Why climate activism’s message needs more hope.

This article was published on my Medium profile.

At the moment, it feels like there is an endless number of issues facing our planet and society: from the climate crisis, to the migrant crisis, political turmoil and increasing social inequality. These issues are in our faces constantly; they’re reported on, confabbed, keynoted, tweeted and soap boxed round the clock. However, are we all talk no action? Are we giving too much weight to the problems we’re facing around the world and not enough to how we’re going to overcome them?

Don’t get me wrong, discussing problems without solutions has a place. Ultimately, feeling rage and dismay or expressing anger and grief can be how we unite; it’s how we mobilise communities and create movements. I doubt 4 million people would’ve taken to the streets around the world on Friday if it weren’t for a hint of rage.

But it was ultimately hope that pulled them out of their desk chairs. It was Greta Thunberg’s rallying cry, “If a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.” Greta paints a picture of the future, she creates something to believe in god dammit!

By contrast, I recently (and I don’t think I was alone in this) shared a piece of artwork on my Instagram stories expressing grief about the fires in the Amazon, the destruction of the planet’s lungs, the starting point of one fifth of our oxygen. My partner then rightly quizzed me, “What does sharing this achieve other than being sad?”. I didn’t have an answer. An opportunity for mourning? A global community uniting in grief? Maybe if I express my sadness, others will too?

But despair is exhausting, particularly when it feels like we’re surrounded by it. That feeling of hopelessness is why people switch off; it’s why they choose blissful ignorance from the world’s troubles.

Considering the multi-generational impact that the climate crisis is having/will have, we need long-term activism, we need people to stick with it. We need to give them something to grab on to, dig their teeth into, and hold on to for dear life. A narrative of helplessness ain’t it.

‘Make America Great Again’ — that worked, it spoke to people and gave them something to believe in. So did Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’. Evidently, it doesn’t matter who or what a message is speaking to, it’s the hopeful and positive rhetoric that cuts through.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat out her veteran, high-profile Democrat opponent to become the youngest woman to ever serve in US congress and is now one of the loudest voices championing the Green New Deal. Her campaign launch video ‘The Courage to Change’ saw volunteer sign ups and donations explode (her campaign budget was $200,000, her opponent’s was $6 million), driving her victory home. The video is a schooling in hope and positive rhetoric. When words inspire hope, they create change.

James Sadri, co-founder of the anti-Brexit activist platform, Led by Donkeys, recently discussed his group’s use of humour in their campaigns, “people just don’t have the ­energy for ­constant fear”. He says, “Hope can provide a direction that people want to head in and follow in the long term, whereas fear feels very much like a stop sign… Hope is energising while fear is exhausting”. This can be extended to the climate movement.

For the last several years, a behemoth of activists in Australia have been fighting the construction of the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine. The mine will cause irrevocable damage to the natural environment both locally and far reaching. The campaign is instantly recognisable by its ‘Stop Adani’ slogan that sits in a stop sign shape — in progressive suburbs of Australia you’ll see street stop signs rehashed as ‘Stop Adani’ signs.

The movement has an almost unavoidable presence in the activism space, but it’s failing in many ways — not least that the mine inches closer to construction every day — and has been the recipient of much criticism.

However, behind the scenes, the movement is deeply focused on creating a just transition from coal power to renewable energy. Working with local communities who have long been supported by the coal industry, environmental and energy organisations from across Australia are seeking to create shared value and positive outcomes for all. But this is nowhere to be seen in the campaign’s public message.

At this year’s Centre for Australian Progress conference, global communications and campaign expert Anat Shenker-Osorio called out the ‘Stop Adani’ campaign for its lack of aspirational language. Shenker says that ‘Stop Adani’ as a campaign message doesn’t contain a future vision, rather it is negative and reactive language that alienates many, it’s a literal stop sign. Shenker says “what you fight, you feed” and that ‘Stop Adani’ creates a platform for Adani, rather than painting a portrait of the world we want to see without it. Shenker recommended that the campaign move to language that is aspirational and creative, we need to inspire and mobilise around hope and a plan for the future.

The climate crisis is going to be an intergenerational catastrophe that necessitates a commitment to long term action, by as many people as possible. Let’s not isolate with despair and helplessness, let’s galvanise with hope and empowerment. The road is long, but the attitude that you take with you for the ride is everything.

Georgia Gibson. 2019.