The environment narrative

Changing the environment narrative

During the 1980s and 1990s awareness grew – outside the scientific community – of the potential for climate change.  The hole in the ozone layer was publicised in the media when I was a teenager in the nineties.  I assiduously avoided CFCs and thought I was saving the world.

Since then the issue of our impact on the environment has become a prominent matter in the media and online debate, and I have a developed a more considered view. In fact, in the couple of years preceding the crash in 2008, climate change was the dominant story in the media.  The environment framed many debates.  There was lots of expectation globally about countries getting together to fix it with techniques such as carbon offsetting, carbon footprint, metrics, recycling, and renewables.  Experts, scientists and politicians talked about it all at high level conferences, and the rest of us mortals were given to understand that targets had been set.

Gradually, since the banking crash, the media has (rather understandably) become  dominated by themes of austerity and economic crisis.  The media have looked for different angles on sustainability. Stories of thrift, make-do-and-mend, low food miles, slow food, grow-your-own and vintage have become popular and all carry an environmental message. People who already agree that humanity’s impact on the natural world should be taken seriously have responded to the various environmental messages ranging from the apocalyptic to hair shirt, morality, lecture, the science angle, and the saving money.

But we’re still getting very overwhelmingly negative messages, and I would argue that the vast majority of people are aware of our impact on the environment but are taking relatively little action.  It’s confusing as the issue is complex and not necessarily reduced to simple right/wrong, widely accepted facts.  For example, fracking is now being seriously considered by some in the sustainability community.  There are vocal climate change naysayers, who contest whether humans are contributing to climate change, or indeed whether the climate is changing at all.  Then there’s the nuclear issue.  There is no consensus, and perhaps there never shall be.  We are told of the potential global effects of climate change, but what is an individual supposed to do to arrest the damage and change things for the better?

On a day-to-day level, households have been encouraged to recycle, but not necessarily to do other activities which will reduce their carbon footprint in more meaningful ways.  There is an absence of messages about what practical steps people can do, and ways they can take positive action which will also contribute to their happiness.  The spectrum of opinion amongst the green community is such that it may not be possible – or indeed desirable – to create one overarching narrative about the environment.  A plurality of voices reflects all sides of the sustainability debate.  However, to appeal to people new messages need to emerge, ones that are more positive and less restrictive.  Perhaps stories that people want to be part of and – dare I say it – that are aspirational?  Maybe through an additional narrative we can communicate the benefits of taking action to individuals and their families.

Recently, Jules Peck a founding member of Jericho Chambers wrote that “Many of us accept that climate change is serious and man-made but aren’t acting…We’re not failing to communicate climate change; we’re failing to communicate what to do about it and to get people to buy into the radical action.”

Negative, apocalyptic messages could potentially turn people off, and perhaps the past spotlight on climate change conferences and scientific targets just mean that the problem seems too big and individuals just don’t know where to start. Tim Duffy, chair of advertising agency M&C Saatchi was quoted in PR Week as saying “the problem will not be resolved through logic, but through feelings and emotions.”

Isn’t there a perception amongst people that aren’t living in a sustainable way that ‘being green’ is a bit hair-shirt? We also need to answer the ‘what’s in it for me’ question, looking at the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle. Also, we should examine what people can do, rather than what they can’t.  So instead of focusing on the restrictive elements of a green way of living, perhaps the narratives we shape could be around fun, living well for all, festivals, lifestyle, celebration and partnership.  Maybe our sustainable living can be something that others aspire to and desire to join.