The New Face of Environmentalism
If we don’t change we’re screwed. That’s been the message for years now, largely coming from climate scientists and directed at governments with very slowly increasing bluntness and certainty. And it is now (just about) largely accepted that climate change is happening, is anthropogenic, and we need to change our behaviours to prevent the world collapsing upon itself. When asked what specifically has to change though, climate communicators are hard-pressed not to just say “Well, everything.”
Politics has to change. Social conventions have to change. Consumption has to change. Energy and fuel have to change. Industry has to change. Agriculture has to change. The media has to change. Economics has to change. International relations have to change. Education has to change. Our expectations about our lives have to change. Because if all these things stay as they have been for the last century or so, that’s what climate projections call “Business as usual”, and those projections end in a ball of flame and outright global catastrophe.
Environmentalists have commented on how these things need to change for decades now, but there’s one key thing that needs to change that they’ve missed: Environmentalism. We cannot continue with business-as-usual environmentalism. Because for all the good done by conservation NGOs and initiatives over the years, the current state of the world indicates just one thing: conventional environmentalism has, unequivocally, failed.
Environmental communication over decades has focussed on a few things, and whilst noticing and lamenting the collapse of nature and the increasing detachment of humanity from nature, environmentalism has been a part of that steady detachment. Why? Because most of the reasons provided for saving nature have been about benevolently saving nature for nature’s sake. (Don’t get me wrong, I like altruistic stewardship as a reason for humans to protect the environment – it just seems not to motivate that many other people).
Arguments focussing around charismatic megafauna may have success in a cutesy-factor, but no Brit feels an actual connection to tigers – they’re just a nice idea.
Even in later years the rise of the “People Need Nature” argument has missed what actually motivates humans in their daily lives. Because while “a transfer of facts = communication” for scientists, that doesn’t hold true for humans. “People Need Nature” is a fact but it doesn’t move people. Communicators rather should be placing their focus on the fact that people need nature and HOW THAT MAKES PEOPLE FEEL.
Being social creatures, we take our cues on how to feel and how to act from others. You can transfer feelings from human to human without any actual facts or explicit information being a part of the equation. So while it is a documented and researched fact that nature makes humans feel good, environmentalists have conventionally relied on that fact alone to do their communicating for them – rather than using that inspired feeling to facilitate a transfer of feelings. Why’s that important? Because as much as people may “know” something, how they feel about it is what’s going to determine what they do about it.
Environmental communication has to change. It has to move away from “the environment for the environment’s sake” – or even for our sake – and focus on what it means to our fellow man and how that makes our fellows feel.
And we may actually be starting to see this enter the real world. The most powerful force for nature that has rocked the world in the last year is a 16-year old girl from Sweden – who feels, really feels, what is happening to the world and what has to be done about it.
Greta Thunberg is achieving what no scientist, NGO, animal or vista to date has managed: she has changed the way that millions of people feel about nature and that has changed their desire to act on knowledge that has been sitting there for ages.
Her frown, her common sense, her understanding of science and her raw emotion is what’s so infectious and inspirational about Thunberg – it’s who she is as a human, not the facts behind her message, that make her so powerful.
If we look at this from a storytelling perspective, it all makes a lot of sense. The first element of any good story is: “A flawed protagonist” ie. a character that the audience can relate to. If you try and tell a story without having that relatability, without establishing that rapport, your story’s falling over as soon as it’s out the gate. But getting that right, right from the beginning, is what can make the rest of the events in a story have a profound effect on an audience.
It’s this that is now inspiring people all over the world to action. We are seeing for the first time how climate change makes fellow, relatable, humans feel, and we are being given the opportunity to experience how taking action will tangibly make us feel. That’s the other thing of course – be it through social currency and validation, or an inherent selfishness and desire to feel good about ourselves – there’s now this growing social convention that allows people to feel good about taking positive actions in their daily lives. Feeling guilty about the harm the we do to the world is one thing; feeling proud, feeling strong, feeling like we belong because of the actions we take to make the world a better place is another thing entirely.
For all the arguments for and against how big a difference small changes to our daily lives can make in the grand scheme of things, the cumulative social currency of small actions is invaluable, and it’s easy to forget that those individuals with the power to do the most are also people too.
So environmentalism doesn’t need to become solely human-focussed, but campaigns of the [near] future should very much emphasise the feelings that they intend to inspire in their audience and the (positive) difference that action will make to their daily lives. I’m not saying that facts should be left out – we need to keep being told what’s at stake and what kind of a difference we’re making – but we can no longer assume that facts alone are enough. Humans need human interaction, and we environmentalists need now to focus on making people really feel what they’re a part of.