Dave Watton argues that we need more inspiring concepts and metaphors to successfully communicate the benefits of taking action on climate change.
We know the scale of the challenge. That the earth’s ecosystems are under severe threat from human activity; that we only have one world, not three. We know that finite resources like oil and water are being rapidly depleted, raising the prospect of imminent scarcity and conflict. That damage to natural habitats threatens the mass extinction of animal and plant species. That, most seriously of all, accumulated ‘greenhouse gases’ are warming the earth at unprecedented rates – with potentially catastrophic consequences. We know that ice sheets are melting, sea levels rising, and weather patterns becoming more extreme and unpredictable; that we may be setting in motion an irreversible chain of events jeopardising the survival of international human civilization. We know, in short, that our current way of life is unsustainable, and that we have limited time to act.
We know the scale of the challenge. We can quote the statistics. We are demanding specific targets for emissions cuts. We are even set to secure a parliamentary bill institutionalising those demands in law. Yet as campaigners aiming to mobilise a critical groundswell of public opinion, we know that we still have some way to go. Is it any wonder that many remain in denial when the language used to discuss climate change is so uninspiring? Take the remote feel of that phrase ‘climate change’. We implore people to ‘save the planet’, imagining them willing to endure struggle and abstinence for the sake of a lump of rock viewed from space. And do we really expect a positive response to our pleas to ‘make sacrifices’ and ‘give up’ things to ‘avert impending catastrophe’? When campaigners talk like this, it’s hardly surprising we are regarded as naysayers or viewed with hostility.
Our New Year’s resolution should be to find better ways of communicating the benefits of acting on climate change. In Carbon Detox, George Marshall aspires to ‘light living’ – treading more lightly on the earth1. By communicating a positive vision of what our brave new green world could be like, people will feel encouraged to reappraise the way they live and work, to jettison the outmoded, obsolete elements of their lifestyles, and to lead smarter, sleeker, more streamlined, more fulfilling lives. Now who could object to that?