Courage is as contagious as fear.
Susan Sontag: writer, philosopher, activist.
Every environmentalist has the same goal: to inspire people to act. So doesn’t it make sense to emphasise inspiration - hope, optimism, the possibility of change - rather than fear, despair and panic? Narratives of apocalyptic destruction fail to inspire action and create feelings of despair. Despair breeds apathy, if not defensiveness, which actively turns people away from discussions of climate rather than encouraging them to engage in them.
We must talk of the future we wish to see rather than the destruction that we fear.
It is, of course, important to faithfully convey the gravity of the situation and the alarming facts of global heating. However, if imminent danger seems to be hurtling towards us at breakneck speed without possibility of stopping, we freeze: we become rabbits in the headlights.
A situation can be alarming without our rhetoric being alarmist.
There are two major problems with climate rhetoric: overwhelming negativity and narratives of avoidance and saviours.
Rebalancing the negativity.
No one wants a nightmare. Global heating is one, but the sustainable world we wish to live in is not: it is a dream. And I don’t remember Dr King Jr saying ‘I have a nightmare’.
To inspire action we must present the problem we face as penetrable, and we must emphasise where progress is being made.
The negative facts of the situation are a tool to highlight the possibility of a brighter future, if we choose to change our ways. Without that ‘possibility of a brighter future’, we have nothing but despair.
It is easy, perhaps, to misinterpret this argument as suggesting that we should ‘tone down’ climate rhetoric or hide the reality of the situation under a cloak of positivity. This is not the case. It is vitally important that people understand the threats that we face from climatic changes and that these threats are faithfully conveyed.
However, the voice of climate activists should not be used solely, or even mostly, to express the threat that we face but rather to highlight the possibility for change. To inspire someone to act you must tell them a story: a story so compelling that they feel empowered to become an active protagonist in it.
The story that climate activists tell should not be about the destruction that we face, but about the progressive steps we are and can take to avoid it.
And there are so many positive stories to tell: the stories of political progress, technological development, successful conservation efforts and a rediscovered shared love for the Earth. These are the stories that need to be told.
Narratives of avoidance and saviours.
‘Prevent climate change’, ‘avoid the destruction of the rainforest/coral reefs/Earth’, ‘save our future’, ‘losing Earth’ are often ineffective.
Firstly, calls to ‘prevent’, ‘avoid’ and, in some contexts, ‘save’ place the threat we face in the future. They suggest that we are approaching a problem and that when we get to it, we have a choice to make. This actually increases the temporal distance felt between people and the problem and it allows for individuals, governments and businesses to say ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’. Climatic changes are not, however, future events, they are happening now and our language must reflect that.
Narratives of avoidance tend to the future, and this is unproductive in galvanising action today.
Furthermore, narratives of ‘avoidance’ and saviour narratives create a binary between problem and solution that makes the climate crisis seem a lot easier to solve than it really is. The impression is that we will one day reach a crossroads where a choice will be made: destroy everything or save everything. This overlooks the fact that decisions made by individuals, businesses and governments on a daily basis, when added together, forge the path that we are all walking down. Certain changes in the climate have and are already occurring, more extreme changes will continue to take place in the near future and the distant future. We can’t choose to succeed or fail in responding to the climate crisis, but we can choose how extreme the changes that we are seeing and will see will be.
If we create the impression of a binary between success and failure, it is too easy to become resigned, apathetic or despairing at the state of affairs: too easy to say ‘we’ve already pushed it too far’.
Moreover, saviour narratives support the idea of human agency or dominion over the natural world. Of course, our actions have great impact, but we do not have complete control over environmental systems. The idea that we can choose to simply ‘step in’, save the planet from destruction and move on with our lives does not help foster a respect for the environment that is necessary if we are to build a sustainable future. We cannot just ‘step in’ because we cannot control everything.
We need to spend less time emphasising ‘tipping points’ and more time emphasising that a combination of all our decisions and actions has the power to decide the extent to which we feel climatic changes that are out of our control.
Recognise that we do not have complete control, insist on looking past the problem and emphasising possibilities of change and hope.
If you want to inspire people to act, don’t ask them to act against climate change, ask them to act for a brighter future.
Written by Louder Than The Storm founder and Central Team Lead, George Jeffreys