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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.

By India Bourke

“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.

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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.

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