No one seems to care about global warming. The problem, argues Robert Butler, is the dull and nannyish way we are beseeched to "save the planet". Being green could be far sexier than that ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008 

Here’s how Texas solved the problem of highway litter. They did some research and found that the biggest culprits were 18- to 35-year-old males who drove pick-up trucks and liked sports and country music. The threat of penalty fines didn’t work; nor did appeals to the young men’s sensitive natures about the harm done to local wildlife. So the Department of Transportation ran an advertising campaign that recruited Texas’s sporting and country-music heroes, from Lance Armstrong and Chuck Norris to Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett. One advert had Mike Scott, the Houston Astros pitcher, pick up some litter and—using his famed split-fingered technique—hurl it at a roadside trash can. Cue massive explosion, followed by the catchphrase, “Don’t mess with Texas”.

As Chip and Dan Heath write in "Made to Stick”, a book about communicating ideas, the ads avoided the negatives of guilt and shame in favour of the positives of pride and group identity. Within a year, roadside litter had dropped by 29%; within five years, by 72%. The campaign had targeted a specific group with a message from “people-like-them” that they were willing to hear. Compare this with the prim admonitory vagueness of “Keep Britain Tidy”.

The worst lesson you could take from this would be to develop a massive global campaign with international celebrities saying, “Don’t mess with the planet!” But it’s possible to learn one thing about climate change from Texas’s highway litter. There is a problem (see IPCC reports and Stern Review) and there is a high level of public indifference. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism”, recently wrote that, “Global warming remains a low-priority issue, hovering near the bottom of the Pew Centre for People and the Press’s top 20 priorities. By contrast, public concern about gasoline and energy prices has shifted dramatically.”

It’s no surprise that most people aren’t listening. Some years ago, NOP conducted a survey where they went out into the street and told people that they were going to mention a string of words and as soon as people heard each one they had to say whether their energy levels went up or down. The word “environment” was included in the list. “The horrible, horrible conclusion of this survey”, recalled Jonathan Porritt, “was that for the vast majority of people the mere mention of the word ‘environment’ sent their energy levels plummeting downwards.”

It seems obvious what to do. Drop “environment” and “sustainability” (dull and opaque as they are) and the prefix “eco” and the self-important references to “saving the planet”. And drop the cornering tone of voice too. Talk instead about “beauty”, “health”, “wealth”, “happiness”, “leisure”, “travel”, “friends”, “fun”, “sport”,“individuality”, “imagination”, “sex” and “self-esteem”. Since climate change is driven by per-head consumption, the way to mitigate it is simply to reimagine each of those values in ways that don’t depend on buying too much stuff. In short, choose your favourite colour—and then make it green.

In 2004 two Princeton academics, the physicist Robert Socolow and the ecologist Stephen Pacala, came up with 15 “wedges” for mitigating climate change. There were four separate strategies for efficiency, five for decarbonisation of power, four for decarbonisation of fuel and two strategies for forest and agricultural soils. The persuasive idea was that there’s no silver bullet, but plenty of silver buckshot.

Heart on greenGlobal warming ranks low in the top 20 priorities because messengers usually address general audiences. Better to break the target audience down into niches and develop strategies for each one. If young white Texan males are an identifiable group, so are golfers, and frequent flyers, hedge-fund managers, single mothers, gays, plumbers, interns, birdwatchers, Hispanics, hairdressers, teenagers, estate agents, lawyers, analysts, dentists, scouts, shop assistants, traffic wardens and—yes—football managers. (One delegate at a recent climate-change conference, hosted by Al Gore, was Sir Alex Ferguson.) Each of these groups will listen to people-like-them tell stories that acknowledge their own values and identity.

This is beginning to happen. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has said the purpose of his new book “Hot, Flat and Crowded” is to change the meaning of green: “To redefine it as geo-political, geo-strategic, geo-economic, patriotic. Green is the new red, white and blue.” Pour money into scary advertising campaigns and you depress and disempower people. Spend that money on increasing the options that are available for leading low-carbon lives that are attractive and affordable. A climate-change minister needs to fight for playing fields, allotments and tougher laws to protect cyclists along with the teaching of music, dance, cooking and gardening in schools. It may well do more to have a copy of Jamie Oliver’s “Ministry of Food” in the school library than Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. Anything, in effect, that increases participation and self-sufficiency. As the architect Buckminster Fuller said, you don’t change things by fighting the existing reality, you change things by building a new model that makes the existing one obsolete.

Robert ButlerOnly there isn’t much time. “If there’s no action before 2012,” says Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel peace-prize-winning IPCC, “that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” That’s also the year of the London Olympics and the climax of the cultural Olympiad—a chance for the worlds of sport and the arts to imagine a future where people enjoy the highest human achievements without any sense of guilt or shame. 

Picture credit: Steven Fernandez, carbonNYC (both via Flickr), Sam Barker

(Robert Butler is an ex-theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday. He blogs on the arts and the environment at the ashden directory. His last Going Green column was about the zero-carbon city of the future.)