#37 The End of the World happened in 1784
The "4D's" that explain why people don't engage with the climate crisis
Hi, I’m Florencia Lujani and this is a new edition of Cultural Patterns, a newsletter on brands, culture and strategy. Would love to hear your thoughts on the below, so please reply to this email to get in touch. Florencia x
“The end of the world has already occurred. We can be uncannily precise about the date on which the world ended. It was April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine, an act that commenced the depositing of carbon in Earth’s crust— namely, the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale.”
- Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (2013) p.7
When the IPCC report launched two weeks ago, it reminded me of this quote from Hyperobjects, a fantastic book that I’m obsessed with and wrote about before.
It’s a scary quote, but is also grounding and is full of accountability. I guess I needed to hear it: the day we started to emit carbon, we became a geophysical force on the planet. We caused climate change and mitigating it will take a lot of work. At least I spend a lot of time thinking about the climate crisis and doing work in relation to it.
I’ve been working with the climate sector on brand and creative strategy for over a year and a half now, and working on COP26-related campaigns since the start of the year.
Some of my clients are members of the House of Lords who helped draft the UK’s Climate Change Bill (so whenever I think I know my stuff on climate, they humble me)
I co-authored Change the Narrative, a report on climate misinformation for the IPA, with my friend and colleague Harriet Kingaby, who has been my Jedi Master on all things climate (she’s also co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network)
I’m writing my Masters dissertation on how consumer culture is creating myths of ethical consumers and climate-friendly products in the face of the climate crisis (and this is the reason why I’ve been M.I.A from the newsletter, but I’m submitting it next week, so it will be over soon!)
I was invited to write a chapter for an edited book on how the climate crisis is impacting advertising and business models, which I submitted in June, and is now with the editorial (launch date: end of the year)
So, in a way, the climate crisis has taken over my life. Yay, I guess??? 💀🥲👍 🎉
One of the first things I had to come to terms with is that communicating climate is bloody hard. The IPCC report (presented via a press conference that looked like a low-res video from the early 2000’s) made it clear: it’s mostly scientific talk, hard to digest, to understand, to translate into action. While many see these reports as a wake-up call, many others just tune out.
There are four reasons why people don’t engage with the climate crisis, I call them the “4Ds”, and they usually overlap.
(This is not a definitive list, but it covers the biggest issues.)
Distance: This refers to considering climate change a distant issue in time and space. For example “Climate change is happening somewhere else”, “It’s something we should worry about in 2050”. There is also socio-economic distance: “It’s an issue for white, privileged people”. These feelings are amplified by the class divide, and by global inequalities that transpire from the Global North/ Global South divide, and the result can be seen in a general apathy towards the topic.
Denial: Most people now believe climate change is real (in the UK, only 3% of people believe the climate isn’t changing), so it’s good that we don’t have to convince people that it is happening. The other denial attitude that is perhaps more of a priority from a communications perspective comes from a belief that no change is possible. Examples include: “I can’t do anything to mitigate climate change” “Nothing will change so why bother” “It’s all useless talk”. Denial takes away agency from us and the very real impact we can have when we ask for systemic change.
Delay: with so many catastrophes happening at the same time, a lot of people just don’t see the value of tackling climate change now. Delaying decisive climate action deflects responsibility, and therefore, accountability, so it’s great to keep the status quo in place. For example “There are other more urgent priorities, so we shouldn’t spend so much money/time on it”, “The next generation should solve it”, “I won’t do much until governments and companies sort it out”. When climate action is framed as a sacrifice, it creates a fear that it will somehow worsen our quality of life, or leave us poorer. By postponing the climate crisis into some hypothetical future, these narratives also inoculate us against the very real object that has intruded into ecological, social, and psychic space.
Doom: The climate sector is particularly guilty of spreading messages like “This is an emergency” “No time left to act”. While the intent is to make the climate crisis a priority, apocalyptic narratives of impending catastrophes are part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s in our biology: fear triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response, fear doesn’t inspire us. These narratives are also seen as exaggerated - they paint a picture that if we don’t fix this, the sun won’t rise tomorrow and it will be chaos, which we all know isn’t true, so they are easy to ignore and dismiss. These messages of doom are even more tone-deaf in a context of a pandemic when people are worried about surviving the day-to-day, and when people of colour are suffering the most.
Put it simply, the tools that we have at our disposal for talking about the ecological emergency are mostly useless. We can’t be too scientific or too abstract, because we need people to engage people, and we can’t be too cheerful, optimistic, or hopeful because we’re in a tricky situation and a lot needs to change. The apocalyptic title of this post shows the contradiction that we have to navigate: while climate change is really bad, it’s not *that* bad…. or is it? We’re still here, right?
What does this leave the climate sector with? Every brief I’ve worked on is different, but overall, framing climate change as an important issue “For me, here, now” is able to create relevance and inspire action. But this article that Harriet Kingaby sent me describes exactly what the climate sector needs to do: We Need Courage, Not Hope, to Face Climate Change:
As a climate scientist, I am often asked to talk about hope. Particularly in the current political climate, audiences want to be told that everything will be all right in the end. Climate change is bleak, the organizers always say. Tell us a happy story. Give us hope. The problem is, I don’t have any.
Hope is a creature of privilege: we know that things will be lost, but it is comforting to believe that others will bear the brunt of it.
We need courage, not hope. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.
We really don’t know if there will be a happy ending, even more so when the end of the world occurred 237 years ago. Still, we’re here. Time to pluck up some courage.
Hello again! This is the longest hiatus I’ve ever taken from the newsletter - almost two months without publishing anything, so I won’t blame you if you can’t even remember why or when you subscribed, or if you don’t know who I am. (Please unsubscribe at will!) Even though I’m writing this very late in the evening and I shouldn’t be spending *any* time on this because I have a dissertation to submit in 5 days, I wanted to reach out. Seeing the climate crisis everywhere is maddening, so thank you for reading, and if there’s anything that you would like to share, hit reply to get in touch or say hi on Twitter / Linkedin :)
See you soon (but first I need to take a holiday, my brain needs it.)
Read my articles on climate change here: