Why Even Dire Environmental Warnings Don't Move People To Act
"Saving the Planet" isn't enough. Activists must begin to think about other ways to push people towards an ecological approach to life.
PARIS — Of course, there were all these shoes piled up on Place de la République in Paris, as part of Avaaz"s global climate mobilization. There was also a human chain with thousands of people holding hands along the Boulevard Voltaire, one of many symbolic gatherings across France. But the state of emergency declared after the Nov. 13 terror attacks — which bans mass gatherings — meant that these events planned to coincide with the COP21 climate change conference haven't had the visibility the organizers had planned. It's yet another blow for those who, year in year out, struggle to raise awareness about our planet's demise.
Conferences on the environment are multiplying, alarming reports are piling up, all pointing to a global ecological catastrophe, yet our reaction remains ludicrous. A survey by French research agency BVA published in March revealed that reversing climate change was a priority for just 13% of people, far behind those more concerned about unemployment (60%), terrorism (41%) or their dwindling purchasing power (36%).
This can be explained chiefly by the topic's complexity. Because it interacts with sciences, economics and social issues, any worthwhile discussion of climate change requires intelligible, complex vocabulary and knowledge. It's not easy to make it accessible. There definitely is an audience for it, as demonstrated by the popularity of alternative websites on the topic — Reporterre, Terra Eco or Bastamag. But these are small organizations unknown to the majority of the public.
Too much to chew
The size of the problem also explains public apathy. "Ecological urgency doesn't really encourage people to take action, because the causes of what's happening are far away and invisible," says Bruno Latour, a sociologist and philosopher. "Because it requires you to look at inequalities, as Pope Francis underlined in his encyclical Laudato si. Because it's a topic of war that requires you to accept conflict situations — for instance, between nuclear energy and alternative sources. It's a topic that can drive you crazy!"
To make matters even more complicated, Latour adds, something should have been done about reversing climate change as early as the 1980s, and now it's too late to avoid serious consequences. "This is all very hard to swallow," he says. Denial is a common behavior in the face of the worst issues, especially when the feeling of powerlessness prevails.
"We only really take action when we're faced with a perceptible and immediate danger," says philosopher Dominique Bourg. "Abstract repercussions have no influence on our behavior." Hearing year after year that the change is irreversible can lead people to believe that any action is futile even though there's still time to avoid the worst.
But at what cost? Nobody has any illusions anymore: To meaningfully mitigate the current ecological crisis means redefining our relationship to the world we live in and making drastic changes to our lifestyles, from the food we eat and the methods of transport we use to our energy resources and our productivity model.
"We are in a long-lasting economic crisis, and it's not the best of times to imagine a radical change," says Lucile Schmid of France's Green Party (EELV). "Ecology won't solve the unemployment issue. This transition period therefore gives rise to an anxiety that life will change and that we'll lose comfort," she acknowledges. To consume less, to heat your house less and to eat less meat are all unglamorous prospects.
"The ecological project strongly questions growth, which is still a crucial concept to the might of a nation, its economy and its social well-being," Schmid says. It's all very scary to many people, and the moralizing ecological rhetoric can irritate. Besides, we ask ourselves, "What's the point in us doing anything, if those at the top aren't doing it either?" Citizens are willing to sort their garbage and to recycle, but when they learn that Volkswagen cars cheat diesel emissions tests or that oil companies are making obscene profits, it's tempting to throw up their hands.
A tangled web
Not to mention the fact that an eco-friendly attitude can become a spiral of contradictions that can discourage even the most determined people. Should you switch to low-tension light bulbs? Should you eat farmed fish to ease the impact on natural resources? But what about the impact of fish farming on the coasts and the production's sanitary conditions. What about banning furs? It's the main alternative to synthetic fabrics, which are made out of oil. And so forth.
What's more, ecology-friendly behavior is often seen as a luxury that not everybody can afford. Buses pollute more than trains, but they're cheaper. Organic food might be better than industrial products, but they cost more.
There are, however, measures that don't cost a thing, and some that might even save you a little money: turn off the lights, use public transport, recycle. All of those actions make an ecology-friendly lifestyle look like an opportunity rather than a constraint.
And indeed, some things have already started to change. "In 20 years, our way of life has become more sober in terms of transport, heating, sustainable consumption," Schmid says. "When ecology goes with saving money and local jobs, people are ready to change their daily habits." In January 2014, a study showed that 80% of French people had begun shopping with reusable bags, while 66% favored local products.
One of the keys is to turn sustainable living into something desirable. "The effects of pollution and the health problems it can cause provide as many opportunities to see the ideas of a good quality of life and of sustainable development converge," says sociologist Marcel Jollivet.
The success of the urban gardening project Incredible Edible, launched in 2008 by two mothers in Todmorden, England, is telling. In France, a similar initiative in the southwestern city of Bayonne sees gardeners and artists cultivating their vegetable gardens together and sharing their produce with other locals. It's enough to make people believe that the green revolution is underway.