Climate Change Denial

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November 23, 2007


George Marshall @ 11:40 pm

protester-cropped.jpgPlease- I beg you- if you care about climate change forget about ‘saving the planet’: this wretched phrase sums up everything that is wrong about the way we think about climate change.

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.

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November 2, 2007


George Marshall @ 3:04 pm

image002.jpgCarbon Detox is the first popular mass market book on climate change to suggest that we might have a major problem actually believing in the problem, and the first to suggest that the before we can take action we will need to come to terms with our own denial.

Compared with two years ago (when climate change was less interesting to publishers than feng shui and sodoku) there has been a flood of popular climate change books. They fall into two basic categories. One type methodically spells out the problem and the threat to the world. The other type skips the science and presents personal solutions as fun and possible. These books are usually very engaging with lots of big graphics and titles like ‘1,000 easy-peasy, funky things you can do to save the planet before tea’.

These books cover a huge range, but they all share one basic premise: that information leads to action. They assume that if they can spell out the problem and then make the solutions attractive then action will follow.

But this doesn’t work. We’ve known about climate change for forty years now and the evidence and predictions become worse and worse every year. We’ve known for just as long what we will need to do- on both a personal and collective level. And I see very little real change.

So when I wrote Carbon Detox I tried to do something different. Taking my cue from self-help books (especially those on smoking and alcohol) I propose that before we can do anything we have to really believe that we have a problem. The first step has to be to overcome our personal denial and to confront the excuses we adopt for routinely pushing climate change away – its someone else, somewhere else, in the future and may not even happen.

Our second step has to be to find new ways to visualize the problem. I ask readers to reconstruct their thinking. For example to stop thinking of climate change as a future problem and think of it as a roller coaster ride that they are already on and cannot get off. I criticise the ‘environmental’ language and images (the first chapter is called ‘oh no not another bloody polar bears’) and argue that these prevent us from seeing that climate change relates to our real lives and concerns. Detox suggests instead that people create their own arguments and metaphors based on their own world view, politics and life experience.

And when it comes to solutions I argue that we set ourselves up for failure is we taking personal action out of guilt in the face of a huge global problem. Instead I suggest something deeper and harder – re-writing the story we tell ourselves about who we are. So forget about ‘saving the planet’, the reason for going through the ‘detox’ and living a lighter carbon life is because you are smart, honest and want to live in the present.

The only thing that counts is the carbon bottom line. Carbon Detox points out that many of the ‘easy tips’ such as recycling plastic bags and turning off tv standby make little difference to this bottom line. Instead it urges people to stop sweating the small stuff and focus in on the big ticket items- flying, house heating and commuting.

After these big items are addressed, I argue that how readers wish to spend their carbon budget is entirely their business – of course they can embrace a deep green vision but there is also room for occasional high carbon treats such as whizzing around a race track or luxury travel. The light carbon world is not one in which things are taken away- it is one that is richer, more meaningful, healthier and fairer. And that is the goal around which we can mobilize.

So, I think, a new take on climate change speaking to an entirely new audience. Oh, and I should mention- it’s also really entertaining, easy to read and funny as hell (or so other people tell me !)

Carbon Detox- published October 2007 £7.99
Author: George Marshall      Gaia Books Ltd  ISBN: 1856752887
RRP £7.99


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