Towards a Biochar Ethos

rhetorical triangle

Jonathan Shapiro’s book “Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling: Using Stories to Advocate, Influence and Persuade” has a great perspective on ethos as it relates to Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle.  The biochar world would be well served to understand his thinking.  Ethos is often used to describe beliefs or ideals that define a community. In the context of Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle (i.e. ethos, logos, pathos), ethos refers to credibility.

Credibility can be boosted in many ways.  Clothes credentialize cops, cadets and candy stripers.  Certifications credentialize professions and products.  Testimonials, if provided by respected authorities, can also boost credibility.  Shapiro calls this ‘ethos by extension’.  Oddly enough he then adds “The field of expertise almost doesn’t matter.” This conflating of relevant expertise is something I see in the biochar world fairly often, yet I can’t quite bring myself to agree with Shapiro.  While it might work in a courtroom, I can’t say that is works in corn fields!

The biochar world has all manner of “experts”: agronomists, engineers, business people, climate scientists, farmers, environmental activists and more.  Each brings their own perspective, their own priorities and their own passions to the table.  Yet the question of who is most credible is critical.  It will determine who lives or dies, not only at the company level but for the industry as well.  [I could go on to say quite possibly for the planet as well, but that would likely lower my credibility in the eyes of many!] The question for the biochar community and more importantly for future buyers of biochar, is who to trust when they are talking about biochar? Whom do you trust before you incorporate massive amounts of the stuff permanently into your fields; fields which provide sustenance for you family, your community, and food security for us all. 

This is not a trivial or rhetorical question, nor is there a simple answer.  Scientists are often pushed to publish only positive requests if they want tenure.  Businessmen may take advantage of a lack of scientific understanding by the buying public and make extraordinary claims, perhaps unproven, about performance or may claim that only their product is safe.  Neither of these scenarios helps to build ethos for the individual nor for the industry.

For the biochar industry to succeed, we must take the other path outlined by Shapiro.  Instead of taking advantage of the confusion caused by a new and complex product, we should aim to enlighten and educate.  We should not attempt to sell biochar to everyone everywhere, but to sell the right kind of biochar and/or production technology to the farmer (i.e. ‘the audience’ in Aristotle’s parlance) whose specific constraints it can alleviate.  There are many ways to position biochar, but understanding what is most important to your audience is key to any selling effort. That is a much taller order, a much longer sell, and requires much more than just slick marketing of products with broad generalizations of the potential benefits of biochar.  But in the end, this additional effort will enable biochar to succeed and will facilitate word of mouth selling amongst satisfied customers which at the end of the day is what an industry needs to be truly sustainable. 

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