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What we need is system change, so that doing the environmentally (and socially) responsible thing is the easiest, simplest, cheapest choice – the one everyone will naturally, logically make. That means political change
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Why environmental communications can't just talk about the environment

Natalie Bennett

14th July, 2017


There's no doubt that one of the losers in this year's UK election was the environment and that there's clearly been a failure not just in politics, which is failing in so many ways, but also in environmental communication - a failure to reach people's hearts and minds with the urgent need for change, writes NATALIE BENNETT

Get any collection of environmental experts in a room and you'll find deep, urgent, desperate concern - often near despair - about the future of our planet, but that's not at the forefront of public concerns

Despite no shortage of immediate, crucial issues to debate - fracking, tidal power, air pollution, public transport, cold homes, neonicotinoids and glyphosate, a tidal wave of plastic pollution - not to mention the bigger, broader issues of climate change, biodiversity and bioabundance loss and human health, the environment hardly got mentioned in the recent UK General Election.

The Green Party carried a green question mark around London asking where the debate was, but no serious answer came.

What's gone wrong? Get any collection of environmental experts in a room and you'll find deep, urgent, desperate concern - often near despair - about the future of our planet, but that's not at the forefront of public concerns.

There's clearly been a failure not just in politics, which is failing in so many ways, but also in environmental communication - a failure to reach people's hearts and minds with the urgent need for change.

Partly, that's an understandable function of the state of our economy and society. With millions of households not sure where their next meal's coming from, fear and stress about insecure, low wage employment and inadequate benefits, it's entirely understandable that they're not looking beyond next week's rent or food shop.

But that's not true for many, and yet they too aren't prioritising the environment - which is after all entirely what the economy depends on. As the saying goes, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

I think of a young student I met on a doorstep in Sheffield. He confessed he knew nothing about politics, but wanted to vote. I ran through the mechanics and then asked what issues he was concerned about.

"What about climate change?" I asked. "Well I know I'm supposed to care," was his response.

He's of an age where the climate change already built into the system is certainly going to impact significantly on his life and prospects, and if we don't change course soon, impact on them disastrously.

We know that now, he even at some level knows it, but it isn't cutting through to action.

Why is this? Partly it is because we haven't overcome the sense of guilt that makes people want to not think about the environment because they don't want to think about their own actions. They don't want to inventory their own life and feel they should do things differently.

But that's not the point - not the issue. It's not what I'm concerned about.

No one individual can by changing their own behaviour make a significant difference, no matter how "saintly" their environmental life.

What we need is system change, so that doing the environmentally (and socially) responsible thing is the easiest, simplest, cheapest choice - the one everyone will naturally, logically make. That means political change.

And an environmentally sustainable world isn't about losses, but gains - about creating a society that gives people a better, more secure, healthier life. It can deliver what our current system is clearly failing to give - security, stability, freedom from fear.

I'm talking about the environment, certainly, but I'm also talking, always, about economics, sociology, politics, education.

And that's where I believe environmental communication has to go - a radical change for many communicators used to talking rigidly about the science, the figures, and only the science.

I've got some sympathy with Timothy Morton's refusal to distinguish between humanity and nature - we are part of one world, one system, on one fragile planet. Perhaps that's one way to deliver this change.

It isn't just environmental communications that have to change, of course.

As Kate Raworth's well-received Doughnut Economics makes clear, the fault also lies - even more acutely - with the field of economics, which has entirely ignored the physical basis on which it is entirely built - the planet, assuming that we can keep treating it as a mine and a dumping ground without limit.

So we have to enter a new age of thought, of communication, of politics. It will be one in which every decision and discussion, every report and communication, will include economics, sociology, environment and politics - the frame in which decisions are made for the common good within the environmental limits of this one fragile planet.

That requires a revolution in politics, in academia, in public perception - and now's a good time for a peaceful revolution, with profound disillusionment with the political approach that's dominated our politics for the past four decades.

We're not at the start of the middle of the end of neoliberalism, a model that's told us greed is good, inequality doesn't matter and the planet is infinitely abusable.

It's a great time to be talking about, explaining, campaigning, building, a new holistic politics and mode of thought.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the UK Green Party. This article is based on a recent speech she gave to the International Environmental Communications Association Conference in Leicester

 

 

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