Ditching the doom rhetoric to save the world

If a strict approach to the environment puts people off recycling, then what can we do to tackle climate change?


There’s a small zoo in Queen’s Park I sometimes visit. It houses a magnificent rooster, a goat possibly named Margo (I forget), and a duck with a bad temper. The aim of this farmyard troupe is to foster an interest in the natural world among the toddlers of London.

A few “Did You Know?” signs dot the railings. These deal with topics such as the uses for a tractor, or the basics of rabbit-feeding. The focus is strictly local. Not one mentions troubled polar bears, or mass extinction, or the IPCC, or Hurricane Blame Your Parents’ Range Rover. In Queen’s Park zoo, in fact, things are more or less under control.

I’m not sure where the Fabian Society launched their latest report, but the park would have been an OK fit. The think-tank wants to do for adults what the petting zoo does for kids. Focus attention on the visible environment, not the one you need a PhD in meteorology to detect.

Top-level climate politics, say the Fabians, can feel “bossy, high-handed and technocratic”. If you want people to engage with green issues, ditch the global rhetoric, and get them to hose down their pavement, or something like that. “We need to build out from people’s pride in their sense of place.”

I can see where they’re coming from. For those of us who don’t sit on the board of Shell, or do the school run with China’s President Xi Jinping, there’s not too much we can accomplish day to day, in planetary terms.

The debate goes on above our heads. Home insulation is a plus, sure, but unless you’re also sucking up a ton of C02 on the cycle back, you’re probably doing more harm than good just by being alive. Naturally, this makes people feel powerless. (Recent reports  on a fall in recycling cite  “green fatigue”).

In response, the Fabians suggest community action. Two-thirds of the people they surveyed claimed they would offer a hand in the local area. If someone knocked on my door with a trowel and said, “Young man, Queen’s Park needs you”, I like to think I’d do my bit. (Providing it doesn’t clash with the World Cup, or require any knowledge of what  a trowel is.)

But I don’t see a spate of community action as leading to “bigger picture” change. It would be wonderful enough in itself. The Fabian report says that “people need to be able to feel they can effect change in their own backyard before they can change the world”.

The problem is that we can’t really change the world. At least not in our spare time. Elite-level amendments – such as Obama’s recent introduction of emissions targets – are the key. Big Oil won’t stop doing the dirty of its  own accord.

As hazy a concept as it is, the “climate of opinion” lays the ground for political pressure. So trowel, by all means. But just being really, really worried isn’t entirely useless. The more people find out about the machinations of climate change, and the economic interests driving it, the more reason there is for the Obamas and Xis of this world to act.

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