Reinventing the green message
We have entered a strange world – one where the more data and observation pile up on rising temperature, ice melt, species loss, deforestation, ocean acidification and all the rest, the less we are proving capable of responding. For environmentalists, this is surely a context within which we must seriously ponder whether our present approach is fit for purpose.
For the past 50 years or so, environmental advocates have relied on a toolkit that was for the most part very successful. At its core was good information and sound science. By gathering data, it was possible to reveal the nature of challenges and, having done that, to promote ‘solutions’. Very often, these were reflected in policy choices, including laws to protect declining species and special habitats, pollution controls and offcial goals to expand renewable energy. Progress on these and other agendas was assisted by coverage in the media, citizens lobbying their elected representatives and protest actions that exposed environmental wrongdoing to provoke greener choices in politics and business.
That formula is today less effective, as seen in, for example, the progressive rollback of environmental commitments that in times of economic difficulty have been repositioned as harmful ‘red tape’ that it is claimed costs jobs and competitiveness. At the same time, some now regard anti-environment policies as a badge of political identity, making it very difficult to gain consensus on what to do about fundamental issues like climate change. Under these circumstances, the default of many greens is to shout louder about the unsustainable nature of ‘growth’, to decry the role of big business, to lash out at the political right, to reject ‘techno-solutions’ and to look down on fellow citizens who, for whatever reason, happen to choose higher consumption lifestyles.
This is all perfectly natural perhaps, but while the greens get their wagons into an ever-tighter circle, so greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere, ancient forests are cleared and species decline and disappear. We can expect that all of this will soon get a whole lot worse. In my recent book, What’s Really Happening to Our Planet?, I set out the scale of planetary change taking place and present graphic treatment of the fundamental drivers that lie behind it.
One of these is continuing population growth. We are already at over 7.3 billion people, and each year our number rises by about the equivalent of the population of Germany. By the middle of this century, it will likely be above nine billion and by 2100 over 10 billion. The effects of this will not, however, be as big as the consequences of economic growth. As the economy has grown, so more and more people have been able to enjoy the kind of middle-class comforts that have been more or less available to citizens in the Western countries for some decades.
Cars, fridges, decent housing, cheap flights, consumer goods and an adequate diet and healthcare are all things most western people take for granted, and quite soon a few billion more of us will have access to all that. Providing all those things will require more energy, land and natural resources, and if in so doing historical patterns are followed, it will undoubtedly lead to massive additional and accelerating environmental damage. In the face of this tsunami of rising impact, it will be vital that greens adopt the right kinds of strategies to meet it. Part of that must involve some recognition of what probably won’t work.
Having spent a lot of time over more than three decades thinking about all of this, I feel quite certain that telling people aspiring for a better life that they can’t have one won’t work. Another doomed strategy will be to make people feel guilty about enjoying a comfortable life. One more mistake would be to continue to paint the world into good and evil – local communities good, big business evil, left wing good, right wing bad. One more strategy that will fail is cynicism, casting doubt on motives, opposing the positive in favour of the perfect. Yet one more failing approach will be to reinforce the notion that nothing works, to present the situation as hopeless, dismissing positive steps that don’t with some deeper ideological ‘green’ shift.
What also won’t work is to always present green views from claimed or implied moral high ground. There are plenty of others seeking to occupy that territory, including climate sceptics who wish to create jobs and reduce poverty. We should also avoid making the mistake that everything needed to achieve a sustainable world will be handed down from governments. It won’t be. This is why at the same time as seeking some consistent direction from elected representatives, it will also be necessary to encourage companies to develop and embed new business models, not to mention vital steps to foster deeper culture change among voters and consumers.
All of this is for me good reason why it is time for greens to reinvent the message for the 21st century. The old toolkit, and what looks increasingly like a set of default messages, is no longer enough. New strategies are needed and the reason for that basically comes down to the fact that everyone we need to convince has human reactions. People don’t react well to being told that the world is going to hell in a handcart, that it is their fault and that nothing can be done. Even though we may not mean to imply that, it is nonetheless very often what comes across, and it is a problem. So is the tendency to ask people to act against what they perceive to be their own interests.
If we are going to accommodate the needs and aspirations of upwards of 10 billion people, then we are going to have to do things in radically different ways. Getting from where we are to where we need to be will require some sense of vision, painting a positive picture of what that future sustainable society could be like. In the process of setting out a vision for a green world, one in which people’s needs are met without breaching nature’s limits, we will need to offer a sense of how to get there. That will in turn require backing for different leadership positions being adopted, including those that are not perfect, and some of which come from old ‘enemies’ in big business. It will require some real-world thinking to run alongside the more philosophical aspects of green ideas.
Importantly, it will require greens to create appeal outside their particular ghettos of interest, to forge common cause with those out-with their normal circles or who have a different values bases. That, in turn, will require some mutual accommodation of positions, in the process breaking down barriers that presently prevent progress. It will require putting cynicism to one side and in the process to actually work on achieving positive win-wins, to reach out to and achieve appeal among centre-right voters, to back the companies that are leading in building new and more sustainable relationships with consumers, even if where they start from is not perfect. All that will require some different body language, a sense of optimism and inclusiveness, and a broader appeal and narrative.
The forces reshaping our world today threaten to unleash catastrophic global warming, to precipitate a mass extinction of species and cause an ecological collapse, in the process causing humanitarian crises on a truly epic scale. At the moment, greens are proving themselves unable to do very much about all of that. If ‘green’ is to be more than a footnote in history, marking that happy period from 1969 to 2007 when such ideas had real appeal, influence and impact, then what green ideas stand for needs to be modernised, and quickly.