31 July 2009

128 Days Left - Language is Everything

Why is it that the environmental movement still hasn't managed to come up with the compelling language about the climate change emergency that will stick, will teach, will upset, will move, will transform, will melt the ice in the hearts of human beings?

Why do we let "the other side" use all the evocative terms while we talk about temperature increases and emissions levels, which are, frankly, boring if not completely incomprehensible to most people.

Anyway, this rhetorical question came about after a conversation with a like-hearted spirit today and this observation:

People will always listen to what they want to hear. The trick is getting them to hear what they don't want to listen to.

Does that make sense?

Here are my suggestions for helping people want to listen ... and hear.

  1. Use picture language. Most people in this culture are visual learners, and anything that creates an image in the mind's eye is more powerful than mere concept language. Metaphors and analogies work well.
  2. Use story. Human beings have evolved as storytellers and story lovers — probably based on our thousands of years of sitting around campfires. Stories stick in our memory. Because we have an innate sense of story, we're able to retell them (even if we don't get the details right, which happens quite often).
  3. Make it personal. People need to hear themselves in the story. Climate change isn't just an emergency for Africans and Pacific Islanders. Our agricultural systems in the developed world are starting to fail — and most of us wouldn't last a month without someone else's food stocking the shelves in our local grocery store. (Personal enough?)
  4. Make it emotional. A lot of people think there's no place for emotions in the field of climate science. But emotions are what move people, or touch them. A little bit of passion helps open minds and hearts. Do not be afraid to show genuine emotion (this isn't about manipulation). Be real. Share your fear, for example, or your despair or longing. How can we talk about the possibility of ending life on Earth in a matter-of-fact, unemotional way?
  5. Be honest! In some ways, that's the same as showing emotion, but it's more than that. Scientists, for whatever seemingly misguided reasons, decided early on not to tell us the whole truth about climate change. But if people don't hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, how will they come to understand what we're up against? Our capacity for hearing bad news knows no bounds (else newspapers would not sell) — we must trust that people will know what to do once they have the opportunity to grasp the truth.

Do you have any other ideas for how we can better communicate the urgency of the climate change emergency to people? Please let me know.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?