How to communicate environmental issues: the big dilemma

The other day browsing my twitter account, I saw a post from someone talking about “climate outbreak” and a list of scary statements about what’s currently going on with the planet and the climate.

Even when I know these are sadly true, my first thought was: Gosh, this is so negative, reading this many people won’t get inspired to act, if anything they’ll say “Why should I bother then? there is no hope”.

I left a comment, other people joined the conversation. Some agreed that the negativity won’t engage people, some others said it was ridiculous to talk about hope and positive stuff when things are quite bad and we can’t reverse climate change (basically we can’t tell people everything will be fine when that’s not the case).

That got me thinking how we are all so different and get engaged or disengaged from the same piece of information. For that reason today I decided to explore some thoughts about this topic.

The dilemma

I am personally more inclined to talk to people about what we can do as individuals, how we can make a difference. If you follow me on social media, you know I don’t publish a lot of negative stuff, because in my mind (based on my perspective), many people will withdraw from the subject.

However, even trying to be more action-oriented and positive, sometimes I feel it doesn’t work either. Our values, beliefs, backgrounds, even personalities vary so much, it is hard to make people care more about the environment and join these efforts.

Sometimes I wish I had a magic wand!

ClimateLab

ClimateLab is an initiative created by the University of California that explores ways we can change how we think and act about climate change.

One of their videos is called: Why humans are so bad at thinking about climate change:

Some highlights from the first part of this video:

  • “This Doom and Gloom messaging just isn’t working. This Fear, this guilt, we know from psychology is not conducive to engagement, it is the opposite, it makes people passive”.
  • “Many Americans continue to think of climate change as a distant problem, distant in time, that the impacts won’t be felt for a generation or more, and distant in space, that this is about polar bears or maybe some developing countries”.
  • “We’ve faced climate issues before”…”the hole in the ozone layer”…”we were able to wrap our heads around that and take action… people listened to the scientist and took action”
  • “Climate change caused by green house gases is much trickier because sources are more complicated and for the most part they are totally invisible”…”If CO2 was black we would have dealt with this issue long time ago”.

So in summary their message is more about sharing positive things that are happening. The second part of the video also explores the idea of using our competitive side to reduce for instance electricity usage.

I think this video is great, but as much as I agree with them about the “doom and gloom” message not working that well, I think there is more to the story.

A bit of psychology

Two weeks ago I attended to a work-related training course and the facilitator mentioned how some people are more motivated by pleasure others by pain. So someone can be really excited about all the new improvements, opportunities and positive changes a project is going to bring, while others will be more keen to hear about what the project has to do with all the existing problems and things that are not working.

This is related to the Pain and Pleasure principle. It originated from Sigmund Frued and it enunciates that we seek immediate gratification of our needs (pleasure) while we also seek to avoid pain. According to IQ Mattrix:

“The pain-pleasure principle lies at the core of everything you do, and of everything you are. Your beliefs, values and psychological rules are all built upon this principle. The decisions you make, the actions you take, and the habits you indulge in, are all based on this principle. In fact, every part of your psyche is influenced in some way by the pain-pleasure principle”

This is also linked to the Attraction and Avoidance Principle, where some people are motivated by doing, achieving goals, while others seek to move away from painful situations.

So even when we may use them both depending on the situations, it seems we have a tendency to lean more towards doing things to seek pleasure or avoiding things to prevent experiencing pain.

What does this has to do with environmental talk?

Well based on this, it seems it is a good idea to tailor the messages depending on your audience. According to ChangingMinds:

“For those who are driven by attraction, seek their passions and lay opportunity in their path. They will swoop towards what you are offering.
For those driven by avoidance, point out the problems of the past and the dangers of the present. Show them a future where they can at least avoid the worst of the problems they face.”

So if I am driven by attraction, I may need to hear about all the projects that are happening worldwide to switch to clean energy, to clean the oceans, opportunities to help and so forth. But maybe if I am driven by avoidance, I may need to hear about the dangers of climate change for us and future generations, so that I get motivated to act to avoid that pain (sea-level rising, flooding, heat waves, drought, air pollution, social conflicts and more).

Of course this is great and doable when we are talking to someone we know, because based on the interaction we have had with this person, we may have some feelings about what drives this person and we can communicate in a way that’s more effective trying to keep the other person’s perspective in mind. However, if you (like me in this precise moment) have no idea who is getting the information, it is complicated.

My take on this

At this point in time, I think we may want to present the information in both ways: the hopeful, encouraging and positive things that are happening, but also the bad and scary stuff. Again we are all different, so mixing the communication style/information we may engage more people.

The only issue I have with the “Doom and Gloom” approach is the lack of guidance when it comes to what you and I can do to help. Quite often you finish reading the article or watching the news segment about environmental issues and there is no one single call to action (or they leave it all to the governments and businesses).

Fearful and tragic messages about the environment (again even when they are often real) without telling people what they as individuals can do about it, leave people feeling stressed, worried and of course paralysed – even if their personalities lean more towards avoidance.

So it is pointless to tell people about all the bad stuff that are happening if we don’t provide solutions, alternatives, ideas or thoughts on how we can all participate and reduce our impact. Maybe we think some solutions are obvious and we don’t need to discuss them, but what it is maybe evident for one person is totally new for another one, we all come from different life paths and experiences.

A call to action empowers people. So let’s share the good and bad news, but let’s talk about solutions and steps we can take to help too.

“As we progress into the 21st century, anyone who considers themselves a realist will have to make the environment a top priority”- Leonardo DiCaprio

This is all for today. Let me know in the comments below: Do you talk about Climate Change? How do you think it is best way to talk about these topic? Any good strategy you can share with us?

Thanks for reading!

Diana

By | 2018-10-19T17:42:02+10:00 October 19th, 2018|Reflections|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Diana. I write about my journey trying to live a greener lifestyle and how we collectively can make a difference revisiting our beliefs and daily habits, learning more about the environment and being an active participant.

2 Comments

  1. Ram Mohan Murugesan October 26, 2018 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Hi Diana,
    Ram here. I really admire how you put forward your thoughts in words so convincingly. I would have told you before. Blogs that you write are always relatable to me. I have been following you in twitter close to year. I have never seen a gloomy post from you. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by negative prospects due to global warming, I read your blogs. That inspires me to do some sustainable actions.

    I am wondering how would we educate people about impacts of our unsustainable actions, climate change and global warming without appearing to be so gloomy and pessimistic.

    Regards,
    Ram

    • GreenerIdentity November 1, 2018 at 3:14 pm - Reply

      HI Ram. Thanks for that. I am always happy to hear people can relate to my stories and find some inspiration to take action, that’s the idea.
      Yes, I am more positive, action oriented, but as I wrote in the blog post sometimes the doom and gloomy messages can inspire other type of people too. We tend to communicate in a way it works for us, and we expect people to react the same we would do, but it doesn’t work that way. Both approaches can be valuable, it really depends on the person getting the message.
      Thanks for the comment 😉
      Cheers
      Diana

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