Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that you shake off all environmental concerns, chuck your bike in a hedge and hurtle off for Heathrow in your 4×4. The exact opposite. I want everyone to feel excited and motivated about the huge joint project to slash our emissions in a very short time.
The problem is that this phrase- and all the concepts it embodies- is guaranteed to have the exact opposite effect. Let me unravel it and I hope you will agree.
First of all, it is a sad tired phrase forever associated with a historically important but now dated campaign culture. The banner to ‘save the whale/bear/rainforest/’ is now the cartoon cliché of environmental pressure groups. Given that their supporters were- and still are – overwhelmingly white, liberal and middle class, this is not an association that reaches deep into mainstream society.
And worse still, following the drift of old hippies into jobs in the media and marketing, this particular phrase has now been appropriated for the worst kind of consumerist eco-dilettantism. A car review in the Telegraph tells of cars that will ‘save the planet’. The Daily Mail urges us to ‘buy towels to save the planet’. The Hard Rock Café, that epitome of global leisure branding, uses the phrase as its byline and even sticks little ‘Save the Planet’ flags into its burgers.
But there are deeper issues with this precise choice of words that reflect wider and more interesting problems with climate change communication. One psychological response to climate change is to find language and images that create distance– to suggest that it will affect someone else in the future. So the talk and images are of ‘climate’ not ‘weather’, polar bears not hedgehogs, African children not our own.
‘The Planet’ is about as distant as one can get- I am not being called on to save my family, my community, my country, my world or even my Earth. It is The Planet- a lump of cold rock seen from space. I’ll be honest- I don’t give a damn about ‘The Planet’- it means nothing to me.
If the word ‘Planet’ reflects the problems with communicating the problem, the word ‘save’ word is symptomatic of a failed strategy to communicate solutions.
The wider associations of the word ‘save’ speak of struggle, abstinence and sacrifice, It is no surprise that the we are invariably told that the way to ‘save the planet’ is by giving something up- usually heat or travel or lighting.
Telling people that they have to give something up is an extremely unproductive way to change their behaviour. Advertisers, those experts in motivation, rarely use the word ‘save’. Even if a product saves time or money they still avoid the word and highlight the wonderful things you could do with that extra money or time.
But people are not told about the wonderful things they could do with this planet if they ‘save’ it. They are told – endlessly – of the appalling things that will happen if they don’t. This form of emotional blackmail may work for the guilty inwardly directed greens that created the phrase, but it leaves everyone else cold.
And the biggest problem with ‘save the planet’ lies with the underlying concept that people can be motivated to make personal changes by a gentle appeal to a vast collective goal. Why should anyone be told that it is their personal responsibility to ‘save the planet’ any more than it is their responsibility to ‘end global poverty’ or ‘stop war’?
A few people may be satisfied by the argument that if everyone made those small efforts it would create the desired change. However I fear that most people know only too well that the tiny contribution of their own efforts will immediately be overwhelmed by the indifferent high carbon behaviour of their neighbour. And who can blame them?
So, I say, as the strategy is not working let’s chuck out all of the tired old phrases and start again from first principles.
People want to make things better. No one feels motivated to do something that simply makes things less bad than they would be otherwise. They need a positive vision.
People want personal gain. That gain need not be financial; it could be an improvement in their health, happiness or status.
People never want to live with less. But people are quite prepared to live differently and they are happy to make the change if they are persuaded that this will bring other benefits.
Now let’s throw in a bunch of other high appeal words- choice, freedom, smart- and replace the term ‘low carbon’ with ‘light living’. Even if you hate this kind of ad-marketing language, read this and seriously tell me that it doesn’t work better than pleading with people to ‘give it all up and save’.
A lighter lifestyle is the smart, cool, intelligent and healthy way to live. Don’t be tied to outdated and dangerous 20th century ways of living. Live light because it will make you feel complete and free.
When you choose to live light you are setting the pace for the 21st century. You will see the people all around you trying to catch up. And when they do we can all work together to build a world that is cleaner, fairer and happier and that you will be proud to leave to your children.
Oh, and by the way, I might add, if we all do this we might avoid global meltdown too. Now isn’t that a better way to look at it?
A shorter versions of article originally appeared on the Guardian website link.. where you can read a clutch or inspired, confused or downright irritating responses.