Why we need more optimism in our approach to tackling climate change, and why scare tactics and a global narrative aren't helping.
It can be all too easy to feel overwhelmed nowadays by climate change. There is so much doom and gloom surrounding the subject in what we see online and in the news, and there seems to be this ever-widening disparity between discussion, declarations, and actually taking meaningful action. I’ve been feeling this a lot recently. Climate anxiety sits over me on the easiest days like something important I’ve forgotten to add to my to-do list, and on the worst, it wakes me in the middle of the night with a feeling of existential dread. So, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why this is, and what I can do about it.
The problem with scare tactics
On social media recently I’ve seen a lot of infographics being shared about Climate Change. Normally, I'd think of this as a good thing - it's raising awareness and making sure the issue isn’t just buried in the face of the pandemic - but I’ve found that more often than not the things being shared are overwhelmingly negative portents of our futures; reports of massive ice melt in the arctic circle, pictures of rising sea levels in thirty years time, oil spills, failures to act, and headlines of how little time we have left.
I won’t deny that these have a strong impact on my sense of urgency, but I find that the ubiquity of this approach, so without optimism, often ends up making me feel powerless. Instead of providing me with inspiration or a sense of how I can help, I am filled with a fear of what is to come.
This is compounded by a huge amount of literature and online information out there that blames climate change on politics, capitalism, and corporations; so much so that anything short of a complete national shift in political beliefs or instantaneously scrapping the entire global economic system seems insufficient.
That’s not to say that politics, capitalism, and corporations are not to blame. So few companies are responsible for such a large proportion of global greenhouse emissions that it's right we hold them accountable, and it's right that we push for change in the legal and international standards they should be held to. But too often I find myself in defeatist conversations with friends about how bad capitalism is, and how un-environmental most industries are, but how we are such small players in those worlds that there’s very little we can do to shift it, so we continue to accept and participate in the same systems.
This villainization of corporations and capitalism, even where deserves, often ends up placing sole responsibility for action at the shoulders of governments and large institutions - which we are simultaneously being told by the media to distrust - shifting responsibility entirely away from us; because what can the individual do to take on such monolithic power?
Rethinking the global narrative
This sense of powerlessness in the face of climate change is exacerbated by the global narrative we often frame it in. Yes, it's an issue affecting everyone, everywhere, but globalisation often homogenises "Climate Change" into one, single, enormous cause and effect, rendering any action not taken on a global scale insignificant. It also obfuscates the specifics of causes and prevents us from really being able to take meaningful action ourselves. Take, for example, the natural disasters and extreme weather events we see on the news, where “Climate Change” is used as a catch-all cause and reason. This gives us no specific area of improvement to focus on to ameliorate those issues in those areas - no way to help.
In a global narrative, you could see a nearby forest being cut down and say, “Oh, well, it’s not like it’s the Amazon, and besides, they’re planting a forest somewhere else to offset it”, and the issue is nullified. The overall sum balances: one forest felled, one forest planted, it doesn’t matter where or how ancient. And then, when that local deforestation contributes to destabilising the local climate - making the area gradually more susceptible to flooding, drought, soil erosion, landslides, or forest fires - the occurrence of any one of these things is attributed to the global phenomena of “climate change”, caused by everyone everywhere, and deforestation can continue locally unbounded. In the global narrative, everything is, in a way, dismissable as happening elsewhere.
In a book I read recently, called Climate: A New Story, the author makes this very point, and suggests this, as an alternative:
“The health of the global depends on the health of the local", "If everyone focused […] on protecting and regenerating their local places while respecting the local places of others, then a side effect would be the resolution of the climate crisis.” - Charles Eisenstein.
If we reframe climate change issues in terms of a local narrative - focusing on local environmental problems, where you live, and what you can do on your doorstep - finding and enacting solutions seems suddenly so much more achievable, and imaginable. Causes can be tackled before they become problems, and you get to actually see and live amongst the positive effects of the work you put in.
In the local narrative, it can be as simple as starting with looking outside your window and thinking to yourself: What is missing from this landscape? Are there enough wooded areas and green spaces? Where should we be creating them if we don't have enough of them? What are our local sustainability issues? Transport? Flooding? Unsustainable farming methods? Urbanisation and heat island effects? Lack of locally grown and distributed food? Unsustainable fishing methods?
In your local area, this becomes so much more manageable: You can picture the change you want to see; you can find smaller-scale, approachable organisations and local people to speak to; and, you only have to walk a little way to do it.
Of course, there are larger structures and systems in place that effect what you can do, and what's being done on a national and international scale by the world's companies. So, add to local care a push for an economic shift towards models of re-use, fixing, maintaining, and recycling, and a push for legislative change (whether that's individually signing petitions or via membership in larger-scale groups like 350, Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and political parties), and we would have a long-term global solution.
I feel very strongly that having a positive vision to hold onto can do far more for motivating climate action than scare tactics will ever do.
“There are abundant defeatist accounts about our shortcomings and inevitable failures. “What we do wrong” is an addictive, repetitive narrative. We need to tell other stories with other imagery and emotions associated with them. “To be truly radical today is to make hope possible, not despair convincing,” as Raymond Williams once said.” - Per Espen Stoknes, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming
Of course, local action isn't always as simple as just going out and creating the change you want to see. There will be things you have to talk to local authorities about, permissions and funding you might need to get, groups and events you might want to organise; but the key things are that it's your home, and therefore you know it well (or you have the capacity to), and you can feel invested in improving it. And if you don't feel like you know your area well enough to consider questions of what needs improving, then now is the time to get to know it, or get to know someone who does (more on this in some of my later blog articles).
The bottom line is: we need positivity in the face of climate change. We need to know that it’s possible to make a difference and to have an optimistic vision of what that difference could look like. As part of that, I feel it’s really important to share stories and images of positive and successful action.
“Optimism empowers you; it drives your desire to engage, to contribute, to make a difference. It makes you jump out of bed in the morning because you feel challenged and hopeful at the same time. It calls you to that which is emerging and makes you want to be an active part of change … In other words, optimism is the force that enables you to create a new reality.” - Christina Figuereres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose
This is, in part, why this blog exists: to share what we're doing, learning, researching, and reading about. We want to inspire others with the actions we're taking and provide information on how we're going about it. But, we also want to hear from you.
We are still just starting out, and you might be a seasoned expert with all the right information to help us out. We're hoping that this blog can become a kind of collective database of information and stories, so that no-one has to be stuck at square one wondering where to start, and so that we can help each other get informed and take action that makes a difference.
Do you have a local project you're working on or have completed that was successful that you want to share? Even if it wasn't successful, did you learn something useful from it that you'd like to share? Please get in touch.
We are much more likely to act if we believe that it will make a positive difference, and if we know we're not doing it alone.