Climate Change Denial

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July 21, 2007


George Marshall @ 10:01 pm

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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  1. No, you’re not being unfair, George. If anything, you’re being too nice. The thought of Madonna urging us on towards sensible consumption patterns is enough to make anyone choke.

    Live Earth was a brilliant way of avoiding the realities of the issue because it required nothing of anyone – stars or audience. No-one had to engage with the painful realities of what they will have to do in their own lives to make any kind of difference. It encouraged people to continue to ignore their own role and talk up somebody else’s.

    Plus it had Coldplay in it. ‘Nuff said.

  2. tom street says:

    Tom here, in Allenspark, Colorado. What a shame; this thing must have cost millions, may be tens of millions that could have actually gone to do something directly about global warming.

    Al Gore is reportedly worth 100 million. When will he start dispensing some of that for more than airplane flights across the country and around the world, paid for by caron offsets, of course.

    To the extent that you are right or at least persuasive, no one will be committing this folly anytime soon. Apparently, there is not a very symbiotic connection between hedonism, bling, and saving the planet. Quite the opposite, I would think.

    On the other hand, your next piece needs to address what would actually work. Those of us here in the hinterlands are trying to make changes one step at a time. And I am not just talking about little personal changes like installing light bulbs, which many of us did at least a decade ago. The actions that have the power to begin to make a difference are engaging your local political leaders to actually do things to facilitate renewable energy, for example.

    Unfortunately, it takes heroic efforts to make small differences. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what doesn’t work. We need to know what will work.

  3. Dougald says:

    Also, that “2 billion” audience figure – repeated in most of the media coverage – was complete nonsense. It represents a meaningless aspiration (or, a piece of hype): the number of people who could conceivably have been watching, had everyone with a TV in every country where the concerts were being screened decided to watch.

    I haven’t seen figures for anywhere else, but in the UK the audience was under a million in the afternoon – by my reckoning, that’s less than 2% of people with TVs. The peak audience was 4.5 million – less than a third of the number tuning in for the Diana memorial concert the previous weekend.

  4. John Walker says:

    I agree totally with Paul Kingsnorth. I sat and watched what I could bear of this concert, with feelings ranging from incredulity to utter despair, mixed with bouts of wincing at over-hyped celebrities getting a giggle out of climate change. I found some of it disgusting.

    Your point about Terence Stamp is very telling; the media cannot resist wheeling out people who they think people ‘know’, rather than inviting people to speak who DO know about these things.

    If the broadcast time had been spent giving 2 billion people an insight into ways in which real people are actually living low carbon lives, it would have been airtime well invested. We could have filled those depressing hours with inspiration from real people from every corner of the globe, people we don’t and won’t ever know, but who are individually pressing down on the brake pedal of environmental meltdown.

    I also suspect that the audience of 2 billion was actually part of the problem. The concert was ‘consumed’ like everything else, allowing people to move on to their next fix. I can’t see that we can break down the denial barrier by such mass action; you need to sit with people, discuss, debate, argue and persuade, while you can see the whites of their eyes, to firstly open then change minds.

    And apart from anything else, not everyone is interested in rock concerts, in the same way a huge number of people aren’t the slightest bit interested in cricket or other sports.

    What did Al Gore et al have to offer them?

  5. Wenchypoo says:

    Will Live Earth work–that is the front-page question here.

    Did Woodstock work?

    Live Earth was never meant to work–only raise “awareness” which means money for a further PR campaign, just like breast cancer awareness events only served to raise money for more breast cancer awareness events. Walk-a-thons, marathons, and dinners won’t end breast cancer, no matter how much awareness or money is raised.

    If we’re not aware of breast cancer by now, we’re all in trouble–the same for global warming. Besides, where Big Pharma sees an opportunity for treatment profit rather than cure, they’ll take it.

    Change will only come about by politics and social activity, not by gratuitous rock concerts that serve to do nothing but draw crowds of non-consumers who get high and listen to music all day. By paying upwards of $350/ticket (and some concerts WEREN’T free, BTW), nobody has changed anything except the bank balance.

    Remember Woodstock II? What did it change? Nothing. If anything it showed us exactly how egotistical and consuming we have all become, from burning down beverage stands because the price was too high to leaving complete campsites behind in the mud because people were too lazy to take it all home and wash it out.

    Because of all this, there will never be a Woodstock III. The land has even been sold off to a condo developer.

    Change happens at the polls. It’s where it’ll always take place.

  6. A late comment-cum-report from the coal face. On July 7, some of my helpers and I were positioned for a few hours on the concourse leading up to the Wembley Live Earth concert. We were there for the launch of the 2008 Climate Calendar, busily handing out leaflets and strutting around with placards. We also had plenty of time to observe the temper of the general concert-going public. It was indeed a depressing sight. For every clear-eyed eco-conscious parent towing a few pre-teen offspring towards a hoped-for climate enlightenement, there were at least 20 bleary-eyed, late-rising rock aficionados shuffling along clutching tins of beer. Very few refused our leaflets but we are quite certain that our efforts, in terms of consciousness-raising, were relatively ineffective. The small amount of paper waste generated by our discarded leaflets made its own very special contribution to the landfill crisis. I now feel guilty for having tried. But just one correction George: Wembley management encourage everyone to travel by public transport, and I can vouch for this. Car parking was minimal at the event.

  7. Kyle Aaron says:

    An excellent little article, I thought. As soon as I heard of Live Earth, I felt immediate scorn but couldn’t articulate why. You’ve done it for me. Thanks!

    I’ve just quoted you while mocking someone promoting carbon offsets to make up for their international travel which they can’t possibly give up. Tokenism!

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