn't, etc. The same factor seems to be at play in the dispute over the fate of Carmel Mountain; see the article on page 4. It's even difficult to get into a well-reasoned discussion of the paper-or-plastic issue: opinions get in the way.
Now as never before is the time when we will be deciding our environmental destiny. A middle ground must be reached between historically warring factions. Real negotiating is required to reach a workable solution. Real thinking. It's hard to see where it will come from.
In the mean time, I'll hang out with Bob Nanninga. He walks his talk, he is passionate in his commitment to the environment and he is constantly reviewing his opinions and values. When I talk to him, he listens, and if I make a point he changes his opinion. He thinks. Need proof? Check out his response to those letters in "W" is for we."
At least that's my opinion. Happy thinking.