Sex is carbon-neutral yet Climate Change is boring

Marshall_Why_Our_Brains_Are_WiredIn an early genesis of post-carbon living in 2008 we were influenced by a project called the “Yellow House“. It was a run-down, former council-house, in Oxford that had under-gone a drastic make-over to make it a (self-styled) “environmental dream home”. It’s influence upon us was formative – the work done was so drastic as to turn a home into (what we perceived as) a science experiment. We were so aghast we actually specifically stated that Superhome 59 would NOT be a science experiment. To his credit the home-owner at Yellow House was some six years ahead of us and we came to credit him as somewhat of a visionary. His name was George Marshall. But he wasn’t all about crazy DIY and we soon signed up to his “Climate Denial” blog and soon saw him as the deep-thought on the topic of why we don’t think about Climate Change. Six years later and George has not only re-located to Wales but has written a book about the topic of just why we cannot deal with Climate Change. It is an important read for anyone who wishes to communicate in this area. But is it any good?

Whilst George’s influence upon Superhome 59 may have been a slightly negative one, his influence on our thinking about Climate Change was profound. In 2009 I found myself giving a keynote speech to a bunch of environmentalists at the AGM of the local Environment Centre. I made the topic “see yourself as others do” and urged my audience to rise above the stereotypes of the Environmentalist and see the world as others do. I was then Chairman and Co-founder of a local Transition Town and so longed to have it populated by activists who were, to put it politely, not environmentalists. People, well, like me. My reasoning was clear: we had to break into the mainstream and hence could not afford to look or sound like just another environmental group. I think I failed. However it is quite heartening to pick up Marshall’s 2014 book “Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change” (Bloomsbury ISBN: 978-1-62040-133-0) and indulge my very own form of confirmation bias.

There have been a few cracking books over the years that really get under the skin of the social phenomena that is “climate change” – not the science but the way we think of it in a political sense. The best book to date was without doubt Mike Hulme’s “Why We Disagree About Climate Change” (ISBN 978-0-521-72732-7 2009 Cambridge University Press) which opened our eyes to just how “wicked” the issue was. It was genuinely disturbing and I guarantee most environmentalists campaigning on this matter have probably never read it. Marshall takes Hulme’s work a step further with the most thorough shakedown of the topic imaginable. Nobody should even attempt to talk about Climate Change until they have read these two works. Marshall shows just how easily climate change messaging backfires when you simply have no idea what you are doing. Marshall certainly convinces me that he does, or at least has thought very hard about it and done more than adequate research. His writing is fresh and (at times) dryly funny. He delivers the wit and wisdom the topic so richly deserves.

…and, yes, he does tell that “sex is carbon neutral” but the “climate change is boring” is very much me. For if this book has just one drawback it is that Marshall never dwells for a moment of introspection on the matter. He has a hundred really quite complicated (and fascinating) explanations as to why we don’t talk (hence don’t act) upon climate change. Yet he frames the entire book in just this fashion, ie, as if people SHOULD be interested in climate change. My take is somewhat simpler. People simply are not interested – and why should they be? This may well be a slightly different spin on the semantics but it differs in one way. I don’t think it can be made interesting. Or at least I have not found a way and Marshall doesn’t see this as an issue at all. He couches the issue in entirely different terms. For a man who can link sex with your carbon status this is probably a bit of an own-goal.

So let’s turn it around: why should anyone be interested in climate change? Yes they should care, and most people say they do, and yes they should do something – and most people wish they could. But it is never going to be a topic to hold people’s interest. Marshal treats this as an interesting anthropological conundrum. It is screamed out of the page: “why don’t people at dinner parties find my talking about climate change interesting?” He genuinely believes that people MUST talk about it. But why should they? Should we also talk about death and taxes in polite conversation? Many of us have hobbies that we personally find fascinating but we have the good sense NOT to bring these up as a topic in polite conversation and if we do it will only be briefly. We understand that it is simply not polite to bore your guests with obscure issues they do not wish to talk about.

So, THAT is my take on the matter. I think it is a simple issue. Marshal deconstructs my simplistic view into a myriad different angles…. And I DO agree with him, even if he maybe over-thinking this a bit – her certainly HAS to be thinking about this. Somebody has to – else we would never make any progress at all. We kick off in quite safe territory – the social norm – a topic I have dwelt upon in the past, we do as the people we identify-with do. In short, we conform. Climate Change interest does not have a critical mass even if most people care. Once we are in our peer group it becomes an echo-chamber for like-opinions and we become convinced that everyone believes as we do. Hence the astonishment on the internet when the Conservatives won the election or when Republican Presidential candidates line up to deny climate change. We are all aghast – “how can they believe that”? Well, they are surrounded by people who agree. The activist communities on the internet were big and powerful but most of the Tory voters (who outnumbered them) we NOT in that online community.

Groups share values, if you share your value system with others you will believe what they tell you. Simply comparing energy usage with your neighbours is not enough to encourage frugal energy usage, you have to be within the same community as those neighbours. In short – you have to know them as personal confidants. Some climate change messages have backfired because they accidentally advertised denial as being practised by desirable people we would envy. And this highlight early on just how “wicked” climate change can be: honing your message for one target audience can have the opposite of the intended effect upon a different audience who see the same communication. It becomes a zero-sum game. For every person you get on-board someone else can be alienated. There is no one universal message that works for all parties. But it won’t stop us from trying will it?

In this dialogue it is all too easy for conservatives to see climate concerns as the last bastion of “displaced socialists and communists”. The edition I am reviewing of this book is the US edition. Marshall is aiming this at the North American audience and indeed, he seems to have spent most of the time researching this book in the USA – a long way from Wales. He himself has framed this issue as a peculiarly North American problem hence he has gone straight to the heart of darkness. His focus on “conservatives” and later on religion does actually seem a little out-of-touch from a European perspective. It is not a big issue with the book but it is curious for a man who lived just up the road from me to produce something so angled towards the cultural issue of just one nation.

So, why don’t we think about climate change? One of the reasons is it lacks the narratives of goods guys versus bad guys. Good stories always have an enemy and all too often the climate change narrative heads off down the alley-way of “someone to blame”. Hence environmentalists regard the pollution of the good science as evidence of evil doing. Marshall points out that this is a mistake and to narrowly frame the debate in just these terms locks us into a futile exercise without winners. We need stories based upon “cooperation, mutual interest and common humanity” he suggests. Finding an enemy cannot absolve us of our own guilt. Marshall visits victims of extreme weather only to find them utterly unable to connect their misfortune with climate change. It is not a story that fits with the one they are choosing to share. Even so, we should strongly respond to events that are personal, sudden, immoral and happening now. Or, in other words:

“If global warming were caused by eating puppies, millions of Americans would be massing in the streets”

Likewise it is later pointed out that if global warming was caused by North Korea pumping out toxic gasses deliberately then we would also have acted long before now. We have a disconnect between the emotional and rational sides of our brain. What we are doing is a massive experiment in every kind of communication see exactly which reaches that magical Goldilocks emotional zone where our brains get switched-on appropriately to respond. Marshall ponders why so many highly educated people can be motivated in their droves to campaign against a mobile phone mast (virtually harmless) when they ignore climate change that is highly likely to be very non-harmful. What’s the difference he asks?

The answer is that people feel comfortable objecting to the NEW… yet uncomfortable trying to change aspects of their lives that they are familiar with. We are all used to aeroplanes and coal power. There-in lies the problem. We are not wired to equate long term climate change risks against short-term costs to our living standards. Climate change has no immediacy. Governments particularly are trapped in a five year election cycle and feel completely unable to sacrifice anything for the next generation. Yet in some cultures there is little problem at all with the Danish & Japan being held up as examples. By implication it seems that the English-speaking nations have a problem. It is important that we do not become resigned to climate change – we must feel like active and informed participants in a choice on the matter. Yet these choices are not framed for us these ways.

Marshall moves on to address the communication of the science. On this matter he is very clear: we need to communicate the certainty of climate change rather than talk about the uncertainty. Yet he knows how hard it is for scientists to make that happen. People hear “uncertainty” and they interpret it as “doubt”. It is a gift to any denier. Marshall uses an example of terrorism where very low probabilities of attack still yield preventative actions despite the politicians (who argue for such measures) being the self-same people arguing against climate change action (despite it having a far higher probability of damaging our society). Clearly our political disposition guides us as to what to ignore. We then bend the available evidence to match what we want to say. A similar example is invoked by the people funding the tracking of near-Earth objects for fear of an extinction-level asteroid strike. Some people would prefer to worry about low-probability meteor strikes than highly-likely extreme weather. It is not as if these people are ignoring all risks – they are just selective in choosing the risks they wish to exaggerate.

One of the issues highlighted here is that some people outside of the climate-change-worry-fold are better at telling stories than the environmentalists are. We need to choose the best words to invoke the right image. For example my Tweets will often refer to renewable energy as “clean power” whilst the fossil fuel alternatives are framed as “dirty energy”. It draws bipartisan support and is an attribute supported by Marshall in his book. How we understand words is a matter of how they pass through our cultural filters. It is not a matter of intelligence. Writes Marshall:

“Ironically one of the best proofs that information does not change people’s attitudes is that science communicators continue to ignore the extensive research evidence that shows that information does not change people’s attitudes.”

One example cited by Marshall is the stat that 97% of climate scientists support the theory of man-made climate change. Oddly it only goes to promote the fact that 3% do not! Climate change became deeply identified with the meanings that environmentalists gave it. Other framings became sidelined. It is associated with one movement and its worldviews and hence has remained tainted ever-since. Environmentalists are perceived as complainers, pony-tailed bed-wetters, drama-queens. No wonder distrust levels are high. The solutions to climate change are all so very “environmental”…:

It’s all about.. “…protecting, saving, banning and stopping things..”

This is certainly an observation I have used critically to make environmentalists understand that this is how they will be perceived – as people who want to stop the modern world from happening and would prefer all the human race to disappear if it means protecting one tree frog.

“…the language creates a false division. It creates the impressions that the environment is some external entity that has to be protected or saved from an enemy that seeks to destroy it.”

THIS was exactly the kind of framing I chose so hard to avoid when I worked in the Transition Town movement. Certainly it seems I was barking up the right tree. Framing is everything yet even if we got that right we struggled to find an audience in sufficient numbers. Certainly the blog pages of the local newspaper was absolutely the wrong place to be. The worst things we could have done though was to make it about polar bears. Polar bears are something we see in zoos. They do not connect with us in our lives. Marshall then writes against making climate change dull by talking up disaster but then makes the same point about positive messages. Gee – he really doesn’t want you to have either cake or eat it. He does come more constructive when he moves onto the tailpipe versus wellhead issue.

Certainly we have seen massive progress in recent years (probably since this book was written) in moving climate change campaigning on into the domain of stranded fossil fuel assets and divestment campaigns. This is an exciting area. It really matters not what you say about the polar bears as long as you threaten somebodies pension fund. THAT matters. Money matters. If we are able to turn this into a COST with big dollar $igns then big business will take notice. Marshall suggest it was a mistake not to focus on this earlier but it is paying dividends now. Shareholders of large fossil fuel firms are in open revolt. This is not a matter of gasses. It should never have been about the gasses. Politicians would line up to make empty promises about gasses whilst all the time forcing more and more fossil fuels into our economies. The disconnect was massive. Finally, at least in this area, we are on the right track.

So – what our our much-vaunted climate treaties? Well maybe:

“…politicians deliberately create needlessly complex treaties and unworkable processes to draw attention away from the need to do something. [..] Government create the impression that something is being done, while simultaneously preventing anything from happening.”

Certainly any cynic can say that if a policy was to work then the government would have to stop it. This observation seems to work very well with the British Governments attitude to Feed In Tariff policy that seems to have been cut back precisely because it worked so very well.

Daddy_TTHW_3Marshall quickly moves on to address inter-generational pleas for equity. His analysis is surprising. In the founding days of our local Transition Town we heavily used the campaign poster with the words “Daddy what did you do to stop global warming?” Certainly it was novel and we believed it had hit the spot as it avoided Polar Bears! Not so it seems. The poster was based upon one used to recruit British soldiers in World War One. Apparently inter-generation guilt is NOT a great motivator afterall. The poster was a failure in World War One and the artists even disowned it. It didn’t work for the Transition Town either. What did work in WWI? It seems that recruitment was driven by the “Pals battalions” where friends could sign up to be together as they die. As Marshall points out it was the combination of peer presure, trusted communicators, in-group loyalty and social norms that persuaded young men to sign up.

It isn’t just the grass-roots campaigners that make these mistakes. Governments do too. Marshall cited several good examples of Government campaigns to cut-carbon through individual personal sacrifice that yield little if any result. Promoting the idea that an individual can make a difference with just a small change was actually an idea that our local Transition Town movement rejected utterly. We believed big changes by everybody were necessary and such campaigns were nothing but diversionary activities that get signed up to by all the usual suspects, ie, environmentalists. Preaching to the converted doesn’t work. Such campaigns gave a fig-leaf to government to make it look like they were doing something when all they were doing was dumping the problem on ordinary people whilst neglecting the wellhead issue. People didn’t take well to being told that climate change was their fault. Trade Unions were equally dismissive of anything that they saw as connected with “lifestyle changes” which (for them) seemed connected with middle-class environmentalism. This is a terrible situation to be in as such grouping as the Trade Unions should be best able to motivate people with collective action.

“What is missing and what is urgently required, is a coherent policy framework that provides a contract for shared participation – whether through voluntary measures or, as campaigners now demand, some form of tax, ration or dividend – within which personal actions are recognised and rewarded alongside equally important contributions from government, business and fossil fuel companies.”


Yet Marshall is moved now to talk about religion. This may well be spot-on for a North American audience but fell somewhat flat for me personally. As he is quick to point out we really need to avoid identifying climate change as being a “belief system”. Marshall seems in awe of the congregations of mega-churches in the USA and rightly asks what can be done to get such interest in the real problem of climate change? This is troubling simply because religion offers easy answers. It offers redemption. Climate Change is a wicked problem for which there is no forgiveness and no get-out-of-jail-card. There is nobody to forgive you and switch it off. However it is certainly true that the church is a powerful body and it influences the people who practice its religion. It can act as a powerful peer group that can bring in the unconvinced because the trusted peers share their values. Climate Change will wreak havoc with God’s creation and it is certainly a sin to not act. Yet religion is a diverse field and there are some who have flipped this back to front such that the environmental movement is seen as the modern anti-christ. I would argue that this is yet one more reason why our communities need to embrace this problem as their own and not being one that belong to environmentalists of any colour.

To conclude the obvious: there is no single factor why we ignore climate change. It is multi-faceted. There may also be no Goldilocks-zone that works for everyone. The message that is trusted by one group will produce the opposite reaction in a different group. As such it is intractable – but not hopeless. We are ALSO wired to act on climate change – even if (as I argue) that it is also very boring. Marshall rounds up the book with a whole chapter on his conclusions and if you read just one part of this book this is the chapter to consume. I have summarised the main bullet-points from the areas I selected. (Other readers may draw their own conclusions as Marshall does tend to end up waffling a little):

  • Communicate climate change as a fact and something happening here and now
  • Create symbolic moments that have value far beyond their initial significance
  • Talk about long-term preparedness
  • Use a narrative of positive change: things will get better with clean power (for example)
  • Resist simplistic and boring framings, look for new angles and be open to new voices
  • Do not fuel division, build a narrative of cooperation – close the partisan gap
  • Relate solutions to climate change to sources of happiness
  • Emphasise that action on climate change makes us proud to be who we are
  • Create communities of shared conviction
  • Be open minded – experts can also be biased – seek a wide range of views
  • Recognise your own emissions
  • Drop the eco-stuff
  • Never assume that what will work for you works for others

The last point kind-of brings us full circle to my talk in 2009. See yourself as others do. This goes for George Marshall too as well as me. We have all been trolled on the internet by people who don’t see our messages as anything else that an opportunity for a bit of verbal vandalism. We should learn from that even if some people will never be happy. Remember – there is no Goldilocks zone. There is no magic. This is a wicked problem. It is HARD. We need to try every approach – all of the time – to all kinds of groups.

Yet in the final analysis my initial conclusion holds true. People will read this because I inserted SEX into the title of the review. I associated something sexy with something positive: carbon-neutrality. I have ‘sexed-it-up’ (to use the vernacular). The post-carbon world-to-come is full of exciting new opportunities and wealth. We are fools if we cannot see this and even more foolish if we cannot communicate this to others. Climate Change is boring and we have to stop thinking that talking about it is some kind of solution. We actually have to do something. People will be poorly motivated by melting ice and dying polar bears. If we are to have traction if have to make the post-carbon life an attractive and sexy one. One that is far more exciting than the terrible fossil field-driven social norms of today.

In short – we have to move – and be excited by that move.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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