When I was a teenager in Luton, I did something for a friend that I thought was noble… but which ended up only distancing us. Are there important lessons from this kind of experience for the future of climate change communication?
From a nightclub in Luton to global meltdown…
So what happened? It’s quite simple really — but it also isn’t.
My girlfriend at the time thought she saw the girlfriend of one of my best friends snogging another guy. It was at ‘the Zone’, the club of choice (or rather lack of choice) in Luton when you were underage and wanted to drink and dance and (if the stars/Hooch aligned right) meet someone.
But I digress. This isn’t really a story about Luton’s nightlife (although wouldn’t that make a good Irvine-Welsh-comes-down-the-M1 novel).
It’s about: What do you do when you hear your friend is being cheated on? What do you do with that kind of urgent, important news that impacts on someone else’s life?
No-one else (apart from my girlfriend) seemed to know something was going on, so no-one else was going to tell my friend. It was up to me to decide what to do, affecting someone I cared about.
So what did I do?
I called up my friend, I told him what I knew. I wanted to help him, not let him take the wrong path with this girl who — as far as I could tell — was leading him on. I wanted to do the right thing.
…Not what I’d hoped. They didn’t break up as a result as he didn’t fully believe it or didn’t want to, so I hadn’t really helped, I’d just driven a wedge between us. Despite what I’d thought we didn’t grow closer for me being a great mate who’d shared an important truth, in fact it chilled our friendship and was one of the early stages of a long-term drift apart. Lose-lose.
Looking back, and in the hindsight of things that have happened since, I can see that I wasn’t just sharing information. I was effectively challenging his choice of partner at the time, and as a result I was challenging him, triggering his own fears about their relationship and ultimately about his lovelife overall. I’d inadvertently stabbed him in what was a fragile heart without even meaning to, when all he wanted and needed from me was the friendship and support to make his own mistakes. I thought I knew best but I didn’t. That’s hard to realise and to admit.
Thanks, but what’s all this got to do with climate change?
Hopefully you’re still reading at this point, and while of course I hope you have some sympathy with my late teenage self, that’s not the point of this. It strikes me there are parallels with communicating climate change.
How to communicate climate issues better to the public has been on my mind for some time, and was reignited recently after hearing about the Thriving Planet Design Lab. They’ve found 95% of people are disengaged from climate change as an issue and are looking to discover new ways of communicating environmental solutions.
Here’s where I feel there are some valuable parallels…
No-one wants to be told they’ve got it wrong. Looking back at what I did, and looking at so much of how climate change is communicated today, it’s about telling people they’ve got it wrong. If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll destroy the planet. Even when the examples are specific, the message often is – or feels – like it’s about the overall lifestyle you’re leading. Just like someone we’re going out with, we’re all attached to how we live our lives — which might include driving, flying and whacking the heating up without worrying about how much energy that’s using.
But who wants to hear they’ve got it wrong? No-one! We all have an ego and we feel threatened or angered when someone tries to puncture it too sharply. You might feel you have the most urgent information on Earth — whether it’s your mate’s girlfriend cheating or that there won’t be an Earth to speak of unless people change their behaviour — but it’s only that important for you; you can’t just foist it on someone else if they’re not ready. By ramming it down someone’s throat, they’re just more likely to cough it straight back up again.
Especially from someone smug / sanctimonious / a bit of a bore. My 17-year old self thought I was being noble, and that was certainly part of my intention. But we can all — usually inadvertently — fall foul of being a bit holier-than-thou, and in retrospect I definitely had a dose of that going on (though it’s taken hindsight to see it). I felt a bit pumped up and important knowing what I did. When it comes to climate change, I’m not laying blame, I’ve met many people who care about environmental issues and they’re very largely good people (like all people!). But smugness and sanctimoniousness are in the eye of the beholder, they don’t have to be intended. How much do we think about how they’ll receive messages about climate change?
While we’re at it, who’s the best person to tell you something, especially something pretty major? This is such an oft-repeated point that I’ll make it quickly. For my teenage friend telling him about his girlfriend it wouldn’t be his teacher. For telling people today about climate change it isn’t scientists.
Especially from someone who’s not living a life you’d love. While we’re at it, let’s take on a harder truth… How are we the model for the life everyone should live? What do you see when you see an environmentalist? I’m not trying to make a trite point about crusties with dreadlocks (though god knows they’re not the people who are going to reach a One Show audience).
What I mean is: have we really got it all sorted? I’m concerned about the environment, have worked to further environmental causes, think about these kind of issues in my spare time and try to shape my life to some extent around them (though there’s lots more I could do). But have I got life licked? Not even close. Am I happy? Some of the time. Am I wealthy enough to do the things I want in life? No way. Who am I — who are we — to tell the rest of the world how to act? These are some of the fundamental questions we too often don’t stop to ask.
We do have something valuable to bring to the world, but we’re muddling through life too and we’d do well to acknowledge it. More importantly we mostly do not yet have a practical vision, that we’re actually living, of how people in Western societies can be happy, fulfilled and environmentally responsible. If we did, people would be beating a path to live like us. It’s a massive, massive gap.
Especially from someone you don’t even know. Even though I was talking to a friend, I didn’t do a great job trying to get him to see something important I felt he needed to act on in his life. And yet, every day there are organisations (I’ve worked for one and done it too) trying to tell the general public they’re making a massive mistake in how they lead their life and need to change. Just stop and think about that for a moment, how presumptuous it is, how little of a relationship we’re starting from. We’re trying to tell complete strangers they have to massively rethink their lives. And we wonder why so few do. Did we get to know them first? Did we treat them like the amazing, wonderful people they are? Did we try to understand what makes them tick, look beyond our differences and find what unites us?
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. This is the argument that’s been applied to the biggest possibilities in science — like nuclear weapons — and it’s as valid here. Just because you have some vitally important information you’re dying to impart, and can go tell it, it doesn’t mean you should. This is the hardest and most controversial lesson I could draw from my experience aged seventeen. Maybe I shouldn’t have told my friend at all? Maybe I should. But either way, the experience of that — and the whole experience of how few people respond well to most climate change communications — should give big pause for thought.
My analogy doesn’t hold up — but to the person you’re speaking to, it kinda does. You’re a smart person and you might have thought by now my story’s analogies are wearing thin. In particular, in the case of my friend’s girlfriend her cheating only harmed him, whereas with climate change what someone else does also impacts on me — and billions of others around the world. It’s a tragedy of the commons not a lovelife trifle, so it’s totally within my rights to scream and shout about it however I wish.
Yes. But… for the person you’re speaking to, I’d argue all the above points still ring true. Just because you feel you have a moral imperative to tell them about the impending end of the world and how they have to stop driving an SUV, doesn’t increase your chances of success communicating. At all. In fact it probably only hampers you. We need to turn our empathy dials up to 11 and tune into the people on the other side of the equation. Urgently.
“Great,” you might be thinking, “another guy who’s written a negative blog about climate change campaigning. It’s easy to criticise — much harder to create.” If that is your inner monologue, I totally hear you. I’m not writing this to snipe, I want to help. Reflecting on the story that brought me to write this, here are some more hopeful thoughts.
Tread gently. This seems completely counter-intuitive to communicating climate change. When you’re faced with what seems like the most urgent threat to humankind and natural life, I know you don’t want to slow down. But taking a step back from it, I feel that we need to tread gently and thoughtfully, seeing what effect (or none) we’re having on the people we’re trying to reach, feeling as we go and learning. Otherwise we risk too easily being that “friend” — sanctimonious, shouty, presumptuous and ultimately neither effective nor actually a friend.
“Look at that gorgeous girl over there.” In my day-job working on campaigns around disability, one of the emerging hopeful narratives has been the power of technology. I’ve seen something similar on environmental issues too: the hope that we can invent our way out of the challenges we face. As someone passionate about tech myself, I share some of this enthusiasm. However, I feel it’s part of the mix not the heart of solution in itself, there’s not enough about the broader cultural and values change we need. It’s the equivalent of helping my friend years back see there’s another girl he might fancy more instead, but it doesn’t get to the heart of what really happened in his relationship and his life, and what he might want that’s different in the future.
“How are you?” I increasingly feel the role of social change organisations — those who really want to engender deep, long-term, societal transformation (and who wouldn’t want that! 🙂 — is to help people fulfil themselves first. One of the big lessons from different religions and the wise people who inspire many of us, is that change starts from within. (I’ll avoid quoting Gandhi in some clichéd way here, but hopefully you know what I’m getting at.) When we do take that on-board, too often we rush in with our issue — but that’s not starting from within the person you’re talking to, it’s all about you.
What if we looked at the fundamental things people want to change in their lives and how they want to become happier? Imagine a nation, a world of more fulfilled people — where fewer had to deal with being unable to pay their bills, avoiding violence, working all hours (ironically, on a ‘zero hours’ contract) just to keep their heads above water? Put it another way: if you’ve got those and many other things on your mind, how do you even have the headspace to think about far-off woes like climate change? I know this would take ‘environmental organisations’ into a completely different space and so I don’t think this is ultimately, or at least not solely, their role. But progressive organisations could do a lot more to join up their missions and come together in a common direction. And there could be new models of movement that focussed on personal transformation first then linking through to societal change — Kiva and Avaaz, all rolled into one.
In the example of my buddy years back, it would have been about seeing how he was first and foremost. In my experience, you get cheated on (not that it’s happened to me much – I think/hope!) when the relationship isn’t happy, and you get into or stay in unhappy relationships when you aren’t happy yourself. Being a great friend who listens and very patiently helps someone get happier — when and how they want to — by being there for them, is one of the most frustrating and best things you can do in life.
“Have you seen this scene?” As I said above, ultimately if we want society to change I believe we need to create that change. Create a life so awesome (and in tune with the Earth) that progressively more and more people will want to live it too. There are loads of sparks of this, from community gardens growing veg for all with zero food miles to bikes replacing cars more and more in our cities. There are people who are so much further along the path than I am and I admire them. But as someone earning an above-average salary and without any kids depending on me, I still don’t know how my wife and I can live a full, free and enjoyable — and environmentally-friendly — life. I can only wonder what it’s like if you don’t have the luxury of the same choices we have.
The campaigner in me (and maybe you) could say we need the kind of structural changes to business, our energy system and governance so that it doesn’t come down to individual action. But I believe the only routes to that kind of change come from showing the change we want to see and/or building enough a groundswell to demand it — and I believe those start with a living vision of how we want the world to see. We have to be able to touch and taste the transformation we’re looking for, and it’s got to feel freaking amazing.
What exactly is the vision we should be moving to? I don’t know exactly. The stories that have inspired me the most, and which feel like they have the most promise of changing real life on the ground and providing the model for systemic change, are about community (like the community energy project in the video above). The pay-off is not just doing good for the environment, or even making environment/climate prominent on the tin, it’s about finding a new sense of community and having power over our own lives, both things that so few of us feel in a modern world but sorely wish for (irrespective of whether or not we’re passionate about environmental issues). Is that the reality we can create and the new narrative we should be looking for?
The truth hurts
Part of what prompted me to write this blog now, was seeing a friend and pro-environmentalist post a gleeful cartoon (below) about fossil fuel addiction, based on the DABDA model of how people deal with grief.
It’s meant to be lighthearted but to put it another way, it’s saying “you’ll find dealing with climate change as hard as a loved one dying — and I’m going to laugh at you for that, even relish it”.
We have to much more compassionate, much more empathic than that — and we have to find new ways of communicating that aren’t about thrusting forward a painful truth. Here’s to being the best we can be.