Let’s Party!

Posted on December 19, 2012

It’s Holiday time and a New Year will soon be ushered in. Many people are preparing to have a good time with family and friends. Very many others find themselves in an economic, political or personal situation which, unfortunately, makes them unable to join in the party spirit. We all would like it to be different and for everyone to be in a situation where they can enjoy the Holiday period. This is likely my last blog entry of the year so I thought I would use the party spirit as my theme.

In a recent discussion of which I was part, someone made the point that people are getting fed up of environmentalism seemingly taking over from economics as the dismal science. There is rarely a moment of joy in today’s environmental discourse. The talk is consistently of impending doom and of the need for guilt and austerity as the only viable – indeed, supposedly, the only ‘ethical’ – ways forward. I believe that we are reaching the moment when this becomes a self-defeating narrative. We may already be there. I sense that an increasing number of people are blocking out the tales of endless gloom. The continued talk of environmental degradation and species loss; the perception of lack of progress in climate talks; the emerging belief that we may be passing a point of no return as regards keeping warming to below two degrees Celsius; all are having an effect that’s contrary to what is desired. Rather than galvanizing people and their political leaders into action, we are perilously close to the development of an attitude that’s it’s all in vain anyway so, while we can, let’s party!

It seems that many in the NGO movement have an unlimited tolerance for seeking out and communicating bad news – be it about environment or the many other areas where we can all do better. But the general population does not have such a tolerance. The psychology literature shows that disturbing narratives and disturbing imagery generate a kind of mild post-traumatic stress disorder causing self protective responses that range from turning away, long-term avoidance behavior or simply a resigned acceptance of the new reality. What Susan Sontag said about appalling imagery applies equally well to apocalyptic narratives  “our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images.”

Galvanizing the already interested and committed environmentalist is one thing. Bringing a large proportion of the population on board is quite another.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, former UK Defence Secretary Michael Portillo talked about the difference between appealing to people within a political party and appealing more broadly to the voting public. I reproduce here a pertinent passage which I have modified by replacing ‘political party’ with ‘movement’. All the words that I have replaced are enclosed in brackets and you can read the original article here.

“Today, those who join a [movement] are a tiny minority. Their views do not represent the population at large. But they play the chief role in choosing [leaders], meaning [the leadership] tends to hold minority views too. But as the Republicans showed in the US in November, a [movement] that appeals to its activists risks losing [popular support] because a canyon yawns between the “selectorate” and the electorate.”

As we approach the Holiday period, I suggest that we need to reflect on whether the environmental movement can afford to risk building an image as the Scrooge of the Christmas Season; the everyday curmudgeon for whom there is never cause to celebrate, never the occasion to have a party, just doom, gloom, an appropriated attitude of moral superiority and prescriptive austerity for all. I also suggest that we need to reflect on how many of our narratives owe their continued existence to the fact that they appeal to those already within the movement rather than because they are effective in garnering a broader base of support.

As we all take time off for the Holidays, I have a plea to make. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be partying or otherwise celebrating can maybe devote some time to thinking about what it would take to abandon, or at least dial down, the apocalyptic, guilt-driven narrative we all seem to have become addicted to and replace it with a more hopeful, aspirational narrative that is likely to have wider appeal. Can we continue the Holiday spirit into the environmental New Year?

And, as we spare a thought for those who are not in a position to celebrate, we might reflect that our hope is to find ways for them to be able to celebrate too, not for our ability to party to be taken away from us.

I look forward to the day when the general mood can be summarized as; “We’re environmentalists, let’s all party”.