For 30 years I banged on about threats. But research shows we must to be true to ourselves – and to the wonder in nature
Monday 16 June 2014 20.41 BST
If we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we’ve been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better. This is how I feel, looking back on the past few decades of environmental campaigning, including my own.
This thought is prompted by responses to the column I wrote last week. It examined the psychological illiteracy that’s driving leftwing politics into oblivion. It argued that the failure by Labour and Democratic party strategists to listen to psychologists and cognitive linguists has resulted in a terrible mistake: the belief that they can best secure their survival by narrowing the distance between themselves and their conservative opponents.
Twenty years of research, comprehensively ignored by these parties, reveals that shifts such as privatisation and cutting essential public services strongly promote people’s extrinsic values (an attraction to power, prestige, image and status) while suppressing intrinsic values (intimacy, kindness, self-acceptance, independent thought and action). As extrinsic values are powerfully linked to conservative politics, pursuing policies that reinforce them is blatantly self-destructive.
One of the drivers of extrinsic values is a sense of threat. Experimental work suggests that when fears are whipped up, they trigger an instinctive survival response. You suppress your concern for other people and focus on your own interests. Conservative strategists seem to know this, which is why they emphasise crime, terrorism, deficits and immigration.
“Isn’t this what you’ve spent your life doing?” several people asked. “Emphasising threats?” It took me a while. If threats promote extrinsic values and if (as the research strongly suggests) extrinsic values are linked to a lack of interest in the state of the living planet, I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years. The threats, of course, are of a different nature: climate breakdown, mass extinction, pollution and the rest. And they are real. But there’s no obvious reason why the results should be different. Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.
It’s an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. “Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,” but “these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue”. People respond to feelings of insecurity “by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts”.
Where we have not used threat and terror, we have tried money: an even graver mistake. Nothing better reinforces extrinsic values than putting a price on nature, or appealing to financial self-interest. It doesn’t work, even on its own terms. A study published in Nature Climate Change tested two notices placed in a filling station. One asked: “Want to protect the environment? Check your car’s tyre pressure.” The other tried: “Want to save money? Check your car’s tyre pressure.” The first was effective, the second useless.
We’ve tended to assume people are more selfish than they really are. Surveys across 60 countries show that most people consistently hold concern for others, tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves to be more important than wealth, image and power. But those whose voices are loudest belong to a small minority with the opposite set of values. And often, idiotically, we have sought to appease them.
This is a form of lying – to ourselves and other people. I don’t know anyone who became an environmentalist because she or he was worried about ecological impacts on their bank balance. Almost everyone I know in this field is motivated by something completely different: the love and wonder and enchantment nature inspires. Yet, perhaps because we fear we will not be taken seriously, we scarcely mention them. We hide our passions behind columns of figures. Sure, we need the numbers and the rigour and the science, but we should stop pretending these came first.
Without being fully conscious of the failure and frustration that’s been driving it, I’ve been trying, like others, to promote a positive environmentalism, based on promise, not threat.
This is what rewilding, the mass restoration of ecosystems, is all about; and why I wrote my book Feral, which is a manifesto for rewilding – and for wonder and enchantment. But I’m beginning to see that this is not just another method: expounding a positive vision should be at the centre of attempts to protect the things we love. An ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair.
Part of this means changing the language. The language we use to describe our relations with nature could scarcely be more alienating. “Reserve” is alienation itself, or at least detachment: think of what it means when you apply that word to people. “Site of special scientific interest”, “no-take zone“, “ecosystem services”: these terms are a communications disaster. Even “environment” is a cold and distancing word, which creates no pictures. These days I tend to use natural world or living planet, which invoke vivid images. One of the many tasks for the rewilding campaign some of us will be launching in the next few months is to set up a working group to change the language. There’s a parallel here with the Landreader project by the photographer Dominick Tyler, which seeks to rescue beautiful words describing nature from obscurity.
None of this is to suggest that we should not discuss the threats or pretend that the crises faced by this magnificent planet are not happening. Or that we should cease to employ rigorous research and statistics. What it means is that we should embed both the awareness of these threats and their scientific description in a different framework: one that emphasises the joy and awe to be found in the marvels at risk; one that proposes a better world, rather than (if we work really hard for it), just a slightly-less-shitty-one-than-there-would-otherwise-have-been.
Above all, this means not abandoning ourselves to attempts to appease a minority who couldn’t give a cuss about the living world, but think only of their wealth and power. Be true to yourself and those around you, and you will find the necessary means of reaching others.