Rethinking the language of environmentalism

Rethinking the language of environmentalism

climate protestors language of environmentalism
ShutterstockRyan Rodrick Beiler
It's time to rethink how the environmental movement conveys the necessity of changing our impacts on the planet.

It is a challenge that has thwarted provincial DJs for generations: how do you get a quiet crowd to make some noise?

I've been thinking about this problem a lot recently. In part because the run up to next year's Paris Summit will see businesses and NGOs focus intently on building public support for climate action. Green businesses moving clean technologies from blueprint to production will also have to get much better at engaging with the public to promote their wares. Beyond that, I was recently asked to become a trustee of the new environmental charity Hubbub, which, as the name suggests, is focused on turning up the volume of green engagement initiatives.

My interest in Hubbub relates to the lengthy essay I published back in 2012 defending the so-called "New Environmentalism" and the emergence of a certain strand of pragmatic, pro-business, realistic and yet optimistic green thinking. Since then, the recognition that the transition to a low carbon economy is both essential and desirable has become ever more widespread, as evidenced by everything from the latest U.S.-China Climate Pact to the rapid expansion of the green bond market.

But the environmental movement has struggled to match this progress in the realm of communications, repeatedly struggling to articulate a vision that can harness wider public and business support for economic decarbonization and green behavioral change. The question New Environmentalism now has to address if it is to build on its recent success is how to present a more compelling vision — one capable of appealing to the extensive constituency that is already quietly supportive of what the global green economy is attempting to achieve. The answer, I suspect, lies in the language of freedom and justice that has successively driven so many of the cultural, political, technological and economic transitions of the past.

It is these questions that Hubbub is wrestling with. The charity was founded this summer by Trewin Restorick, who previously founded Global Action Plan and over 15 years established it as one of the UK's leading environmental NGOs and green behaviour change specialists. By his own admission, Restorick, while remaining rightly proud of Global Action Plan's many achievements, became a little tired of the staid and incremental nature of many behaviour change initiatives, not to mention the tendency of some businesses to use modest gains on recycling or energy efficiency as a sticking plaster that singularly failed to conceal the unsustainable nature of their core business models.

Consequently, Hubbub was launched this summer with the goal of bringing a more visible, vocal and radical approach to environmental engagement initiatives. The goal is as simple as it is daunting: to help make green and sustainable lifestyles and technologies attractive, cost effective and, above all, fun. The charity hinted at its approach last month with the launch of a Pumpkin Festival in Oxford to highlight the tons of food waste created by Halloween, encouraging people to make good use of their jack-o-lanterns once they are done with them. It may sound like the kind of initiative that results in incremental environmental savings, but the plan is to fit the festival into a wider effort to tackle food waste. The campaign will then form part of a network of hubs that will seek to promote sustainability in spheres of activity where people are already highly engaged, such as sport, fashion and neighborhoods.

In addition to highlighting how attractive green behaviours are, these hubs and their related campaigns will seek to build on the wisdom of Jonathan Rowson's fascinating recent work for the RSA on A New Agenda on Climate Change, which highlights how simply encouraging people to take action on climate change is largely worthless and potentially counterproductive if you do not offer them a tangible course of action. Hubbub wants to show how tackling food waste saves you money, how moving away from resource-intensive fast fashion needn't be dreary, how environmentalism is not the worthy preserve of eco-nerds. It can help make your park more attractive, your local pub cosier, and your neighbourhood school more successful. By giving people tangible and attractive steps they can take it helps tackle the "stealth denial" Rowson identifies and serves to embolden the two thirds of people who typically accept manmade climate change is a serious issue but do little about it.

On the surface this looks like an effective approach that should help cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide a further boost to environmentalism's slow and steady march into the mainstream. And yet, behavioral change initiatives such as those planned by Hubbub are not without their critics. Too middle class and elitist, complain climate skeptics, many of whom are middle class and a fair few of whom are ennobled. Too condescending and inaccessible for poorer communities, grumble critics whose own record on campaigning for social mobility often appears as thin as their climate science credentials. Too ineffectual and incremental, argue some fellow environmentalists, maintaining that behavioral change initiatives will never deliver the drastic structural change that is required to decarbonize the global economy.

Behavioral change vs. structural change

It is this last point that gives me pause for thought. I am sympathetic to the argument that behavioral change initiatives make a modest contribution to the low-carbon economy at best and constitute little more than greenwashing at worst.

On the other two points of criticism, environmentalism is all too often a middle class pursuit, and there are some components of climate policy that appear regressive in the short term. But the idea environmentalists are gleefully ignoring these facts is an appalling slur. Hubbub and many other green NGOs and businesses are actively engaged in broadening their appeal, and there are numerous examples of environmental projects that seek to involve poorer communities. Similarly, in my experience, there is a willingness within the green movement to wrestle with policies that are regressive in the short term, even if their long term goal is to protect some of the world's poorest societies from economically-crippling climate impacts. Finally, what exactly is wrong with leaning heavily on the middle class? From the industrial revolution onwards, the middle class has played a crucial role in almost every successful technological, economic and social transformation we have undergone. Environmentalism is unlikely to be an exception.

The criticism of behavioral change initiatives' efficacy, on the other hand, cannot be easily dismissed. There are two big and inter-related fault lines within the environmental movement currently, which are likely to be the subject of intense debate in the run up to next year's Paris Summit. One is between structural change and behavioral change. The other is between the top down, international treaty, supra-national government approach to decarbonization and the bottom up, business-led, city-level, regional administration approach to cutting emissions. (Actually there are three big fault lines, in that the divide between New and Old Environmentalism remains. But given my position as an avowed New Environmentalist, I'm not about to revisit that particular argument).

If I had to pick a side in these debates  — although the point I am working towards is you don't have to pick a side — I would lean towards structural change and bottom-up decarbonization at almost every turn. Brendan May, founder of green consultancy Robertsbridge and former chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, offered a convincing demolition of behavioral change initiatives earlier this summer, arguing the sheer scale of the environmental challenges we face means the embrace of greener behaviors by a globally insignificant sliver of the population will not make one iota of difference.

The only hope of avoiding a climate crisis, May argues, is through drastic technological and infrastructure change led by the world's corporate and economic superpowers.

"The risks of climate change, resource scarcity, pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and social inequality require politicians and business to wake up," he writes. "That's where campaigners should focus their efforts, not in wasting time and resource trying to mobilise a global public that may well follow, but will never lead the charge. To those who say that it is easier for business or government to move if there is a public movement in place to create the political will or commercial incentive, I say good luck, but we can't afford to wait that long."

In May's reading, green behavioral change efforts are, if anything, a distraction from the more serious business of mobilizing capital and transforming business models. Similarly, Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance has convincingly argued for some time that the long-running UN climate change negotiations risk detracting from the "bottom up" decarbonization efforts that will ultimately determine whether or not a low-carbon economy is built. In an excellent essay on The Rocky Road to Paris, he argued the focus for the United Nations talks had to shift towards the practical, on-the-ground efforts that will enable deep emissions reductions.

"After Copenhagen, it became fashionable to argue for a combined 'top-down and bottom-up' approach to the climate challenge," he wrote. "My concern in 2011 was that 'the more time, energy and credibility is wasted pushing for a binding, top-down deal on emissions, the less we have to devote to the sort of initiatives we know work'... I remain an unashamed and almost unalloyed bottom-upper."

I instinctively support both of these arguments. If you asked me which is more likely to prove successful at cutting emissions over the coming decades, convincing people not to travel or inventing a genuinely low-carbon aviation fuel or hyper-fast train, I'd pick the technological and structural option every time. Ask me to choose between an international agreement that in and of itself does nothing to slash emissions and a living and working low-carbon city, I'd take the bottom-up technological leap forward knowing that if works other cities would emulate its success.

So, why get involved with a charity focused on behavioral change? Because the attempt to paint these debates as an either/or decision is the most blatant of false choices. Climate change and its associated challenges are so big we need both structural change and behaviour change, as well as top-down and bottom-up decarbonization efforts.

In fact, each side of these two divides is mutually reinforcing the other. Green behavioral change enables green structural change, and vice versa. Regional level low-carbon infrastructure makes international climate policy progress more likely, and vice versa.

Last week's U.S.-China climate pact was enabled by both countries' recent progress in accelerating clean tech deployment, which provided political leaders with evidence that the new emissions targets they have agreed upon are achievable. But the agreement in turn provides a significant boost to green investor confidence, enabling further bottom-up action to curb emissions.

Building a green constituency

The reality is no economic, cultural or political transformation has ever been achieved without a solid constituency demanding and enabling that transformation.

The good news is all around the world there is a sizeable and growing group of people that wants to see action on climate change. Polling shows climate skepticism is an almost uniquely Anglo Saxon phenomenon. Even in those countries where the environment has become a deeply-politicized issue, clear majorities support climate action and clean energy. More broadly, there is almost a universal human desire to live in clean and biodiverse environments that nourish body and soul alike. I am yet to meet the person who likes litter or the individual who is happy about air pollution.

The bad news is that this huge constituency is remarkably diffuse and staggeringly weak. Recent U.S. polling confirms that while concern about climate change is a majority position, people do not see it as a priority when they come to vote — hence the Kafka-esque sight of a climate skeptic as chair of the Senate Environment Committee. Similar results are evident in other countries, as people asked to prioritize between short- and long-term concerns err toward the old truism that in the long term we're all dead. People love the environment. They care about it deeply. But they rarely translate that care into action.

Which brings us back to my original question: how do you get a silent majority to make some noise?

A green constituency that translates its quiet concern about climate change into tangible climate action — into clean technologies bought and political demands made — would enable a drastic acceleration in decarbonization and low-carbon development. It would provide politicians with the cover they need to enact ambitious green policies. To this point, it is notable how legislation we take for granted, like the smoking ban or driving with a seatbelt, only came about once politicians were sure there was an overwhelming constituency either actively in their favour or indifferent either way. And it would provide businesses with the mass market they need for new clean technologies.

Most importantly, it would provide a conducive audience for the massive structural change that is required to decarbonize the global economy — change that in some areas will be so drastic that it simply cannot be achieved without an engaged public that understands the context for the infrastructure transformations we are being asked to make. Structural change is essential to tackling climate change, but you can't decarbonize on the quiet.
How can environmentalists create, or more precisely, enable such a constituency?

I am not talking simply about public support for banning unsustainable and environmentally-damaging economic activities (although a legally-backed end to the most egregious environmentally-unjustifiable practices, like food waste to landfill, toxic levels of air pollution and unabated coal power, would be great). Nor am I suggesting environmentalists try to engineer public support for banning anything and everything without a green label, regardless of how some will attempt to interpret these arguments. The question is not simply how do you secure narrow public support for renewables or electric cars (we already have that), but how to build a constituency that translates its pent up interest in the environment into a comprehension of the need for a green economic transition.

I suspect Hubbub is right in its belief that environmentalism needs to be made more fun. The benefits of cleaner technologies and communities need to be made more explicit, and there has to be a willingness to engage people with environmental issues through avenues that already interest them.

The recent pumpkin festival is a perfect, if relatively narrow, example. If you can engage people who are interested in food and family activities and show them how you can easily bolt saving food onto behavior they already enjoy, not only are they more likely to take steps to reduce food waste, but, crucially, they may be more willing to push their council to provide food waste recycling.

It is at this point that incremental environmental gains delivered through behavioral change suddenly morph into policy and structural changes that deliver much greater gains. The snowball starts to roll.

A green Chicago School?

However, to achieve this momentum, the communication of environmental messages needs to be made much more concise and compelling.

This summer, I shared a platform at an event hosted by the Green Economy Coalition on climate change communication with the always inspiring U.S. writer and activist Hunter Lovins. She was brutally dismissive of the environmental movement's inability to communicate an attractive vision to the public, contrasting it with the conscious decision the Chicago School took to appropriate the language of freedom and liberty to build support for a neoliberal economic system that provided millions of people with neither.

Lovins point, one which I agreed with, is that all great movements seeking social and economic change have a unifying narrative — an origin story if you will — that explains where they came from and where they are going. We understand (or at least comic book fans understand) how Bruce Wayne became Batman. We have a sense of the mission that defines him. More pertinently, we know what the anti-slavery movement wanted, and we know what civil rights campaigners want. We know what feminists want (no matter how much misogynists attempt to argue that feminism's central demand for equal treatment is somehow unclear). We also know what neoliberalism wants, and we know the arguments its supporters deploy to get it.

Can we say the same of environmentalism? Do we even know what we want? Sure, we can come up with a long list of goals: an effective response to climate change, an end to ocean acidification, a more efficient economy, a reduction in air pollution, restoration of the natural world, some form of social justice. But what unifies that lot? Where is the narrative that stitches the key goals of the modern environmental movement together, that commands public recognition and provides a basis for public, business and political support?

Looking at those successful transformations of the past, it is worth noting how their core narratives can be distilled down to one or two words. The industrial revolution marched under a banner of progress and no little sense of duty and patriotism. The anti-slavery movement had its simple, one word, unanswerable arguments: liberty and justice. The civil rights movement and feminism have similarly defined themselves through simple calls for justice and equality. Neoliberalism annexed liberty and grafted it onto competition, alongside a whispered ‘I can't believe the proles are buying this.'

But what is the banner environmentalism marches under? What is its story? It is hard to fit, ‘We demand an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 for industrialised nations and a 50 percent cut for emerging economies by the same date' on a banner. Or a chant: "What do we want?" "A decarbonised and circular economy where green growth is measured using a new metric that replaces the dysfunctional GDP measurements that distort our current economic models!" "When do we want it?" "By 2030!"

Not greener, but better

Speaking on the panel alongside Lovins, I repeated my oft-voiced and rather clunky line about how the narrative the green economy should be pursuing is, "not greener, but better."

Green business communication efforts should be focused exclusively on the way in which clean technologies, business models and lifestyles represent progress and technological improvement. We should revive the underlying narrative of the first industrial revolution and demonstrate how green businesses can replace inefficient and flawed technologies with alternatives that are quite simply better than the incumbents across almost every metric.

In the 21st century, fossil fuel firms will end up like the bankrupted cart makers and whale oil trades of the 19th and early 20th century. It is a solid argument that becomes ever more compelling as clean technologies mature. Who doesn't want to live in a warm and efficient house rather than a cold, costly and draughty one? Who doesn't want cars that end the blight of air pollution?

This narrative is playing a big part in Hubbub's plans and you now see it every day in the advertising and promotion of emerging clean technologies. The Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S are not advertised as being explicitly green, they are promoted as cool, attractive cars with ultra-low running costs. Similarly, the new digital heating controls that are suddenly being advertised anywhere and everywhere by the likes of British Gas, Npower, and Nest are being positioned as cool gadgets, not green gadgets.

And yet, "not greener, but better" is still too complicated. It is not unanswerable. It invites a debate over whether what you are proposing really is greener and better — a debate that is hard to win when you are battling vested interests, misinformation and the most powerful incumbents in corporate history. No one is going to fight for a slogan that sounds like the strapline for the latest eco-gadget. You can't build a powerful and engaged green constituency around "not greener, but better." You need something more.

Some environmentalists have retreated to the movement's more spiritual fringes and argued that it is "love" that can provide this something more. But as I've argued before, "love" is far too vague and poorly defined term to build tangible climate action around. If we make tackling climate change conditional on a global spiritual awakening, then we're screwed.

Green freedom

However, there is a recurring theme in the narratives that have nourished successful economic and social transformations. Maybe, once again, it is the concepts of freedom and justice that hold the key: Freedom from polluted air; freedom from toxic water; freedom from climate risks; freedom from volatile fossil fuel prices; freedom from cities without enough green space; freedom from corporate and political power that has no interest in our long-term future.

What environmentalists are essentially demanding is freedom from pollution that delivers environmental justice to the victims of that pollution, plus future generations that will face the climate impacts we are bequeathing them.

As Robert Kennedy Jr. argues, the biggest subsidy in the world is not the one handed to renewables companies, or even the much greater financial kickbacks gifted to fossil fuel companies. It is the subsidy we hand everyone when we say you can dump pollution into our air and waters for nothing.

An environmental narrative based on freedom and justice has the potential to unite left and right, even if in the current climate that looks about as likely as Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage enjoying a pint together. It might seem like an improbable alliance, but in the U.S. there are some fascinating examples of Tea Party activists and environmentalists joining forces to embrace renewables that enable self-sufficiency and free people, in one important respect, from reliance on both the state and corporations.

An appeal to see environmental progress and clean technology as a mechanism for enabling greater freedom and genuine justice appeals to one of the oldest impulses in human society and would resonate powerfully across the political spectrum. Obviously it is difficult to create a narrative centred on freedom when the oppressor you are setting yourself against is an invisible gas and a hugely complex global economic system.

Moreover, I remain somewhat conflicted about the strategy, pioneered by, of painting fossil fuel companies as the enemy of climate action. But it remains possible to argue that clean technologies and green business models give us freedom from environmental damage and freedom to better enjoy the world that surrounds us. For businesses, a green economy also gives freedom to innovate and freedom from tired and dysfunctional 20th and 19th century infrastructure.

Supporters of the status quo would inevitably mock this narrative and argue that true freedom comes with the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels. But as the climate cost associated with that particular "freedom" becomes ever more apparent, and as clean technologies demonstrate they can compete on costs with fossil fuels, those arguments look increasingly outdated and isolated.

Could a narrative based on green freedom work? Could it create a more coherent environmentalism that is attractive to the significant constituency that is quietly concerned about the state of the environment and supportive of the technologies that may herald a better and greener economy? I don't know.

But I do know that to deliver real change, both in terms of behaviors and economic structures, you need a constituency that will demand, support and then enable that change. And if you are going to embolden such a constituency and get it to make some noise, you need to give it something to get excited about.

It is hard to get that animated about the minutiae of climate change science, not least because so much of it is bloody terrifying. But people do get excited about their local park, about cool technologies, about saving money and about improving their neighborhood. They do get excited about freedom. The freedom from looming climate catastrophe and a busted growth model that can offer us little but volatility, and risk is something the public and the business community might be willing to fight for.

Indeed, there are ever more signs that they already are. The freedom to live our lives in beautiful, sustainable environments is something we all desire. New Environmentalism, at its best, can offer that freedom. It is time to make some noise about it.

This story first appeared on BusinessGreen.