10 July 2009

149 Days - The Power of Threatening Messages

In a sense, this carries on from yesterday's blog about the role that children can play in stimulating some climate change heart, soul and compassion from the adults in their lives.

So often, I hear environmentalists and environmental groups say that we have to be positive. This has translated, unfortunately, into two wasted decades of not telling the public the truth about global warming and the climate change emergency.

Turns out it was misguided, as well. I hope Doug McKenzie-Mohr, renowned ecopsychologist won't mind (please have a look around Fostering Sustainable Behavior - Community Based Social Marketing - it's fascinating), but I'd like to share some of his advice and insights here. (Verbatim, because I'm tired!)

Frame your Message

"Interestingly, how you present, or 'frame,' the activity [in this case, action on climate change] you are trying to promote is very important. Most sustainable activities can be presented positively (You should compost because you'll save in garbage collection user fees), or negatively (If you don't compost you'll lose money by having to pay more to have your garbage collected). Understandably, most organizations gravitate toward presenting positive rather than negative motivations to engage in a new activity. But should they? Apparently, no. Messages that emphasize losses which occur as a result of inaction are consistently more persuasive than messages that emphasize savings as a result of taking action."

That's why we need people to know the truth. We humans don't appreciate what we have until we lose it ... and we're losing it.

Carefully Consider the Use of Threatening Messages

"Is it wise to use threatening messages in communicating with the public? There is no simple answer to this question, but here are some of the issues you should consider. First, literature in the field of stress and coping suggests that we need to first appraise an issue as a threat before we are likely to take appropriate action. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for example, demonstrates the importance of communicating imminent threats to a wide audience. However, to be effective threatening messages need to communicate more than just the threat we face. In response to a threat, people have what Richard Lazarus refers to as two broad coping strategies [...] either problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping, as the name suggests, refers to taking direct action to alleviate the threat.... [E]motion-focused coping might involve ignoring the issue, changing the topic whenever it is raised in conversation, denying that there is anything that can or needs to be done, etc."

So let's tell people the truth about the climate change crisis, and then tell them it's good to feel the pain this knowledge brings, and then give them some ideas for what they can do — learn about it, talk about it, write about it. Let's all be part of communicating the not-so-imminent-anymore-because-it's-already-happening threat of climate change catastrophe.

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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?