Wednesday 29 July 2009

Communicating Climate Change with Camera

Had a lovely night out with staff, volunteers and session workers from ecoACTIVE last night. I'd spent the afternoon working on a little project on how to talk about climate change with 'normal' people in social situations without boring the pants off them or antagonising them massively. Normally if I'm out socially I specifically avoid the subjects sustainability, environment, climate change and so on for fear of being shot down in barrage of yawns..... but it was really nice to hang out with people who understand the issues and are not afraid to talk about them, or dare I say it, enjoy talking about them! I had a good chat with Andy Bodycombe, a photojournalist, about how to communicate climate change issues in ways that make it personal and tangible to people, like us, who are temporally and/or geographically so removed from the impacts. Andy and I talked about the danger of falling into the cliches when it comes to telling stories and raising awareness. From a photography point of view, we luckily seem to be veering away from the Polar bears hugging ice cubes and cracks on desert floors cliches. It is still, however, really very difficult to find ways to educate people for sustainability when there are so many images surrounding us that add up to education against sustainability.

My opinion is that you don't necessarily have to mention the environment or climate change at all to provide some education for the environment. Photojournalism wise, if you can show stories of people simply getting on with living sustainably and enjoying it, you can provide inspiring examples. Especially if you can explain what is bringing them wellbeing (community, learning, fulfilment, activity, sharing, empowerment, pride etc) rather than just showing happy faces. After all it is the oldest marketing trick in the book to show a photo of a happy family... in their car, on their sofa, on a sun lounger, in a fast food restaurant... to sell something. The promise of happiness is a strong and powerful one and one that people routinely buy into whether it is an idealised illusion or not. Somehow we need to get the population of Britain and the rest of the World to buy into sustainability to create a low impact but vibrant, healthy and enjoyable society. Acting sustainability is not about just opting out of the consumer economy hunkering down in a log cabin with a good book and an acoustic guitar defiantly humming 'I might not have any friends but at least my carbon emissions are below 1 ton a year la la la', that is a cop out; a bitter and lonely one. Acting sustainably is about being part of an ecologically sustainable economy and contributing to that economy through ones purchasing decisions, work and leisure activities and enjoying it. That economy does not have to be at a national or global scale to begin with, it starts at grass roots and grows. This growth creates signposts to other people, governments and entrepreneurs, signposts that bring more people in. These things are happening and we need to tell those stories.

What we don't need (again in my opinion - good old blogosphere!) are stark warnings about the end of the world and how we must 'reduce our consumption', 'give things up' and 'buy green'. These messages translate in people's minds to 'have less fun', 'do some chores' and 'be a responsible adult'. They are all counter intuitive to our present culture. At the moment most environmentalists persist with trying (and mostly failing) to get people, governments and businesses to buy into things that, to them, look like mundane chores, vote losers, restrictions on fun and short term profit losses. Environmentalists are trying to persuade people to give up goods and services that are environmentally unsustainable; right intent wrong strategy. Many of these goods and services are, at best, only 'pseudo satisfiers' of our basic non-material needs. But, trying to persuade people to give them up without sufficiently advising on and offering alternative, genuine, satisfiers of those needs; things like love, respect, fulfilment, meaning, joy, creativity, diversity, stimulating conversation and community, is a hugely inefficient process. Businesses know that people need all these things in their lives and have for decades been making people feel anxious and insecure about their lack of status, friendships, creativity and so on while at the same time positioning their products as solutions or satisfiers of their needs. The solutions are largely only 'pseudo-satisfiers' because as The Beatles put it: 'you can't buy me love' and a material consumption based economy would not work if these goods and services really did keep their promises of happiness, love, respect etc etc. To get people to consume less without advising on, inspiring, offering and, in fact, selling opportunities for them to satisfy their basic non-material needs in genuine non-material ways is shortsighted. Few people will do it for the sake of preventing some distant environmental disaster, they will only do it if it benefits them, now.

So, lets tell the stories of people who are fulfilled, secure, respected, loved, emotionally stable and fun. These are the people who can see through 'pseudo-satisfiers' and therefore don't buy them, they are people who don't see the 'green' behaviour as a major ball ache, they see it as common sensical and aligned with their everyday existence. They are not overly antagonised by environmentalists and are happy to add a bit of green nous to their life because it won't be a big chore. They also probably don't make a big song and dance about being sustainable either, its just what they do.

Governments and businesses in the end take their lead from people; they need to please them. It will be much easier for a government to impose taxes and regulations on environmentally damaging products in an attempt to phase them out if people are not buying into them anymore. Governments, at the moment, are finding it very difficult to make radical policy decisions for the sake of the environment because they know that there will be a public backlash. Environmentalists need to help people see through the pseudo-satisfers while providing and promoting opportunities for less stressful, less anxious, less materialistic, more fulfilling, more enjoyable and (with added green nous) therefore ultimately more sustainable lives. It is starting to happen, get your camera out and spread the word!


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Andy Bodycombe said...

Hi Morgan. This is the real Andy Bodycombe. .. not a spammer trying to seel people instant loans ! Ironic, given the nature of your blog. Thanks for the mention and I'm keen to explore these ideas more. Having followed the Arctic Sunrise blogs with healthy scientific interest (tracking the movement of the glaciers, exploring meltwater holes, analysing impact of sea temperature and currents on melt rates etc. . . all extremely valuable research) I was a little disappointed to receive a request for donations to help polar bears.... I like your ideas of showing happy fulfilled people. Play the marketeers at their own game. Keep in touch.