Change the Message to Save the Planet

Guardian_unlimited_jpegOriginally posted Oct. 15, 2007
by George Marshall at Guardian Unlimited

Please, I beg you, if you care about climate change forget about "saving the planet".

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that you chuck your bike in a
hedge and hurtle off to Heathrow in your 4×4. In fact the exact

The problem is that this wretched phrase and all the concepts it
embodies are guaranteed to have the exact opposite effect. Let me
unravel it and I hope you will agree.

First there is that word
"planet". This word contains no sense of emotional connection. What is
a planet? A lump of cold rock floating in space. Personally it does
nothing for me. My attachment is to my family, friends, and community.
The further I get away from that core the less I feel connected or
prepared to act. The word planet, like climate, distances it even
further from my immediate concerns.

And then there is this saving thing. Some people, and I am one, are
motivated by the call to save something specific from imminent
destruction – rainforests or whales or the panda – but this is a
rallying cry for a campaign, not a total change in behaviour.

The phrase "save the planet" is closely associated with these worthy
campaigns and the activist culture that produced them, which, let’s
face it, is overwhelmingly white and middle class. It is not an
association that reaches deep into mainstream society.

And the wider associations of the word "save" speak of struggle,
abstinence and sacrifice. It is no surprise that we are invariably told
that the way we will save the planet is by giving something up: heat or
travel or lighting.

Once again, telling people they have to give something up is an
unproductive way to change their behaviour. Advertisers, those experts
in motivation, never use the word save. Even if a product saves time or
money they still avoid the word and highlight the wonderful things you
could do with that extra money or time.

But people are not told about the wonderful things they could do
with this planet if they save it. They are told, endlessly, of the
appalling things that will happen if they don’t. This is blackmail and
it simply doesn’t work.

But the biggest problem with "save the planet" lies with the
underlying concept that people can be motivated to make personal
changes by a gentle appeal to a vast collective goal. Why should anyone
be told that it is their personal responsibility to save the planet any
more than it is their responsibility to end global poverty or stop war?

A few people may be satisfied by the argument that if everyone made
those small efforts it would create the desired change. However I fear
that most people know only too well that the tiny contribution of their
own efforts will immediately be overwhelmed by the indifferent
high-carbon behaviour of their neighbour. And who can blame them?

So I say let’s chuck out the tired old phrases from a strategy that is clearly not working. Let’s start from first principles.

People want to make things better. No one feels motivated to do something that simply makes things less bad. They need a positive vision.

People want personal gain. That gain need not be financial: it could be an improvement in their health, happiness or status.

People never want to live with less. But people are
prepared to live differently, and they are happy to make the change if
they are persuaded that this will bring other benefits.

Put them all together and you get a very different message. And, to
further reject the authoritarian tones of instructions to do this or
that, I will write it as a personal testimony:

"I have embraced a lighter lifestyle because it is the smart, cool,
intelligent and healthy way to live. I want to live in the present and
the real world, not be tied to an outdated and dangerous 20th-century
way of living. I live this way because I love it, because it makes me
feel good and because it is healthy and gives me freedom.

"I feel that I am setting the pace for the 21st century and I am
excited to see people all around me trying to catch up. If we all work
together we can build a world that is cleaner, fairer and happier and
that is what I want to leave my children."

Isn’t that a better way to look at it?

George Marshall is the founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network and blogs on the psychology of climate change at His book, Carbon Detox: your step by step guide to getting real about climate change, is published today by Gaia Octopus Books.

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