Facts alone are failing in the war on climate change communication. Instead, to truly engage, we need to share experience. Without the privilege of person-person contact, this can still be achieved remotely by inspiring others through art, to create their own experiences.
Understanding arising from experience is far more powerful than factual knowledge alone. This has been known for aeons and yet we are still failing to connect people to their environment in a way that persuades them to protect, rather than destroy, something that they are part of.
Yesterday’s US mid-term elections are a prime example of the conservation movement’s failure “to move” the voter. To quote Brad Plumber at Vox:
“You had billionaire Tom Steyer spending $67 million trying to convince voters to care about global warming. You had the League of Conservation Voters pouring in another $25 million, more than in the previous two elections combined. All the while, some outlets were suggesting that recent natural disasters — from Hurricane Sandy two years ago to the ongoing drought in the West — just might push climate issues to the fore”.
Yet despite these efforts – based on pushing facts and reason – Republicans won control of the Senate by a ‘slam dunk’. The now Republican Majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, was re-elected on the back of the campaign motto “Coal. Guns. Freedom”. Recent polls show that only 36% of Republicans consider the environment an important issues, compared to 69% Democrats.
This is just days after Europe’s leaders compromised heavily on Climate Targets for 2030. While Angela Merkel was pushing for higher energy efficiency and emissions reduction targets, eastern European countries and the UK negotiated downwards. (See end results here). The eastern countries’ unfounded fear of limiting potential economic growth is understandable, but the UK’s goading by UKIP is not. The fact that the UK government is being pushed around by a minority party on the right, who has less democratic representation than any party (including the Greens) on the left, shows a failure of imagination in communication. Arguably, this is the failure of everyone who believes in more social equality – but the environmental lobby can’t escape unscathed.
The facts that we’re pushing just aren’t being taken on board by a bored audience.
Help is at hand from ancient wisdom – wisdom stretching from China dating over two millennia ago, to the surprising sagacity of Hollywood today:
- “What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.”
Xunzi, Chinese Confucian Philosopher, 340-245 BC.
- The only kind of learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered or self-appropriated learning – truth that has been assimilated in experience. – Carl Rogers, American Psychologist, 1902-1987 AD.
- Fictional Psychologist Sean Maguire, Good Will Hunting, 1998.
But how to share experience?
Unfortunately, environmentalists can’t physically connect everyone to their outside world. We can’t stage other peoples’ journeys of discovery, helping them realise how our interconnected nature means that their actions are affect all of life, and how they can positively affect others by making some different choices.
We don’t have enough time, power, nor moral right, to directly force everyone to this understanding directly.
But as human beings, we do have the unique ability to inspire. While a small number of species outside H. Sapiens may demonstrate culture, none have been able to express themselves as complexly as we have. Art, in all its forms is an expression of humanity and helps individuals share experiences through a remote medium.
While we seem to be unique in our ability to destroy, the human race is unique in its ability to create and imagine.
My argument is that environmental communicators now need to harness this power. Artists have always been inspired by nature, as have scientists. We now need to bring these two groups together to inspire others in the truth that surrounds them.