In 2006, Colin Beavan decided he wanted to do something about climate change, U.S. oil consumption, and its military campaigns in the Middle East. And if that’s not systemic enough, he also decided that (as a journalist) simply writing about it was not going to do any good. Instead, in his own words, “I wanted to find a way to engage Americans who were not typically interested in politics. For this reason, I wanted to draw people in through the power of story instead of polemic.”
So he and his family lived for a year in the middle of Manhattan in such a way as to cause as little impact as possible, which yielded surprisingly popular blog posts, a book, and a documentary film. The “No Impact Man” recently summarized the lessons he learned about how (and how not) to engage people in the climate crisis, a set of learnings so creative and interesting we’ve reproduced them here:
On the subject of engaging citizens in this discussion about climate change, I’d like to offer some conclusions I’ve drawn through my experience as No Impact Man. I don’t mean to imply that this is the way everyone should approach communicating on climate.
Instead, it is a list of guidelines I have developed for myself as travel around and talk and write about climate to, I like to think, some success:
1. How to communicate about climate change is not a case of either/or but of and/also. Selling solutions to climates change is not like selling laundry soap. You can’t figure out one message for the center of the bell curve. The message must be segmented. We have to communicate with the tails of the bell curve. Don’t assume that everyone else will care for the same reasons you do.
2. No matter which community you are talking to, find a way to connect to their health, happiness and security. Mom’s in DC may well want the coal-fired power plant removed, but not because of climate change. Instead, they want to get rid of it because it gives their children asthma.
3. Break away from dry scientific stories and find sympathetic human stories that connect to people’s daily lives. In the United States, this is particularly important because Americans are ambivalent about politics. Our culture is one that concentrates more on individuals.
4. Don’t speak about the planet. Speak about the habitat that we depend upon for our health, happiness and security. The planet is something else. The habitat is the air we breathe and the food we eat. When speaking about species extinction, point out that if the habitat cannot support other species, that is a sign that it may soon not be able to support us, either.
5. For crying out loud, joke around. If we can’t laugh, is the planet even worth saving?
6. Break away from morality and guilt. Most people are moral, even if they don’t care about what we care about. Instead, figure out what your audience is concerned about and find a way to make climate change solutions appeal to their concerns.
7. Forget trying to frighten people. Frightening people about things they feel they can do nothing about just forces them to ignore you.
8. Avoid dissociating conservatives by cloying too closely to progressive language. We cannot “win” on climate change. A progressive government will soon lose to a conservative one. The culture must be transformed so that strengthening the habitat is a people concern, not just a progressive one.
9. Build coalitions around the solutions rather than the problems. There may be disagreement on climate change, but there is very little disagreement that reducing reliance on dwindling and unstable fossil fuel sources would be good. To many people, renewable energy is just plain “cool.” Use the Star Trek factor in your favor.
10. Talk about aspirations and ambitions rather than limitations. Climate may be a crisis but its solution provides many opportunities. Wouldn’t it be better not to have to live in a traffic jam of automobiles and instead have a healthy, enjoyable, and safe transportation system?
11. Listen and engage. Don’t lecture. Don’t talk down. People want to be engaged and have the opportunity to discuss. They don’t want to be trained or talked at. Find ways for people to take ownership of the issue by letting them be part of the solution.
12. At least in the developed economies, don’t talk about how a sustainable society would be just economically efficient but also talk about how it could bring a more meaningful life, one based more on community and social connection rather than consumption.
13. Tell people how to help. Don’t agitate people about something that they can’t act upon. That only turns them off. In the United States during World War II, scrap drives to help the war effort were hugely important to morale because people felt involved.