Should saving the planet be a romantic quest or a battle against evil? Photo: Getty
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Would climate change activists further their cause by switching from a narrative of doom to one of love?

Analysing the most effective genres of environmental storytelling.

“I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin”, rails John the Savage in Brave New World.

The flawed hero of Aldous Huxley’s novel craves a world with its eyes open to the existence of awe and of suffering: two themes that have long formed the bedrock of faith and poetry. And, you can argue, the modern environmental movement. But, when it comes to climate change, which experience – love or pain – best galvanises us to take action?

Huxley’s novel recently found itself put to new use inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. During an unauthorized, 25-hour, “occupation”, a group of climate activists scrawled passages from this, and a selection of other books, across the gallery’s hallowed floor. The words poured scorn on the Tate for accepting sponsorship from the fossil fuel industry, namely BP, and were thick and black with anger; a picket-line of text.

And yet, as the group paused to nurse babies, lay out sleeping bags, and share self-heating cans of Balti curry for tea, it was clear it wasn’t only anger they were advocating, but something softer too. “We wanted to make this protest more inclusive”, explains Ellen Booth, radical-knitter and press officer for LiberateTate and Greenpeace. “People can walk on it, talk to us; they can even join in if they want”.

Inclusivity sets the tone for this week’s two much-anticipated green events. This week, thousands gathered outside Westminster as part of the UK Climate Coalition’s mass lobby of MPs. Their appeals laid out the threat climate change poses to the things we hold most dear; a message Pope Francis echoes today in his historic encyclical to the world.

In this mix of carrots of care and sticks of suffering, it’s our love for nature that recent environmental campaigns have chosen to emphasise. Fictional idealists who call too much attention to the sticks, from Jon Snow to John the Savage, often meet with accordingly sticky ends. Environmental groups would like to avoid a similar fate. 

Take the new ITV advert just released by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In this mini romantic quest, a boy befriends a frog in his barren backyard. He pines for the creature all day. And then, after a tip-off from an eldery nextdoor neighbour, re-finds him, along with a host of other animals, in the neighbour’s wildlife-friendly garden.

The film’s message, "Make a Home for Nature", is identical to the advert from 2013. Yet it’s delivery couldn't be more different.

The ominous orchestral soundtrack of the latter has been replaced with the light tinkle of guitar strums.

Our former star, a young girl, was a worried eco-warrior who created the change she wanted to see in her garden herself. In today’s version, the bumbling boy passively reaps the benefits of his older neighbour's efforts. If he has more to learn and further to come in order to transform his own garden as well, at least the journey he faces appears more inviting. Both children clearly share a love for nature, but practising it, for the boy, feels like it could be easier.

Shifts from narratives of criticism and catastrophe to those of hope suggest campaigners are learning the lessons of cultural psychology: that the more we dwell on experiences of happiness, love and awe, the more we are inspired to altruism.

And also, as Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project has shown, our different value systems pre-dispose us to different kinds of care. People with strong “communitarian and “egalitarian” worldviews are more likely to believe in, and support action on, climate change. While those with “hierarchical” and “individualistic” ideologies may bristle at calls to dismantle the fossil fuels industry, or provide more financial aid for the world’s poor. 

Effecting real change will need everyone on board. The UK Climate Coalition, an umbrella organization for over 100 groups, has therefore made an effort to court this more diverse audience. Their heart-shaped logo and their slogan, “Speak Up for the love of …. all the things we care about”, is deliberately open-ended. It invites readers to fill in the blank with their own, personal, passions: be they skiing or skylarks.

As Booth explains, “You have to take people on a journey. People’s first connection with a campaign might be something simple, like sharing a post on Facebook. But once they’ve connected with a story, then we can then drip-feed them more information”.

The campaigners have to trust that, as the Spice Girls told us: “I had a little love, now I’m back for more”. And they have some grounds for hope. Research shows that the more people engage in collectives of any kind, the more they become inclined to favour action on climate change. 

The logic works in reverse too: those who talk about the environment on social networks have more friends

Engaging with climate change as a story of a romantic quest may therefore help grow our sense of global citizenship. Perhaps more successfully than threats of doom. But it may also grow too slowly to trump short-term self interests. As Huxley warned: “Most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”

A revolution in energy use won’t always be easy, or cheap. Sarah Wollaston MP responded to the request to attend the Climate Coalition's lobby event with an emphasis on energy security: “Fuel poverty is an issue repeatedly raised with me in my constituency.” 

Wollaston is right to care about keeping our homes warm at a price everyone can afford. Even if the implication is a need for increased exploitation of British oil and gas.

Asking people to care for things that are proximate and personal also doesn’t always lead to greater empathy with those who are far away or foreign. After last year’s floods in Somerset, over 100,000 people signed a Daily Mail petition asking the government to bolster the relief with funds from the foreign aid budget. 

Taking action on climate change will force tricky choices between different things we care about. In the words of Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything: “There will be things we lose, luxuries that some of us will have to give up, whole industries that will disappear.”

But economic and environmental security are not mutually exclusive aims, even if the journey is sometimes more complex.

It may be helpful therefore for campaigners to consider another kind of narrative altogether: the crime story. One of the world’s most successful genres in publishing, and on our screens, these tales feed off our compulsion to find answers. Not only do they hook our attention, they prepare us for hard ethical choices and multi-layered solutions. 

The Pope today counsels greater love and care for all creation. Yet perhaps what greens should really reach for is the (crime) mystery divine.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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