“I’m next to a giant pigeon and a tribute to Kate Bush” “We’re right at the front - just behind Emma Thompson…” “Anywhere near the sound system?” “I’m a solar panel!”
So went a series of text messages between my friends and I at around Sunday lunchtime, as we tried to locate each other at the People’s Climate March in London. I found most of them - eventually - apart from one elusive chap (who isn’t very good with technology or directions) - the last messages we exchanged were along the lines of “Ah well - seeya next time - was awesome anyways, super positive”.
And it was - really positive - a reflection of a perceptible shift in the environmental movement’s general engagement strategy. What was particularly surprising was that this was led by Avaaz - better known for repeatedly telling us “24 hours to save everything or else we’re all gonna die!”. The type of messaging that has, in my eyes, only strengthened "Apocalypse Fatigue". Something that looks suspiciously like apathy in environmentalists and the wider public alike but is actually more likely an increasing sense of hopelessness. Because...
Threat inhibits our motivation to act on big problems
In the excellent Psychology For a Better World, Niki Harré outlines some fascinating research on how threat messaging seems to engage our ‘fight or flight’ instinct and narrows our response range dramatically. We become less good at problem solving and less concerned with other people, essentially. And research on values and goals has shown that invoking our threat responses engages with security and power values and increases materialism. Positive messaging seems to be a much better motivator for action: we feel a greater sense of our own power to make change.
Compassion and altruism are like muscles
The values we hold are strengthened by use: so if we’re encouraged to think about what we care about, we’re more likely to act in a caring way. And our values around self-direction, which include creativity and freedom, are highly compatible with our caring values (benevolence and universalism). What this means is that combining positive environmental messaging with creative expression and encouragement to reflect on what we love is likely to be pretty good at encouraging people to feel more connected to each other and the planet, and reassuring us that we can change the world.
Estimates suggest that more than half a million people around the world took part in the People’s Climate March at the weekend. Half a million people were encouraged to be creative, celebrate what they loved, and consider what they felt was #WorthSaving from climate change. The UK’s Climate Coalition’s red hearts on their ‘For the love of...’ banners dominated the London march: people being encouraged to add their own answers; and 38 Degrees had brought along a load of blanks so people could create their own banners. It was a genuinely uplifting and inspiring sight, and the atmosphere was palpably positive. It was a real triumph in motivational messaging.
But what were we being motivated to do?
It’s amazing, in a society where individualism, competition, and material goods usually take precedence, to see our more human values being encouraged on such a large scale. And I have no doubt that many people who took part felt more committed to tackling climate change and showing compassion to others afterwards.
But words are not exclusive to one vision. Fairness can be capital punishment. Sustainability can be a department in an oil company. And love itself can be exclusive - given readily to those like us but not extended to ‘different’ ‘others’. And as critics of the march pointed out, the Western world basically seemed to be being encouraged to celebrate their privilege - their own, un-spolit local environments and the elements of their lives allowed by living in a rich society. And while it was also a celebration of international solidarity, it was primarily (though not exclusively) solidarity between the inhabitants of richer countries or urban areas. Only exacerbated by the inevitable celebrity, photo-op focus. (Incidentally, research suggests that images of celebrities make us less likely to think climate change is important.)
In tackling climate change, there are a number of different routes we could take. We could work within the boundaries of our current national and global systems: looking to the same sources that provide our goods and services to continue to do so, but in a less carbon intensive way. We could decide to focus our attention inwards, on energy security, flood defenses and strictly-controlled borders. We could look to the parallels between the causes of climate change and the multiple other global issues we face, such as inequality, loss of wildlife and human ill-being, and work to address them in tandem. And so on…
A good frame tells us the whole story
More bluntly, a good frame is political. In the sense that it tells us the causes of what we’re tackling, and it points to solutions. It maps out relationships and power structures between people or institutions. That might sound long-winded, but it doesn’t have to be - the best frames are also simple and sticky. Think of ‘Nanny State’. It instantly evokes the idea of an overbearing government (the problem), treating its citizens as children, dictating their lives through rules and regulations (the relationship). The solution? Reduce Government through cutting spending or regulation - change the nature of the state-citizen relationship.
And the march in London failed to really capture any of that. Some of the speakers, to their credit, called out our economic and political systems as the culprits. And several banners had something to say about it. But as billed, it was a fairly apolitical event. And the danger in that is that we leave ourselves open to being co-opted by any agenda that can provide the missing answers. This is something commercial advertising does incredibly well: telling us that human connection and spiritual fulfilment can be achieved through material purchases. The People’s Climate March could work quite well as a marketing event for a large energy company launching a new ‘green’ product, for instance.
The organisers of the weekend’s events should feel a real sense of achievement in creating an event filled with the values and motivation behind environmental and social action. But next time, I wonder if the other side of the banners could ask people to reflect on the causes and solutions too. Because I’m not sure many of the people involved would be happy for their actions to bolster the market standing of our current "Big 6" energy companies - but we must make this clear.
So - let’s frame things better. For the love of meaningful and equitable change?