Why one sycamore tree gets more coverage than mass deforestation
I don’t know how many times I’ve done the classic walk along Hadrian’s Wall to Crag Lough, then looping back either just south or north of the wall, but it is a family favourite of ours. Waking up yesterday to hear that someone had felled the 300 year old sycamore that sat in a dip in the wall along this stretch was a real shock to the system.
The tree had sprung to global fame due to its uncredited appearance in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (despite being way off the route of Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman’s already lengthy hike from the English Channel to ‘Nawtinham’) and a gazillion beautiful photos of starry nights and the northern lights. It was a very special tree.
The outpouring of grief in response to the loss of this one tree has been huge, featuring on the front page of several national papers. A cynic would ask why all this emotion over a single tree when the world lost almost 23 million hectares of tree cover last year? The answer gives us an important lesson in communicating Sustainability and it is typified in an infamous quote usually attributed to Stalin:
A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
This happens is because large numbers are a relatively modern thing in human history. Some remote tribes still only have words for numbers up to four or five – larger numbers are simply ‘many’. This suggests we can only get proper emotional engagement with a small number of people, things or indeed trees. Millions died in the Holocaust, but we focus on Anne Frank because her diaries show us viscerally what it was like for one family trying desperately to hide from the Nazis.
I get frustrated with standard ways of communicating Sustainability as they tend to stick with the big picture stuff, talking about how much ice is being lost from Antarctica or presenting global maps covered in pulsating swathes of red and orange. If you really want to get people’s attention, you need to focus down on what all this means to an individual or family, ie at a level you can empathise with.
On positive communications, tell the story of somebody like your audience is doing to cut carbon. One of my favourite examples was an engineer who applied the idea of the stop/start technology he saw in his son’s new car to the production line at work. This meant much of it could be shut down when not in use, saving energy, without risking a lengthy recalibration afterwards. Everybody in the company had heard of this innovation; nobody could tell you how much the company’s carbon footprint had changed over the last year.
So felling a million trees is a statistic (can you picture 23 million hectares? Really?), felling one tree is a tragedy. The lesson from the sycamore gap tragedy is we need to communicate Sustainability at a level that people can relate to.