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9 October 2017

The gluten delusion, dodgy quotes and climate science

cakeI love my local hipster-ish coffee shop, but it annoys me that all the cakes are proudly marked 'gluten-free'. A couple of times, I've joshed that I'd like mine with gluten only for the joke to fall flat in the face of incomprehension. It's long been understood that only those with coeliac disease need to avoid gluten; (in the words of Jay Rayner) if you feel bloated after eating bread it's because you're eating too much bread.

However was only this morning I saw in the paper that avoiding gluten can actually lead to health risks, not benefits (here's one of the scientific studies). In other words, people are damaging their health in the cause of their health – and not for the first time.

As a man who loves his food (especially cake), I can never understand how many people fall for every eating fad going, enriching various snake oil salesmen along the way. Every time one falls apart, qualified nutritionists tell us we should just eat a reasonable amount of a balanced diet and get a reasonable amount of exercise, but a couple of months later everybody is cutting something else out of their diet at the whim of the latest flogger of a better lifestyle.

This madness comes about because we make decisions by feel rather than evidence. Most people who are sceptical about climate science simply feel it is wrong. You rarely if ever see a climate scientist decide that the evidence doesn't stack up and go climate sceptic, however many one-time sceptics make the journey the other way – although it is often an irrational experience that persuades them to check the facts.

The big shame of modern life is the internet gives us unparalleled rapid fact-checking capabilities; yet we're more likely to pick up some dubious meme on Twitter than check who really did say:

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

[it wasn't Mark Twain or Winston Churchill but it seems to have evolved from a Jonathan Swift quote].

The lesson for those of us trying to change the world is that facts generally don't resonate – you will never out-debate a climate denier as blind faith will beat a balanced argument nine times out of ten. Instead we've got to get inside people's heads, work out what makes them tick and tap into those feelings. Green Jujitsu in other words.

 

Check out our fab new Green Jujitsu: Smart Engagement for Sustainability course here.

 

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29 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: Labour Conference, UK Green Summer, Demise of GSB


Here's my hot takes on the week's big Sustainability news - join us each Friday (unless I'm away) at 10am on Facebook. Comments in the comments, please!

 

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27 September 2017

Putting the Personal Into Sustainability

Take_a_Break_(magazine)_coverSo, the Guardian Sustainable Business site is no more. I don't think I'm really going to miss it because I don't think I ever read anything there that really made me stop and think. Most articles read like PR pieces, because that's largely what they were – native advertising, advertorials, whatever you want to call them, businesses were paying to get their case studies up there. And of course, if they're paying, they want to make everything sound fantastic, but end up sounding incredibly bland.

I came up across this when I was doing interviews for my second book, The Green Executive. The initial purpose of the interviews was to get fresh examples rather than rehashing the same old case studies as everybody else, but soon they took on a life of their own, telling the inspiring story of individuals doing great things, so I decided to insert one more or less verbatim after each chapter. In my view they are worth the cover price alone.

As I was attributing these stories to the individuals who were telling them, I thought it was only fair to let them see a draft to ensure there were no errors or potentially career-limiting revelations. One guy forwarded the text to his PR department for a once over and it came back rewritten in that strangely antiseptic language of the advertorial, with all the personal insights and gritty reality excised. It was sooooo boring. The PR contact couldn't, or wouldn't, understand my repeated pleas for a simple gaffe-check, so I gave up and just published my original.

As I was explaining to one of my clients this week, nobody reads case studies unless they have to. But they do read personal stories – particularly the classic quest story where someone just like us takes on a challenge, faces down adversity and triumphs with great results. Think of all those Take-a-Break style magazines which clog up your newsagent shelves – full of personal stories about  ordinary people bringing up a child with a disability or losing weight or fighting off a mugger. If the Guardian Sustainable Business had taken a leaf out of those publications, maybe I and others would have paid a bit more attention.

 

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4 September 2017

Sustainability Bites Ep1: Harvey & Climate Change

Here's the pilot episode of a new series of short, sharp, lo-fi Sustainability snippets I've decided to launch. I've called it Sustainability Bites as a. the episodes are bite-sized, and b. it's all about how Sustainability is starting to bite – we've gone way beyond chin-stroking and are now making different decisions to make things happen.

This edition is about whether natural disasters are the right time to raise climate change.

At present, these will appear as and when I feel like it rather than on a regular basis, although it may find it's own niche naturally. The best way to keep up is head over to my Facebook page and send me a friend request!

 

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28 June 2017

Killer Sustainability anecdotes (and not in a good way)

ReadersLast week I retweeted a gif showing a well designed cycle crossing being used by a steady stream of ordinary people on bikes – the text of the tweet pointed out that better infrastructure meant more cycling. Somebody replied with a photo of one woman cycling on the pavement beside a cycle lane (she was cycling slightly away from the lane, so may have been heading for a cycle rack or a shortcut, who knows). I thought of half a dozen ripostes, none of them very witty, before deciding to ignore it.

Setting aside what urges would inspire someone to take time out of their day to dig out a picture to try to criticise cycle infrastructure, this illustrates the trap of anecdotal evidence. Apart from a highly-numerate few, we are naturally inclined towards stories and away from robust statistical analysis. So when somebody says "Huh, climate change is nothing new, the Romans used to grow grapes in York." the general public are more likely to file that factoid away than complex graphs of global temperature reconstructions. In the same way one out-of-context, statistically insignificant photo undermines my point regarding infrastructure.

Countering beside-the-point anecdotes is difficult; throwing the question back to the storyteller ("What is that meant to show?") is usually better than trying to argue or fight story with stats.

The flip side is in your own communications you should balance statistics and facts with stories – those anecdotes are what people will remember and relate to.

 

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13 April 2017

"You can't have Sustainability without X." You probably can...

rant"You can't have Sustainability without a whole new economic model."

"You can't have Sustainability without mindfulness."

"You can't have Sustainability without self care."

"You can't have Sustainability without a reconnection to the natural world."

"You can't have Sustainability without a global agreement."

I hear and read such statements of apparent fact all the time and my bullshit detector goes off immediately. Because, first of all they are simply wrong – maybe some of these X's would help, but none are a 100% prerequisite to Sustainability. And secondly, often the speaker is a purveyor of, say, mindfulness training, looking for a new audience – it's a bit selfish to put their own self-interest in the way of millions of other people's.

But most importantly of all, such restrictive statements either distract from the Sustainability agenda, create barriers that we don't need, or, in many cases, muddy the waters. If we want to bring the general public on board for a sustainable world, we need simple, clear, can-do messages. So let's think about our audiences rather than ourselves.

Rant over.

 

 

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22 March 2017

When you should sweat the little stuff on Sustainability

Great Dane HARLEQUIN and a chihuahua

 

Regular readers will know I'm a great proponent of the 80:20 Rule in Sustainability – I wrote a book about it (see below). The 80:20 Rule says that you should target the relatively small number of actions which deliver the vast majority of change.

At the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group earlier this month, we discussed the application and limitations of the 80:20 approach. These are the times you should worry about the 'little stuff':

  • Engaging employees: switching stuff off and waste minimisation generally won't take you that far down your path to zero carbon, but people easily understand it, so you can use these quick wins as an 'entry drug' to get your colleagues hooked on Sustainability before moving on to the hard stuff.
  • Avoiding cynicism: for the same reason, laypeople will get more upset about disposable coffee cups than the use of a persistent organic pollutant. So you need to make sure you are seen to be tackling those iconic issues even while you're doing the big stuff that no-one will ever notice.
  • Continual improvement: If you have a zero carbon or zero waste target, you've still got to do the 20% of results as well as the 80%. So while you should prioritise the critical 20% of actions, it's worth keeping the other stuff tapping along (maybe combined with the engagement above).

But, and this is a big but, these exceptions should never overwhelm the rule. When push comes to shove, if you need to make a tough choice, go for the one which will deliver the biggest results.

 

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13 February 2017

The one thing you must do in your Sustainability communications

Angry manager

My big theme this year is 'Sustainability conversations', and one thing that sets 'conversation' apart from 'communication' is you've got to listen as well as talk.

If you actively listen to those you are trying to communicate with, you will find the following benefits:

1. Your audience will trust what you are trying to say if you show that you care about what they think;

2. You will be able to respond to your audience's hopes, fears and uncertainties and the audience will get a deeper understanding as a result;

3. If the audience feels it is 'in the loop', individuals are more likely to embrace new ways of working;

4. You will learn how to adjust your language, tone and imagery to appeal to your wider audience (I don't guess what the culture is like when I'm using Green Jujitsu, I tend to ask them);

5. You will discover the barriers your audience see to more sustainable behaviour and be able to remove them.

The last one is not to be underestimated – some of my biggest 'wins' with clients have come from listening to what frontline employees say. Fixing such problems is often at low or no cost and tilts the playing field permanently towards more sustainable behaviour for all.

As the old saying goes, you've got two ears and one mouth and you should use them proportionately!

 

 

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8 November 2016

Review: Leonardo DiCaprio's Before the Flood


This brand new climate change documentary  by Leonardo DiCaprio has been released just before the US goes to the polls to pick a new president (you can watch the whole thing above). While Donald Trump only makes a fleeting appearance, spouting inanities as always, I can't help but think the timing is far from coincidental.

The name 'Before The Flood' is taken from the central panel of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, a print of which hung over DiCaprio's 'crib' as a child (not sure I'd pick Bosch to decorate my kids' rooms but, hey...). In that central panel, the seven deadly sins start to corrupt humankind before the inevitable final panel of doom.

The movie follows DiCaprio as he travels the world talking to local activists, climate scientists and major figures such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the Pope. Here are the key moments that stuck with me: Read the rest of this entry »

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25 August 2016

Virtue Signalling: an insidious form of greenwash

I've always hated those pious "Save the planet: don't print this e-mail" statements in people's e-mail signature blocks. Why? Because it is blatant 'virtue signalling' – making the author sound virtuous without the inconvenience of actually doing anything virtuous themselves, in this case admonishing others for something they would probably never do.

Fortunately those e-mail mini-sermons are less common these days, unfortunately they seem to be being replaced by equally vacuous tweets instead. This one caught my eye last week:

Note that the instruction is aimed at the reader, not the author. How many people do you think will see this flicker past on their twitter stream and sit up and say "Oh, I'd never thought of that!"? The "saving a shoe is saving the earth" hashtag is particularly amusing in its vapidity.

Now, if they had linked to a document explaining what elements of a shoe can be repaired and how, that would be useful to the reader and would be making a minor contribution to sustainability. But as it is, this is a particularly irritating form of greenwash.

 

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15 August 2016

Stealth Sustainability?

"A

As a British cycling fan, I've been throughly enjoying the team's continuing success in the Olympic velodrome. One of the remarkable characters is sprinter Jason Kenny, who has just picked up his 5th gold and is likely to get a 6th tomorrow, yet he could knock on my door the day after and I'd assume he was delivering a parcel. Kenny deliberately keeps a low profile, winning little between Olympics, before turning up every four years and destroying the field. Fellow 5-gold legend Sir Steve Redgrave is currently using his haul of medals to flog breakfast cereal – not sure I'll see Kenny plastered across the aisles anytime soon.

It got me thinking about those companies who lead on Sustainability and make a big fuss about it and those who prefer to operate under the radar. Which is best?

Going public raises the stakes. Like a sports celebrity your every move will be scrutinised and assessed, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. This can be a powerful driver for continued change, and an inspiration to others, but it can lead to a focus on superficial, media friendly actions which are easily digested by the public. Body Shop is one company which bragged of its environmental principles and spent many years fighting off allegations of greenwash by investigative journalists.

For the last year I've been working with carpet tile giant Interface. The company has long been my choice for most sustainable large business in the world, yet they rarely trouble green business league tables compiled in the media (which may reflect the arbitrariness of the latter more than anything else). But it surprises me how many sustainability practitioners I meet who are only vaguely aware of Interface and its quite incredible Mission Zero programme. In many ways they are the Jason Kenny of Sustainability – delivering world class results while flying under the radar.

Which is best? Consumer-facing and/or high profile companies should probably lean towards the razzmatazz not least because many of their competitors will be doing so. But they will have to appreciate 'tall poppy syndrome' – the media will be watching them like hawks.

For lower profile or more specialist businesses, they are unlikely to get much high profile coverage simply because of the way the media works, and should focus on telling their story directly to the stakeholders who matter such as customers, potential employees and regulators.

I was going to say 'horses for courses', but, given my opening metaphor, 'bikes for parcours' may be more appropriate!

 

Photo © U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

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13 June 2016

How good are you, really?

business angel

Cracking column by Eva Wiseman in yesterday's Observer on the trials of trying to live ethically – self-coruscating about the blind eye she turns to ethical issues we don't really want to confront, as we all do.

It reminded me of one of my favourite books, How to Be Good by Nick Hornby. It concerns a middle-class left-leaning doctor, whose feckless, selfish husband suddenly flips into a paragon of selfless virtue. He insists on giving away any unnecessary possessions to those less fortunate, and lets random homeless people live in their house. She knows she should welcome his values, but hates the privation and fears for her family. It's not the world's greatest novel, but I just love the premise.

As a local elected politician for the last 12 years, I've learnt not to try and portray myself as ethically superior to my political rivals as no-one is perfect and I'll eventually stumble. And I am always instantly suspicious of those who do claim the moral high ground as they're often the very ones who turn out to be crooked.

Which brings us to business. If you are going to portray your organisation as 'ethical', you'd better expect the press to go over your affairs with a fine tooth comb and you won't be able to control the stories that emerge, whether fair or otherwise.

In my opinion, the best strategy is 'show, don't tell' – demonstrating good behaviour in practice with with no overarching claim to sainthood. After all, people believe what they see more than what they read.

 

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22 April 2016

Shakespeare, Storytelling & Sustainability

william-shakespeare-portrait11It's old Billy S's 400th death anniversary tomorrow - I'm sure you could hardly have missed the fuss. It's quite extraordinary how the bard has stood head and shoulders above his peers over the centuries, with no-one coming close to his reputation.

And it all comes down to one word: Storytelling.

We love stories, whether it is the rise and inevitable fall of Macbeth or the latest on Miley Cyrus' love life, our appetite for a good tale is insatiable. This is why I always recommend using storytelling as a vehicle for communicating sustainability, as it is an intrinsically engaging medium.

One of my favourites is the story of an engineer working at one of my clients. He was given a lift by his son in the latter's new car and was fascinated at how the engine would switch off when the vehicle was stationary and spring back to life as soon as it was time to move off. At work, the production line was designed to be set up and calibrated at the start of a particular product's production and if anything was switched off, the whole set up had to start again. He applied the thinking of the start/stop technology to that production line so machines could power down automatically while waiting for the next batch, yet spring to life when it came along. This saved huge amounts of energy.

That story had permeated the business and the engineer had become a minor celebrity amongst his peers – much to his embarrassment, he was a modest man who just liked solving problems.

So next time you want to communicate sustainability, try framing it in the context of a story – how individuals overcame adversity or had a flash of genius which made something amazing happen. It will spread the word much faster and deeper than any set of statistics.

 

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4 April 2016

Sustainability & Freedom

bike at big waters

Last Tuesday, I got on my bike for the first time since I dislocated my finger in early January (it's been a very long haul), and toured some of the nature reserves of Newcastle with Mrs K before dropping down onto the Tyne and heading back home. Apart from a short break to sit outside a pub in the sun with a local beer. "The Freedom!" I thought "The Freedom!"

It's a weird one, because this was one of the most sustainable days out I could imagine, yet sustainability and freedom are often seen as polar opposites. Both the right and left of the political spectrum are more than happy to argue they are incompatible.

But think about the freedoms of sustainability: the freedom to enjoy clean air, beaches and rivers, the freedom to get clean energy without being in hock to various oppressive regimes around the world, freedom to sell your own energy to the grid, freedom to cycle or walk wherever you want, freedom from extreme weather or rising sea levels. I'd prefer any of these to the freedom to sit in a car in a traffic jam on a hot day.

The point I'm trying to make is that to cope with all the information we have to process, we narrow our thinking to certain frames. If we frame sustainability as anathema to freedom, then people will switch off. If we frame sustainability as a form of freedom, people will take note.

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18 March 2016

Sustainability Strategy: how deep do you dive?

U.S. Navy Diver (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin B. Gray, U.S. Navy/Released)

I've got sustainability strategy coming out of my ears at this minute. A Green Academy webinar, a Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting and a live client project and we're only half way through the month!

The biggest challenge is getting the level of detail right. Some people will want to give it a quick overview, like a snorkeller swimming over a reef. Other specialists will want to dive deep into the whys and wherefores, the assumptions and caveats and who is responsible for what.

Our approach is to look at the document like a stepped beach – you start in the shallows, and as you progress through the pages, the complexity increases by another step until you are deep in the detail. This means the reader can make the decision of how far they want to go. My diving analogy breaks down for the back cover which should include a call to action to remind the reader what the strategy means to them.

 

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1 February 2016

Leveraging Human Interest for Sustainability

Kirk-Douglas-and-Bob-Arth-006

I saw a quote from the old Kirk Douglas movie Ace in the Hole in the Sunday papers and it really resonated with me, so I looked up the wider exchange. Grizzled reporter Charles Tatum (Douglas) is lecturing the young photographer Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur) about the realities of the newspaper world.

Cook: Like the faces of those folks you see outside a coal mine with maybe 84 men trapped inside.
Tatum: One man's better than 84. Didn't they teach you that?
Cook: Teach me what?
Tatum: Human interest. You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn't stay with you. One man's different, you want to know all about him. That's human interest.

This is true – look at any big newspaper story, such as the current refugee crisis, and there will inevitably be a focus down to an individual case. This isn't by accident – telling the story of one individual amongst the bigger picture brings it down to a level we can relate to on a more emotional level. As Tatum points out, you can connect to one person, but not 84.

Have a look at your sustainability communications. Are you talking purely in terms of statistics and the big picture, or are you embedding human interest stories to give your audience something to relate to? The best stories show someone just like the audience – typically a fellow colleague – doing something different to deliver on sustainability.

One person's better than 84.

 

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29 January 2016

Where does greenwash end?

pencils

Interesting CSRChat on Twitter last night, featuring David Gelles who writes on Business & Sustainability for the New York Times. He mentioned that he thought it was relatively easy to get good press out of sustainability stories. I flipped it around and suggested it was equally easy for journalists to find fault with the same stories and accuse them of greenwash.

The word greenwash is said to have been coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt complaining about those "we only launder towels left on the floor signs" found in hotels – which I actually find a bit harsh as that always struck me as a neat quick win. Westervelt's argument was the true motivation here is profit – making the same argument as Aneel Karnani made last year that true Corporate Social Responsibility should harm the business concerned in economic terms.

This is crazy. If a company managed to make a huge leap forward in sustainability, for example a breakthrough in biofuel from algae which slashed the carbon emissions of the airline industry with negligible land use impacts (unlikely I know, but go with me), making a fortune as a result, would it be greenwash to call it a green business? Clearly not.

On the other hand we need a sceptical press to cut through corporate spin and expose the reality behind many green claims – or the bigger picture from which they may distract. Anita Roddick may have dismissed Joe Entine, who popularised the term greenwash in his exposé of less than green behaviour at Body Shop, as a weird obsessive, but she tightened up the company's transparency and reporting as a result of his investigations.

As I get older, I have learnt that no thing and no body is ever 100% good or 100% bad, no matter what the media or Twitter hashtags say. As the sustainability field matures, practitioners and commentators need to become more realistic than the activist movement from whence we emerged. They survive on a diet of outrage, justified or otherwise, which can do more harm than good, we need to work in shades of green.

And my advice to any business announcing an achievement? Frame it as "We are very proud of this, but it is just one step on a longer journey." But don't be put off doing well by doing good.

 

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15 January 2016

In the other guys' shoes...

castThis is the first thing I've typed using fingers of my right hand for over a week. Last Friday morning, while out running, I slipped on some black ice, hit the deck hard and dislocated my little finger on my right hand - and cut up the one on my left for good measure. A hospital visit and a cast later, and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had a disability. A temporary one of course, but my week flapping at things ineffectively with my left hand, having to wear elasticated trousers and slip on shoes and taking up to four times as long to perform a simple task like having a shower, gave me a quick, but immersive insight into the world of the less able.

The old quote "you don't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes" springs to mind. And this dictum of course applies to us sustainability practitioners as much as anyone else. The majority of green messaging I see is all about the transmitter, not the receiver. No wonder it falls on deaf ears.

My Green Jujitsu approach flips this around and tries to find the overlap between the interests of the audience and sustainability, and starts the engagement there. That's the whole point of the 'lightbulb moment' in the animation:

Anyway, I've now got just a small splint on my right hand which opens up the wonderful world of laces, zips, buttons, pens etc again, but still puts restrictions on exercise, cycling and driving. That sound you hear is a partial sigh of relief from the rest of my family.

 

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2 November 2015

3D Storytelling for Sustainability

legoland

Two days of motorway driving just to spend a day queuing for rides at a theme park – my weekend couldn't have been designed more around my pet hates. The theme park was Legoland and, even though my expectations weren't that high, I was still disappointed. There were very few 'Wow!' moments and everything was aimed at kids.

You may be surprised at my surprise at that last bit, but if you think of last year's Lego Movie, it worked on different levels – the kids loved the crash bang wallops and the slapstick, the adults got all the quest-movie parodies and jokes about overpriced coffees. Just a soupçon of that wit sprinkled across Legoland would have lifted it from over-priced banality to something everybody could enjoy, not just the kids (especially those who were paying for it!).

Much 'green communication' is similarly one-dimensional – it assumes that everybody is interested in rather bland hand-wringing. People who aren't interested ignore it, people who are interested don't get anything extra out of it (they already switch the lights off) and people who may be suspicious of greenwash don't get the proof they need to allay their fears.

So how about designing you communications to handle 3 dimensions of interest from your target audience?

  1. Interest in green issues – ranging from tree-hugger to eco-sceptic;
  2. Learning – how does this apply to me, from simple efforts to step changes such as eco-design;
  3. Depth – ranging from punchy slogans to detailed data.

This can be done on websites and reports – you start at the shallow end and gets deeper and more involved as you explore further.

The wider the audience you appeal to, the more successful you will be – sustainability doesn't benefit from the pester power that Legoland does!

 

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30 September 2015

Why don't people 'get' climate change? Because we're only human...

George_Monbiot_(cropped)I like George Monbiot – he's decent, principled and thorough – but I often disagree with the tenor of his arguments. Today he complained that there was more TV news coverage in 2014 of the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann than the whole range of environmental issues.

This doesn't really surprise me.

As animals we are programmed to react to immediate risks to our family. What happened to Madeleine McCann taps into our deepest fears. As a parent, the idea of losing a kid to a stranger while taking a minuscule risk – eating on the same premises while the kids sleep in a locked room (which I've been known to do) – haunts me. And never knowing their fate... it makes me shiver.

By contrast, climate change is a creeping, gradual, sometimes distant threat. We can look at graphs of plunging Arctic sea ice, but they don't hit that primal chord in the same way because we can't relate to the risk. Boris Johnson famously questioned how the world could be warming when he could see snow outside his window – a silly argument on an intellectual level, but it illustrates the mountain to climb.

[BTW, in 2014 'Maddie' hit the headlines for a particular reason (which both Monbiot and the study he quotes fail to mention) – the Portuguese Police and Scotland Yard started digging wasteland up in the hunt for the young girl. There was a very real chance the mystery would be solved at long last. Studying 2012 or 2013 might give a more realistic comparison.]

What I'm trying to get at here is people aren't stupid as the title of Monbiot's article – "There may be flowing water on Mars. But is there intelligent life on Earth?" – implies. But they are human, and if we are failing to communicate the risks of climate change, then maybe, just maybe it's our fault, not theirs.

 

Photograph by Adrian Arbib, used under Creative Commons License.

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