The Live Earth concerts played strongly to people’s denial strategies by promoting tokenistic activities and encouraging a bystander mentality, argues George Marshall.
The Live Earth concerts aimed to use music and modern media, in the words of the organisers, to “trigger a global movement to solve the climate crisis”.
I sincerely hope that it works, but I fear that our refusal to acknowledge climate change has very deep roots – too deep to be addressed by feel-good concerts. After all, we have known about climate change for a surprisingly long time and all those voluminous reports and portentous political statements have done is to help us to develop the knack of separating what we know from what we do.
So Live Earth tried a new approach. If you can’t produce change with the cold facts, it reckoned, maybe you can capture people’s imagination by making climate change accessible, groovy, sexy and fun. It is a marketing logic that works well for consumer goods, and let’s face it, global rock concerts would shift any product. If Live Earth were Live Knitwear, Pringle would shoot into the FTSE 100.
Live Earth will create some buzz and interest around climate change. But I do not believe it can produce significant change because it fundamentally misunderstood the challenge. The reason we are not doing enough about climate change is not because we don’t know about it, or that it is not hip, or that we don’t care. The problem is that we are locked into patterns of collective denial and have adopted a wide range of strategies to avoid accepting personal responsibility.
Psychologists observe that the more witnesses there are to a crime, the lower the chance that any of them will intervene. Major assaults can happen in busy shopping streets and no one does anything because they are all looking at their watches and saying, “I wonder when the police will get here?” I fear that Live Earth fell straight into a similar trap. It created two billion bystanders getting hip to the climate beat and demanding to know when someone is going to do something about this awful climate change thing.
Such was the bloated egotism of the rock business that throughout the concerts we were told that our bystander role as participants in their concerts was itself an act against climate change. “Here we are”, it shouted though the speaker stacks, “two billion people all around the world standing shoulder to shoulder demanding that something happens about climate change”.
Live Earth also played strongly to another powerful denial strategy- the adoption of minimal and tokenistic behaviours as proof of our virtue. We are constantly encouraged to believe that we are ‘making a difference’ and ‘saving the world’ with small steps that, in terms of our overall emissions, have little if any effect.
For the month leading up to the concerts, the Live Earth website urged us to adopt what it called ‘cute solutions’ such as recycling our plastic bags and turning our electronics off standby- two measures which might salve our conscience but make very little difference to climate change.
Live Earth also called on people to “answer the call” and sign a pledge which, despite its grand ambitions, has been encouraging people for a month to turn off their lights and use the bus once a week. In the UK we had Joss Stone patronizingly telling us to ‘go on, plant a tree, it’s that easy. It takes five minutes, just dig a little hole pop the little tree in and put the soil over it’. The keynote speech before Madonna came on was given to Terence Stamp, an actor with no experience in communicating climate change, who told us that we should turn off the lights when we leave the room- it’s not too much to ask’ because ‘‘when one leaf changes the whole tree changes’.
The promotion of tiny and largely meaningless actions is at the heart of the Live Earth model of behaviour change. A follow up e-mail this week to all pledgers quoted an email from a ‘Meghan L. in Cardiff by the Sea’ with her ideas that ‘exemplify the kinds of change that we want to inspire’. They included such challenging proposals as: use cloth napkins more; use less plastic bags; minimize use of batteries; and nplug stuff we’re not using.
Are Live Earth’s ambitious really so low? Where is the fire, and the anger, and the leadership? The theory is that these bite sized simple first steps encourage and empower further actions. All the evidence – and there is plenty of it- is that this will not work. No mass movement or widespread social change has ever been inspired by napkins. It is mendacious to suggest that the low carbon economy can be created by these tiny measures. And dangerous too, because it encourages people to undervalue the seriousness of the issue or to adopt minimal tokenistic behaviours.
This could have been a revolution if the music had been the backdrop to a mass rally with clear political objectives. Imagine millions of people taking to the streets around the world with a coherent agenda for slashing greenhouse gas emissions. But it was not. It was a set of rock concerts with climate infomercials spliced between bands singing about the people they fancy. The music contained virtually no mention of climate change and lacked the anger, fear and aggression needed to galvanise change.
The 80,000 people in Wembley did not march on parliament- they marched to the car park and drove home, happy in the knowledge that they had really done something about climate change and had a fun day to boot. The viewers got up, stretched and boiled the kettle for a cup of tea using exactly the right amount of water.
Rather than concentrating on small steps or personal abstinence, Live Earth could be promoting a far more exciting vision of the sustainable low-carbon world we need to create: a world based around health, animal and social rights, justice for the poor, good housing for all, and the promotion of happiness rather than consumption. This is what would inspire real social and political change.
My hope is that the campaign groups who are working with Live Earth, like the UK Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, will be able to follow up on these events and persuade a few of the participants to take substantive action. We will only have one shot at this kind of global circus before cynicism sets in or people say ‘oh, climate change, wasn’t that last year’s thing?’
This is an updated and rewritten version of an article that was published in The Guardian newspaper three days before Live Earth Link….
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