Time to stop thinking about saving the world

In his inspirational TED talk The happy planet index statistician Nic Marks argues that the environmental movement has got it hugely wrong in its efforts to bring about the significant changes that many believe are necessary to ‘save’ the planet. This post, as it progresses, will outline why I agree with him and what I think would be a more constructive model for environmental activism.

Mr. Marks believes that the overriding message from high profile environmental groups has been one of almost unrelenting gloom. Its not unusual to hear about the latest environmental catastrophe and we are often told that time is running out.

Media sensationalism is nothing new, but is is helpful for environmental groups to pander to this to get their message across? It is probable that the more apocalyptic stories gain a higher profile within the media and grip the consumer with the same kind of morbid fascination that leads to rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash.

So far so good; environmental disaster stories get high profile media attention and an audience that cannot tear themselves away from the coverage of the latest doom laden proclamation. However, there are, in Nic Marks’ opinion, serious and perhaps fatal flaws in using fear to motivate people to change their behaviour. I for one happen to agree with him and here is why:

For any campaigning organisation raising awareness cannot be enough, behaviour must change as a result. Rubbernecking at planet earth’s own slow motion car crash is not sufficient to prevent it. Using fear may grab peoples attention but does it result in constructive behaviour change?

Nic points out that fear inspires the fight or flight response. To put it crudely fighting and fleeing are pretty futile in terms of bringing about positive environmental changes which are likely to require a rather more measured approach. On an individual level flight perhaps has the edge over pugilism, because at least scarpering from an environmental disaster means that it happens in a place where you are not.

I would like to highlight four other factors that help to explain why so much environmental hype translates into so little meaningful activity by the masses.

Firstly technological development and increasing wealth generation since the industrial revolution have become firmly engrained in the collective psyche as measures of progress. Each generation in the western world has become accustomed to having more material possessions than their parents generation. In trying to alter this expectation the tree huggers are fighting the behavioural equivalent of Newton’s First Law of motion whichs basically says that an object or entity will keep right on doing what it is doing now unless acted on by an external force. This is otherwise known as inertia. This effect is particularly potent if the proposed changes are perceived as a loss of material wealth, in comparison to ones peers who may not wish to make the same change.

Secondly problems such as climate change or any other environmental causecélèbre are often described in such a way that they appear totally overwhelming. Its therefore hardly surprising that many in the western world disengage with the discourse about climate change when its easy to perceive the problems as insurmountable.

A third snag with the doom based method is that an inescapable dollop of blame is usually either implied or applied. My own instinctive response to blame tends towards defensiveness rather than positive engagement, a process that I think will be familiar to many. My guess is that this process is at work in the minds of some of those, rather blame-fully labelled as ‘climate change deniers’. Few would disagree with the assertion that blame and the associated defensiveness, guilt and shame is not a good basis for a positive collaboration.

The final impediment to a green revolution resulting from today’s popular environmental discourse, is a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. When a group is presented with a problem, such as a man choking on a mint imperial innocently provided after a meal at his local curry house, it is not unusual to find that individuals within the group, who would attempt some form of Heimlich manoeuvre if they were alone, shrink back in their seats and studiously pretend not to notice as the hapless victim turns blue. The reasons for this are complex, but simply put accountability for the plight of the chokee is diffused across the group so each individual feels little personal responsibility to help despite the obvious costs. The same could be said of action on climate change; here the group most cited as being in the position of responsibility is the western world, although it could be expanded to include the whole population of planet earth. Responsibility does not get much more diffuse than that. In these circumstances it is tempting to look to our political leaders for some… er .. leadership. However, you only have to look at the débâcle of climate talks in Copenhagen 2009 to see what happens when an important issue becomes a political football. A fascinating perspective on what went wrong can be found on John Michael Greer’s blog.

Anyone who still believes that politics has the answer please raise your hand...

So there are the problems; but what can be done? How can environmental groups be more effective in bringing about change? How does one person begin to change the world? I will begin to explore these questions in my next post and suggest a couple of (other people's) ideas that seem to be heading in the right direction..

2 responses to this post.

  1. You make some good points here. The thing I really hate is that the solution is presented as a big sacrifice – we will just have to give up a lot of things to make human existence sustainable. I see the future as massively more positive. Consumerism doesn’t actually make people happier, especially when people work so long and hard in unfulfilling jobs to enable it. There is a future of more leisure time, better health, stronger human relationships and cleaner environments for us to live in which will make everyone far better off in what really matters – wellbeing. I just hope we can get to that future quickly enough before it is too late.


    • I totally agree, there are some massive opportunities to be had from making a radical overhaul of lifestyles as we know them. I think that the major challenge in making these changes sooner rather than later will be getting out of the groove of consumerism which provides a lifelong education in how to consume more and does not seem to allow much room for alternatives.


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