This morning Nick Clegg spoke on GMTV about the need to enthuse and inspire people to tackle climate change, rather than threatening them with global disaster and, worse still, bad character development if they don’t play.
By which I mean, I gather he did. I have been told so by people who know these things. Myself I was fast asleep and having one of those really prosaic waiting-at-the-bus-stop type dreams that make you wonder what the hell can be going on in your consciousness that your sub-conscious is so bloody boring…
But I digress. This is exactly why Charlotte gets more visitors than I do. Where was I?
Nick and enthusing people. I remain surprised, some, oh, thousand years into the leadership contest or whatever it is, that Chris has not said something similar. A little disappointed even. He’s a self-styled radicaliser and the environment is his baby. Despite all the chuff that gets talked about Nick being indisputably the better communicator, Chris understands the rules governing what people like to hear. (At least I gather he does, or he wouldn’t have e-mailshotted us with a twitchy intellectual rant about Reading being a Good Thing. We like that sort of talk in the People’s Republic).
So why isn’t he contributing to the debate on how to communicate climate change? His manifesto on the environment is entirely policy-focussed and the sort of thing his team could write in its sleep. Is he resting on his organic laurels?
Because there is a problem with communicating climate change that goes beyond marketing – in fact marketing is the problem. One of the many things I meant to blog about when I first saw it but didn’t, probably because I was distracted by a sparkly thing or a seldom screened episode of Time Team or something, was this piece on green fatigue in the Indy back in September.
The gist of it is that people are bored with being green, doing complicated things with shopping bags, buying rubbish lightbulbs that make everything look weird, heaping up mounds of cardboard by the front door, measuring cups of water into the kettle and so forth, when to all appearances the world is still going down the dual-flush toilet faster than you can grow your own organic vegetables (a lot faster, in fact).
Why this malaise? A number of views are gathered in, and they strike me as fairly typical of their respective stables. The marketeer’s take is that people don’t like changing their routines and will always go for the easy option – as if we were all particularly lazy ants, which I suppose as far as marketeers are concerned we are.
The climatologist and co-author of a book on communicating climate change essentially says the same thing in less repellant terms – she produces the analogy of a diet that demanded stringent effort over a long period and only promises a bit of slow weight loss – why would anyone bother? Unlike the marketeer she has a solution: local collective action that doesn’t focus on a global apocalypse which is just too damn big for our evolutionarily tiny brains to compute.
The green campaigner is contrastingly unforgiving. We are not being demanding enough of ourselves. The problem is huge, but ordinary people can solve it. No sugar-coating. We need to stop pissing about with plastic bag re-use and imbue the fight against climate change with a heroic spirit. Winning the fight, he says, would be as great a victory as winning World War II.
Three points of view to get your teeth into. And then what? Why, the journalist patiently takes it all down, puts in nicely written linking sentences, and then finishes the article with, yes, a little inset box containing words like “brushing your teeth”, “plastic bags”, “thermostat” and the remainder.
When are we going to break out of this (re)cycle? We’ve talked ourselves into a position where the little things are eminently achievable, make diddly-squat difference and are about as exciting as watching yoghurt make itself, but even after a thousand words along these lines a perfectly intelligent journalist still can’t get off the squeaky wheel and admit that something more profound needs to happen.
You will gather that I think the ardent green campaigner has a point. His take is the only one that is truly radical, that steps outside the current model. I have blogged before about the absorption of environmentalism into full-blown marketeering. I was perfectly well aware that people made money out of selling roof-mounted wind turbines, providing green consultancy services and so forth, but the undertow of all these enterprises has always hitherto been radical thought. Someone had the entrepreneurial courage to see the way the wind was blowing (geddit?) and, one assumes, the personal conviction to weather (hehehe) a few bad years rather than make a success of something more conventional. But when promotions people start aping the format of broadsheet greenie A5 supplements and filling them with crap is when I start to worry.
At what point did the environmental market become just that? When did the greenie stop being a citizen of the world, and start being a consumer? Being a consumer means you are aspirationally limited to wanting what a bunch of twats in Shoreditch think you should want.
This is one area where the market cannot correct by itself. It’s not going to have the big idea for us; it’s only going to follow the big ideas we feed into it. At the moment, the big idea is that we should all reuse plastic bags and put tinfoil on our rooves, and that frankly isn’t turning me on. I don’t want my life to be like an endless Blue Peter presentation in which nothing ever gets made, I want to be challenged, I want to make BIG stuff, I want to abandon the squeezy bottle for the meccano kit!
But there is also a lot that is significantly wrong with the campaigner’s view, and that’s that masochism is not to everybody’s taste. Back in Brighton in September, I went to a fringe meeting whose speakers included the Indy’s environmental editor Mike McCarthy. I am lastingly astonished that he (presumably) okayed the piece I’ve linked to above only the next day, because at the meeting he spoke knowledgeably and engagingly about the need to accentuate the positive, talk up how wonderful life would be if we actually were carbon neutral. His and the other panellists’ concerns were so thoughtful and their conviction so genuine that I became slightly annoyed with a greenie who stood up to accuse them of not doing the responsible thing and sounding a front-page disaster-alarm every day until people woke up. That just wouldn’t work, they said gently, and the way they said it, I really did believe they weren’t just thinking of circulation figures. Aww, little me.
Nick Clegg is fully alive to this. He had a strong piece in the Guardian last week on how the environment has been undersold as an aspiration. George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network has been talking along these lines for some time – to hell with the impersonal, dogmatic “Save the Planet”, let’s save the people from an extended commercialisation nightmare that also happens to be melting the ice. It fits like a charm into a Lib Dem world view. We can use it like the Tories never can. It chimes with localism, with radicalism, with the very notion of liberalism conceived as doing as little harm as possible. Liberal footprint, carbon footprint.
And needless to say it tends to chime with the sort of people Lib Dems are as well. I like using a jute bag at the supermarket. I like re-using what I have. There’s a processual satisfaction in not being wasteful, and I’d be surprised if it weren’t communicable.
If little me knows about this stuff, there’s really no excuse for Chris.