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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16 responses to “DON’T SAVE THE PLANET”

  1. excellent article. We need to be confronted by the impact of our actions and the effect they are having as we are so seperated from the impact of what we consume and throw away.

    But having done that we need to create a new vision of the future that will be better than our present. We don’t want a world where so many people live in poverty, where we pollute the land around us and so and so on.

    At present all the visions of the future in the media and films are apocalyptic. We need to create stories about the future that we would not only like to live in but can connect with and belive that we could live that way.

  2. Deborah Vander Hamm says:

    This isn’t new. Depression years people lived on very little ‘lived light’. WWII everything was scraped from the bottom of the barrel. Phrases like – clean your plate, turn off the lights, put a sweater on if you’re cold, you only need two squares of toilet paper… these people were just doing the bloody obvious. They weren’t considered trendy yuppies, they were called old-fashioned fuddy duds. They told us to do distasteful things like “put things back where you found them”, “if you mess it up, clean it up”, “the world doesn’t owe you anything, you owe the world”, and “be grateful for what you’ve got, it’s a lot more than most folks get”. Stewardship isn’t a new concept, it’s a ideology that was tossed out the window when
    Freedom was embraced while responsibility was trashed. Now we will be back paddling and paying the price for generations….IF it’s not too late!

  3. Ian says:

    Your advertising copy is quite ‘light’ on specifics.

    Fear works better than anything else. It changed the world in WWII and the US has changed things quite drastically in recent years due to fear of terrorism.

    [George writes: Dear Ian, I agree with what you are saying about the motivation in these cases, but I don’t think it was fear that did it: I think it was fear of an enemy. The huge problem with climate change is that it doesn’t have an enemy- however much we try to blame other people, or China, we know it is us or people we know who are causing it. My view is that people have been trying for years to galvanise action with warnings about what might be coming: the message has been- this will be horrible and you have to give things up to make sure it doesn’t get even worse. People don’t want to know. So my conclusion is that motivation on climate change needs to come from the promotion of a positive shift in the way we live rather than a reaction to something that has been imposed on us. But this is a debate point so I am very interested in other people’s views]

  4. Tom Crompton says:

    The usual response to this is that can fear work, but only if it is ‘used’ in conjunction with the creation of some sense of agency; people need to know what to do to respond to a threat, or they are more likely to try to deny the problem.

    So fear is unlikely to drive us to buy energy-efficient bulbs, or get us to turn our heating down: As George says, we don’t really believe it’ll make much difference, however scared we are. So there is no sense of agency.

    But the government indeed turned to fear tactics to boost public acceptance for draconian anti-terror laws. There was little we could do individually to address this perceived threat; we were merely asked to support government legislation. So I do think that there is an analogy here.

    Of course, the analogy breaks down because the government is not being so bold in asking us to support uncomfortable legislative responses to climate change. If it were to do so, fear might encourage us to support such changes.

    So to me, this issue of fear and whether or not it helps, is dependent upon the responses we are trying to ellicit. Are we seeking public acceptance of deep-reaching legislative change. Or are we trying to encourage people to take small steps themselves?

  5. Mark says:

    Tom makes some excellent points. The sad fact is that without the government acknowledging that we have to make some sacrifices, people will only do small things out of guilt – no one will take any big steps (like travelling less, eating only local/organic and predominantly plant-based) unless it becomes a true in-your-face crisis (I’m reminded of the parable about the frog being boiled alive due to slowly increasing heat).

    The fact that the economies of the world depend on people buying more stuff than can be sustainably produced seems to indicate that governments won’t step in and ask/mandate us until its too late.

    So maybe George’s tactics are the best until then, but I think its going to have relatively little impact vs what the government can do. It seems highly unlikely that millions of people will converge on state capitols demanding that governments legislate personal sacrifice…

  6. Jim says:

    In terms of attitude change, both will work in different ways. A good analogy is the change in attitues to smoking we have seen in the last couple of decades. Initially we were told to give it up as it harmed our health. A combination of fear and the benefits of a healthier life. Whislt this had an impact, there wasn’t a sea change unitl it became socailly unacceptable to smoke in so many places. Following this the Goverment stepped in to legislate and cement the changes. OK, people still smoke, but thats not the point, it is the attitude of society in general towards smoking which has changed. Im hoping this combination of personal action, social pressure and govt. legislation can do the trick for ‘light living’ as george so nicely puts it.

  7. It is thought-provoking. I agree that ONLY the stick does not work, but maybe carrot-and-stick works best. For example, “you can choose either to live in a burned out wasteland with starvation all around, or in a pure, clean, respectful way that enjoys all the benefits of nature”. Contract between choices can be a motivator. Just showing the positive by itself may not be as strong as showing that it is EITHER (fill in here – the positive) or else THIS (fill in here – the negative)!

  8. Dano says:

    We’re not going to destroy the planet through our activities. We may make it inhospitable for our species and may kill off enough species to be considered the sixth great extinction event, but destroy the planet? No.

    I suspect most folk intuitively know this, too, making the argument seem ridiculous.



  9. Tamara Griesel says:

    I agree that we should clear that large scale changes are good for us as well as for the big picture. It helps, I think, that many people are unhappy in their current lifestyles. Commuting an hour or more each way to get to work, and often as long to do errands is an aggravating, unhealthy waste of time even if carbon emissions weren’t upsetting the climate. Ride the subway or bus and read a book! Bike or walk to work and save the cost and feeling of silliness associated with driving half an hour to the gym so you can run nowhere for half an hour.

    Also, speaking from the point of view of the economically struggling, many people don’t realize the cost of their invisible power use. Poorer people could benefit greatly from knowing they could save 20 or more dollars a month by handwashing their dishes (most low income housing does boast dishwashers). 20 bucks may not seem like much to people with spare income, but I can tell you from personal experience, it can be the difference between feeding my kids Ramen noodles and being able to provide locally grown apples, pears, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and broccoli on a regular basis.

  10. Sepand says:

    Cool article, but the ending is vague. All that stuff to get to “light living,” yet what the hell do you mean by that phrase? How can you introduce that phrase without specifying its meaning? I’m confused, and mad!

    [George writes: Light living. I go into this in Carbon Detox but hoped it would still be fairly obvious. We talk all the time about low-carbon living and sustainable living and ethical living. I wanted to find a new way of presenting it that had wider appeal and I thought that living ‘light’ sounded much better- free of that heavy carbon, that consumerist stress, fresh, healthy. You get my drift. Btw in England ‘mad’ means insane but I assume you mean that you are slightly heated! ]

  11. adriene says:


    i am not sure about your claim that handwashing dishes instead of using the dishwasher would shave 20 bucks off the water bill.

    it depends on how efficient you are with water while you are hand washing, and also on how efficient the dish washer is with water and electricity, plus the value of the time it saves you.

    the latest models of dishwasher here in japan claim to use a lot less water than hand washing.

  12. Dave Gardner says:

    I appreciate the intentions here, but worry this notion amounts to “dumbing down” the message for all the American Idol watchers out there. Who are we to say they can’t handle the truth? The more we give in to this notion that the people need a cheesy slogan and can’t handle bad news (the truth), the more we lose. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we’ll get the deck chairs on the Titanic rearranged nicely this way, but the ship won’t stop or turn based on a candy-coated, good-news-only approach. For example, do you really think we can achieve global sustainability if everyone lives light, but we continue to worship economic growth and incentivize (or at least ignore) population growth?

    I believe this further splinters the environmental movement and weakens it. Personally, I think I’d rather go down shouting “full stop” at the ship’s captain, rather than go down singing a cheery song and being thrilled we hit the iceberg at half-speed, but at least everyone bought into the notion we should slow down.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  13. Paul says:

    I like this article. You’re getting to the point (in my humble opinion). I’m opposed to the ‘save the planet’ message too. The main reason for that is I don’t think the planet needs saving. It’s us.

    It is us humans that need to think about our future – because there are six billion plus of us and we all want to have 4×4 cars and flush toilets, when many of us don’t have food and water at the moment. It is self-evident that if we all have some of the pie then our current use of resources is unsustainable and damaging.

    Someone who really troubles me is Mr Gaia himself, Mr Lovelock. He has taken the credit for what we now know to be obvious, that the planet regulates itself over longer and shorter cycles. The environmental message was getting through (slowly), consumers were opposed to genetic engineering, nuclear power was dead and sustainable logging was becoming more popular (even if the other type of logging was too). Rivers were being cleaned up. Wind farms were springing up everywhere and there was a proper debate as to whether they were a good thing or not.

    Then a few hot summers and it’s panic! Outright panic! It’s too late says Mr. Lovelock. We are all doomed! Stop all debate! We MUST have nuclear power NOW. We must tear up the forests and plant millions of acres of monocultural biofuels.

    Now we ARE heading for disaster! Thank you Mr. Lovelock and all those who want to ‘save the planet’ from imminent doom. Great work. In our haste, we will make the wrong decisions as we always do.

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  15. Chris Brown says:

    Lets explore the psychology of those who are in denial about climate change being too far past the tipping point to stop it!

  16. Joanna Hansell says:

    George this is a very interesting point of view. I recently did a study on whether the current tax incentives encourage businesses to go green. Although it confirmed current government incentives don’t encourage people or businesses to change their behaviour, my findings did show that people beleive government and legislation are a key role. I never thought of it from a phsycological point of view. I think you are right, I agree we do need to move away from this idea of scaring people into doing something they wouldn’t want to do. I’m not sure if the wording ‘light living’ is quite right but I do like your theory. We need to find a way of reaching out to people at a personal level, to explain how it’s understandable to think that our behaviour isn’t having an effect on the environment we live in, to then actually point out the immediate effects it has on individuals (fumes, skin damage, cost, ways of saving money etc) and then go on to demonstrate how simple things which are just a matter of becoming a habit and a slight change in life style can make all the a huge difference if everyone did the same. I feel there is not enough public awareness. People need to be informed and educated about the subject. Like you said this needs to be at a lower level that we can relate too rather then a huge scale like “the planet” that just seems over whelming.
    I don’t think it is a case of people not caring or not wanting to make a change. I think it is a case of this issue not being a priority over daily routin such as working, prviding for the family, finding time for your children etc. When you don’t see the immediate effect of your actions then why should there be a need to think about it unless it is being taken sersiously by others for example government taking action. At present this isn’t happening so we need to keep reminding people of the simple changes that can easily be made around everyday life, and keep reminding people. If you don’t use it you lose,it’s hard to change old habits. I think it is government that should be “scared” into change as they can relate to it at larger scale.

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