Have you got green fatigue?

You recycle and buy local – but the earth's still warming and the ice cap's still melting. If you're starting to feel apathy creeping in, you're not the only one. Hugh Wilson reports

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Recent environmental messages have made such an impact on a friend of mine that, a couple of weeks ago, he broke a four-year prohibition and walked back into Burger King. "Intensive beef production, clone town Britain, just so much blah," he said, by way of explanation. "Nobody else really seems to be doing much about it, so why should I bother?"

My friend is the embodiment of one of the great fears of the environmental lobby. Fifteen years ago, the term "compassion fatigue" indicated a general disillusionment with fund-raising concerts and famine appeals. The cause was too hopeless, governments too apathetic, and individuals too impotent. Slowly, and for similar reasons, the term "green fatigue" has started to creep into the dinner-party conversations of the composting classes.

And, if anything, with more reason. Environmental campaigners worry that individuals see their actions as largely irrelevant when set against the enormity of global climate change. While famine appeals parade a simple, striking message – send a tenner, save a child – no such easy cause and effect exists for global warming. By contrast, the solutions to climate change seem hugely complex and controversial.

"The problems we face are of a magnitude no one has seen in at least two generations," says Alex Steffen, the executive editor of WorldChanging, a website and book that promote innovative solutions for sustainable living. "The scale of the actions people are being told to take by green consumerism groups and businesses, on the other hand, are so small as to seem meaningless. I think that more and more people see this widening gulf and lose hope."

And if we're not all losing hope just yet, many of us are becoming increasingly cynical. To campaigners, that's not surprising. As Steffen suggests, businesses have turned environmentalism into a marketing strategy. A new term, "green-washing", describes companies that paint a superficial green gloss on conventional business practices. When firms such as BP and Wal-Mart parade their environmentally friendly credentials, scepticism is not only inevitable, says Steffen, it's "a necessary antidote".

At least the green lobby can count on celebrities to spread the message. Unfortunately, the message too often seems to be, "do as I say, not as I do". Celebrity is an intrinsically unsustainable condition. The reaction to the Live Earth concerts – which prompted as much debate on the carbon footprint of the A-listers who'd been chauffeured in for the occasion as the campaign they were there to endorse – showed the insidious spread of green fatigue.

It could have been worse. In the States, Sheryl Crow's "Stop Global Warming College Tour" was panned for stipulating parking for three tractor-trailers, four buses and six cars. John Travolta recently urged the British public to "do their bit" to combat global warming after flying in on his private Boeing 707, and got trounced in the press for his efforts. None of this is likely to keep the public on side in the long run – and countering climate change is likely to be a very long run indeed.

Even the pronouncements of more committed celebrities can seem, well, a little misjudged. A new book, edited by the socialite and former model Sheherazade Goldsmith, the wife of the Ecologist editor Zac, advises concerned greens to keep geese and make their own goat's cheese. As my sceptical friend said: "The goose can stay on the balcony, but I doubt you'd call it free-range."

Of course, many celebrities and businesses now offset their carbon emissions by paying for trees to be planted in sustainable forests or investments made in green energy projects. But "magic bullet" solutions to climate change are quickly losing their sheen. Recent investigations – including a widely trailed Dispatches programme on Channel 4 – question the effectiveness of carbon offsetting and suggest that it might even be counterproductive.

Some environmentalists worry that carbon offsetting promotes the idea that if you throw a few quid at the problem you can carry on as normal. According to Michael R Solomon, the author of Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having and Being: "Consumers are always going to gravitate toward a more parsimonious solution that requires less behavioural change. We know that new products or ideas are more likely to be adopted if they don't require us to alter our routines very much."

Unfortunately, most environmentalists agree that altering our routines quite fundamentally is the only real way to save the planet. Meanwhile, another "magic bullet" solution – and one that would also allow many of us to carry on pretty much as normal – is coming in for unexpected criticism: a recent study has suggested that any widespread uptake of biofuels in Europe could decimate Asian rainforests.

What all this adds up to, experts fear, is a recipe for disillusionment and – eventually – disengagement. Psychologically, we're primed to walk away from problems that are too complex to understand and too difficult to solve, and we'll break into a run if we think cynical marketers and self-publicising celebrities are jumping on a green bandwagon. And green campaigners who think a deluge of apocalyptic information will cut through our cynicism are probably mistaken.

"In an information-filled world, people screen heavily what new information they let in, and I suspect that the run-of-the-mill global-warming story is just not crossing the threshold," says the climate scientist Dr Susanne Moser, the co-author of Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. By run-of-the-mill, she means those all-too-familiar stories about melting ice shelves or endangered species. "Thinking about a global, complex, challenging, and potentially very dangerous and disastrous thing and not knowing what to do about it makes us go numb or into denial."

The antidote to numbness and denial is a sense of progress, of things getting better. But in the fight against climate change, progress is hard to come by. Moser uses the analogy of a diet. How long would you stay on a diet that demanded stringent effort over a prolonged period and promised only that that your weight gain might slow down a bit? Let's face it, it wouldn't make the cover of Grazia.

She also admits that "we have terribly failed our audience" by focusing on apocalyptic scenarios and complex science. Instead, one key factor in keeping people enthused in the fight against climate change will be local, collective action, she says.

"Why do people go to Alcoholics Anonymous, or to Weight Watchers? Because in a group of like-minded people they have the support, accountability, peer pressure and the shared experience of others to help make the change. They also have opportunities to come together, check on progress, and get support around setbacks. That's what we need for climate change – to recover from our fuel addiction."

Progress on a small and local scale – such as saving a beloved local shop, voting in a councillor who will push green issues, or increasing local recycling rates – and even a desire to keep up with the Joneses ("if everybody's ditching the gas-guzzler, I'll do it, too") are far more effective motivators than media-inspired guilt and vague fears of an uncertain future, she adds.

Alex Steffen also believes in the need for a local, community focus. But he says that we need to be honest about the scale of the changes that have to be made, and to counter green fatigue by imbuing the fight against climate change with an almost heroic spirit.

"I don't think we need to sugar-coat the challenges we face," he says. "We just need to ask people to rise to their real potential, and see that this is our moment for greatness. If we create a sustainable future for everyone, it will be an accomplishment as great as winning the Second World War.

"Many environmentalists assume people won't do anything more than small steps, and hope those small steps will build the political will for more substantive changes. But history has shown a thousand times that "regular" people are capable of extraordinary courage, dedication and ingenuity when asked to answer the call. It's time we put out that call, rather than another marketing pitch."

The small actions that can make a big difference

* You've heard it before, but changing to energy-efficient light bulbs really can make a difference. Lighting uses 20 per cent of the world's electricity, the equivalent of burning 600,000 tons of coal a day. Phasing out old bulbs would avoid the release of 700 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

* Shop local. If your food shopping amounts to £100 a week, that's £5,200 a year that could be going into the pocket of a local butcher, grocer and baker, rather than the supermarket till. Imagine if 100 people in your area had the same idea.

* Is recycling really worth it? Yes. Recycling one glass jar saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours. Glass can be reused an infinite number of times. Think of all the jars recycled in your street in a year.

* Recycling a ton of paper saves 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water.

* Turning your thermostat down by two degrees can save 2,000 pounds of carbon every year. Just imagine if everyone in your family and everyone in your office did it.

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