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Last year I read a report published by the IPPR that made me think. It was called Warm Words, and analysed the language and discourses used in the media and campaigns to talk about climate change.

The authors identified several discourses at the time of publication (August 2006 - so it's a bit out of date now) that fell into three main groups; alarmism (we're doomed), "settlerdom" and "British comic nihilism" (climate change is just too fantastic to be true), and "small actions" (messages that encourage people to beat climate change by doing little actions like turning off lights). I thought this was all fascinating, coming at the same time I was getting slightly power crazy after being exposed to the sort of sneaky public engagement strategy that campaigning organisations use, and the ideas behind social marketing and population segmentation models.

The report suggests most of these discourses are pretty ineffective, and among its recommendations are to improve the way the media uses the small actions discourse:

As mentioned earlier, populist climate change discourse (for example, in magazines) tends to put together alarmist and small-action repertoires, through features such as ‘20 ways to save the planet from destruction’. In bringing together these two repertoires without reconciling them, these articles feed a notion of asymmetry in human agency with regards to climate change.

This, the report says, is pretty disastrous, and makes people think that while their actions are responsible for climate change, they are also powerless to do anything about it. How can turning off my telly make any difference to rising sea levels and ecosystem collapse?

Their conclusion is to create a new discourse which they call "ordinary heroism", an attempt to create a (very British by the way) language about climate change (more about heroism in another post soon). Their explanation of what makes this unique isn't entirely clear from the report to be honest, but the examples they quote of early uses of this discourse in the media all have in common that little changes from lots of people add up to be significant.

This is absolutely one of the reasons that technology and the internet is so crucial to helping us change our behaviour. My own energy saving rituals (nothing odd, I promise) seem negligible until I'm connected to everyone else, when I realise that the cumulative effect of my and our small actions are beginning to bring about significant change. This, as well as the competitive and social proofing reasons, is why it's great that socially-networked energy displays/smart meters are beginning to find their way on to the market.

But what else can we come up with?

Ps. Here's a couple of other things that do this too: Do the Green Thing and Kept.


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