Should saving the planet be a romantic quest or a battle against evil? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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 the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser