What does emotional engagement really mean?
Last week I had a long Twitter discussion with a friend and colleague about why people are getting so worked up about ocean plastic while still paying lip service to climate change. We got on to discussing the difference between the massive impact that this now iconic picture of a seahorse holding a cotton bud has had, compared to the corresponding image of a walrus struggling to lift its calf onto a melting piece of ice.
The difference is that we all know instantly where that cotton bud came from (somebody’s bathroom), so the connection is immediate. To make the link between, say, turning up your domestic heating and the plight of the mother walrus requires a working knowledge of climate change science i.e. a complex mechanism which you cannot see. We can analyse data all we like, but the emotional connection is elusive.
I’ve told the story of my own Road to Damascus moment many times, but it illustrates the difference between logical engagement and emotional engagement pretty well. Pre-1997 I was an armchair environmentalist whose biggest achievement was setting up a recycling scheme in my student halls (before it was fashionable). Post graduation, I had a non-Sustainability job in the Civil Service, recycled my glass, tins and paper and didn’t own a car – I was living next to a London Underground station and didn’t need one. I read lots of environmental books and felt pretty smug about what I thought was a low impact lifestyle.
Then in late 1996 I took a career break to travel the world with my partner. We ended up teaching English in 200km North of the Arctic Circle in Russia because that sounded a suitably crazy thing to do. One day I was taken on a day trip by a Russian colleague and we passed the town of Monchegorsk which is surrounded by a zone of destruction extending miles downwind of the town. I asked to stop and take a picture which you can see below.
As I stood by the roadside I could taste sulphur in the air. That huge cloud in the sky is an acid rain machine fed by the chimneys of a nickel smelter that you can just see in the background. I’m an engineer, and in this single vista I could trace the devastation around me via the cloud to the piece of engineering that was causing the problem. Being there, seeing it, tasting it gave me the punch in the gut which is a truly emotional connection. That’s the moment I flicked from passive to active environmentalism and I haven’t paused for breath since.
You don’t need to travel to far flung parts to engage emotionally with people. Something as simple as letting someone test drive an electric car reduces the fear factor, gives them an experience (we’re all emotionally connected to our experiences) and makes uptake much more likely. I’ve made a career around persuading people to generate their own Sustainability ideas and strategies, because if you make it, you own it – and that’s a powerful emotional connection.
You can learn how our Green Jujitsu approach leads to emotional engagement for Sustainability on our online training course – click here for more.