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  • Writer's pictureAndy Clark

There's No "We" In Conservation - YOU'RE Going To Save The World

Very often, when talking about the climate and ecological crises, we science communicators refer to knowledge that we the scientific community have established about the colossal damage that we general humans have made and are making to the planet, and usually conclude with some kind of call to action about what we the people should or could do about it.

It gets a bit mis-leading - all these "we"s.

In fact I'm proposing that it has a detrimental effect on society's ability to act towards positive change. I'm proposing that the over-use of 'we' causes people (any of the general public who care just enough to read or listen to you) to very much feel a part of the problem... and not so much a part of the solution.

WE make people feel part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I think there are two main reasons why 'we' is frequently used in such communications:

1. Academics use "we", as a nod to the collective efforts of the scientific community, both to acknowledge the work of the community and to re-enforce the established consensus.

2. "we" seeks to include the reader in the community of participants in the events under discussion. While inferring relevance to the reader's own life, the hope is that they also feel welcomed into the community of people undertaking the positive call to action, and therefore will be more likely to undertake action themselves.

But those two uses of "we" are somewhat at-odds; the simultaneous use of the "we" (inclusive) and "we" (exclusive). There's a chance they'll be read as-intended, but there's also the significant risk of confusion. Readers may not know whether or not they fit in to the community described.

References tell us if we fit in.

People (humans) use references from their own lives to work out whether a statement applies to them - if you're made aware of a community ("we"), your references about your own life will tell you whether or not you belong in that community.

But most people - the ones whose combined actions will have such impact as to effectively reduce the climate crisis - only have so many references to pull from. So when they read "We are destroying the planet" it might trigger the personal references:

  • I drive a car

  • I like to fly for my holidays

  • I like eating meat

allowing them to feel a part of the community defined as causing the problem.

But when reading "we have to do something about this climate crisis", their personal references about themselves and that community may not be fulfilled:

  • I understand the science X

  • I'm able to make a significant impact X

  • I'm a big wet eco-zealot X

Leading them not to feel a part of the community defined as resolving the problem.

(and that's not including whether they might have the reference:

  • I'm a hippy fuck-wit who's gullible enough to have been taken-in by big environment - wake up sheeple! X )

So while I understand the motives behind the use of "we" (I'm tremendously 'guilty' of it myself), I'm caused to wonder if there might be a better way to use language.

Could "we" use language better?

We (climate activists, science communicators, etc.) need people (any human in any position to take any action) to feel moved enough to take positive actions. That *may* not come from automatically initiating them into a movement of change-makers that they didn't previously feel aligned to and now feel like they're really letting-down by just being a normal person.

First of all, the negative or unfulfilled references need to be removed, negated, or nullified, which can be achieved by providing new references. To use the (simplified) examples from above, demonstrate:

  • While the science is complicated, you don't have to understand it all to take action. :)

  • All small impacts are valid; demonstrate further ways that 'normal' people can make a significantly big impact for actions to feel worthwhile. :)

  • 'Normal' people can care about the environment now - it's not a personality overhaul - and furthermore there is a growing social currency in environmentally positive behaviour. :)

That point about social currency is particularly strong. People change their behaviours most readily when a) it's easy, and b) when they see other people doing something first.

That's why headlines like "Renewable Energy Surpasses Fossil Fuels" are so important - to show that the 'community' that a reader might feel interested in but not-quite-yet a part of, is growing. Thinking "It's good to be a part of that community right now" will make people more likely to take whatever steps necessary to actively become a part of that community.

Similarly it's why I've praised Extinction Rebellion in the past - for making it demonstrably important to shout and get cross about the state of the environment. Socially validating what people are already feeling, but don't feel they have a safe community in which to express themselves.

When it comes to the call-to-action, it's equally important to be clear and precise.

You, dear reader. I'm addressing you now. You need to take whatever actions you can to save the world.

The use of "we", in a call to action, will unfortunately always be burdened with potential ambiguity.

"We're going to save the world" can be inclusive or exclusive, and depends on the reader's feelings of alignment.

While you might mean:

"We - you and me - we're going to save the world, together!"

It might be read:

"We - me and my pals - are going to save the world - You just sit tight".

So what should you do?

  • Demonstrate community benefits clearly and vocally - but don't initiate people into that community simply by merit of them reading your blog post.

  • State what positive actions other people (communities or individuals) they already feel aligned with are doing.

  • Address them directly with what you want them to do.

So you - yes you - go save the world.

(To recap the first-steps in saving the world:

  • Reduce your carbon footprint by any means necessary - drive less, public transport more.

  • Don't fly.

  • Don't eat meat or dairy (unless you can afford to be VERY picky about the agriculture).

  • Insulate your homes, buy energy-efficient things, and generally buy less stuff.

  • Offset any emissions you're left with.)

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