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"Death of a Thousand Tips"

George Marshall, 2007


George Marshal, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, a green communications outfit, published this much-discussed essay on his Climate Denial blog in September 2007. It is part of the perennial "what should we do?" debate and argues that what "we" (anyone connected with environmental communication) should do, is to stop writing articles and books suggesting 'x easy things you can do to live a greener life'. This because such 'tips' to help you 'save the planet' are dangerously misleading.

The easier a 'tip' is to perform, the less useful it is:

It is a serious distortion to imply ... that there is any equivalence between [re-using your plastic bags, switching off the TV at the mains and filling your kettle with the right amount of water] and the serious decisions that really reduce emissions - stopping flying, living close to work and living in a well insulated house.

Marshall quotes approvingly from the 2005 IPPR report Warm Words: "simple actions easily lapse into wallpaper ... too-easily ignorable ...[and] putting trivial measures alongside alarmist warnings can lead people to deflate, mock and reject the very notion of climate change". He then describes the rationale behind the 'tips' discourse:

The logic is as follows. Simple actions capture people's attention and provide an entry level activity. Present people with the daunting big ticket items and they turn away. Give them something easy and possible and you have them moving and, in theory ready for the next level.

But, says Marshall, there's no evidence at all that this happens. This is not quite true: there are consistent findings in social psychology which show that - in some circumstances - people can be moved along a path from small actions to bigger ones. This 'escalation of commitment' is well-known as a sales technique and has also been demonstrated experimentally for altruistic acts. However, when Marshall writes ...

[...] it doesn't work ... [...] the people who do the big actions were probably on that trajectory anyway, and most people get stuck on the small ones

... he may very well be right. 'Escalation of commitment' occurs in situations where there is a small audience (often just an individual) which is actively led into increasing its actions. This is not the case with broadly targeted messages offering 'tips to save the planet'.

Yet I don't quite go all the way with Marshall on this. Although there certainly are much better messages than 'be green by giving up plastic bags', we don't know exactly what effect these messages have or if they do any actual harm - even if it is "wallpaper" it might be playing a part in laying down a general acceptance that there really is a serious environmental problem, and this acceptance might smooth the introduction of say, personal carbon quotas. This does sound unlikely but yet again we simply don't know.

My own position is that this sort of debate simply isn't worth the energy expended on it. Much better to concentrate on getting out the message about loft insulation.

December 2008


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