Welcome to our Powerful and Positive climate conversations series. This is the fifth in a six part series exploring what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to communicating with the people in your life about the climate and nature emergency and helping to build a movement for change. You can find the other parts here.
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
– Arundhati Roy
‘It’s over for humanity.’
Over and over again people on social media shared the latest dire IPCC report with some version of this sentiment.
But the report, bad as it is, does not tell us we’re screwed. Why are so many of us turning to ‘doomerism’, the belief that there’s no hope of preventing the worst of the climate crisis? In today’s post we’re going to look at the roots of this fatalism, its implications for climate action, and how our own climate conversations can counter its effects.
Ok Doomer: how are 'end of the world' message affecting us?
As many commentators have pointed out , the last couple of years has seen many people leap straight from ‘climate change isn’t a problem’ and land on ‘well everything is hopeless and there’s no point trying to stop it’, skipping over the whole bit where we see that it’s serious and try and fix it. What is going on here?
Us humans seem to be drawn strongly to dystopian visions of the future, in books and on the screen.
It’s possible that dystopias help us process current issues and fears in a safer way, whether that’s chaos in our society or in our own lives. In fiction at least, dystopian futures are somehow less messy as the worst has already happened, heroes and leaders can emerge and radical social changes take place.
However, there’s one subgenre of speculative fiction known as grimdark in which there’s no heroes and no redemption. Grimdark invites us to imagine a lightless future, where everyone is dishonourable and cynical and there’s no hope of anything every getting better, presenting worlds where, as author Liz Bourke writes, we retreat into ‘the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action … as either impossible or futile.’
Right now, the dominant climate narrative across all forms of media – fiction and nonfiction – is pretty grimdark. Climate impacts are portrayed as ‘awesome, terrible, immense and beyond human control’ and the imagery we see daily on the news often as horrifying as anything we’d see in an ‘end of the world’ movie. There’s a vogue for weary and cynical opinion pieces, typified by Jonathon Franzen’s 2019 New Yorker essay ‘What If We Stopped Pretending?, that tell us to stop trying, everything is a bust. Even James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, is a grouchy pessimist, declaring that “the biosphere and I are in the last 1% of our lives.”
Are we, asked the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2007, inadvertently absorbing apocalyptic visions of the future that are ‘secretly thrilling’, a kind of ‘climate porn’ that ultimately makes the whole thing feel at best unreal and at worst a lost cause. The rise and rise of cli-fi (climate fiction – check out Burning Worlds, Amy Brady’s great cli-fi review blog) and lurid end-of-days predictions, such as The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells and Jem Bendell’s (in)famous Deep Adaptation paper, are undoubtedly captivating but are they helping us find a path forward? Stories – real and fiction – shape our action and give direction to our energy, so what effect does this steady drip of misery, this doomism, have on us, and our ability to be powerful climate advocates?
Doom is demoralising and demotivating and, although it comes from a place of deep trust in the science, its consequences are almost indistinguishable from climate denial: no action, no change. After all, why bother campaigning, or making changes in your own life, if there’s no point? Lovelock, while handing down his doomy prophecies, cheerfully admitted that he and his wife have no intention of flying less because he believes we should all ‘enjoy life while we can’.
Climate doomism can also be deliberately and cynically used by those who wish to delay, stall or undermine climate action by pushing ‘too late’ narratives to the point where people disengage and drift away from the climate movement. Rebecca Solnit writes:
“The carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice, or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to be.”
What’s the alternative?
The ‘everything is terrible’ framing is so prevalent that it can be hard to imagine an alternative that isn’t naively optimistic, but the answer is surprisingly simple: in all our climate conversations we need to shift early in the conversation from talking about the issue (climate change is terrible!) to the action (here’s a solution!) and the outcome (a safer, fairer, healthier world for everyone) and in doing so bring others along with us in imagining a future that isn’t going up in flames.
In a moment we’ll look at some practical tips for our day to day conversations, but I first wanted to share three different approaches to moving beyond doomism and imagining and communicating positive futures.
Looking to the short term.
Rob Hopkins is a master of transforming what feels possible. In his brilliant book, From What Is To What If he invites us to imagine a radically different society founded on imagination, compassion, and play, and he does it using examples of successful initiatives happening right now. In the videos below, Rob imagines what 2030 will look like, and the closeness of this date is energizing – you can almost reach out and touch the very practical, day to day vision he describes.
Rob’s walk through 2030 may not fill everyone with delight – compost toilets in the basement sound good to me but may not be a popular idea – but finding the overlap in our own personal visions of a nearterm fair and healthy future is key.
Looking to the long term
Do you often think of yourself as an ancestor? Roman Krznaric argues that we are suffering from a short-term thinking habit that does not give enough consideration to the needs of future generations, and in his book The Good Ancestor he outlines six ways in which we can experience a sense of ‘deep time humility’, and actively work towards a better future as a result.
One of his most interesting ideas (to me) is ‘cathedral thinking’; that is, projects that last beyond the span of our lifetime. One initiative that fits this bill is the Future Library, a project by Scottish artist Katie Paterson. A forest has been planted in Norway; in a hundred years (well, in 2114, one hundred years after the project started) its wood will be harvested and turned into paper to print books containing previously unseen stories from authors writing today. Authors who have already submitted secret stories to be held in trust for a century include Margaret Atwood, David Mitchel, and Ocean Vuong, who describes the project as ‘a daring and exhilarating optimism. Another author, Karl Ove Knausgard describes it as ‘sending a little ship’ from our time to future readers.
A project we can all take part in is Dear Tomorrow, a website inviting anyone to write a letter or record a message to a loved one in 2050, with the aim of opening a door between us and the future. “I have found it’s easier here to achieve victories for your future”, writes a 25 year old to her little six year old sister. “I worry about you,” writes a dad to his unborn children. Dear Tomorrow takes the future and makes it tangible and very personal – have a read, but be prepared to maybe have a little cry too, as the letters are often very powerful.
How do these projects make you feel?
Do they make our descendents, and our responsibility as ancestors, feel more solid and relatable?
Looking for beauty and courage
Imagine a future where cooperation and community are cherished, practical skills are valued, and technology exists in balance with both nature and low-tech ways of living. Solarpunk, a subculture underpinned by this ethos, is an aesthetic and a science-fiction movement but it’s also a practical and beautiful blueprint for the future. “We are starved of visions of the future that sustain us”, write the authors of solarpunks.net. But instead of imagining purely speculative utopias, solarpunk is grounded in what is possible.
As a community, solarpunks redirect energy that would otherwise be channeled into worry, negativity, and endlessly scrolling through yet more bad news, into finding solutions to problems using the tools and technologies we already have and drawing on the knowledge of our ancestors and of indigenous cultures. As a subculture, solar punk creates a space where ideas can be explored and potentially mainstreamed and scaled up. Its distinctive aesthetic – think cities blended seamlessly with forests, ingenious thrift, repair and repurposing, and a sunny Studio Ghibli colour palette – is brimming with optimism and hope. As a conversation starter it is powerful.
Would you want to live in a community that looked like this?
How would it change how you live, work and travel? How could this space be used for play, learning, wellbeing, food growing?
This is actually a real place – Supertree Grove in Singapore. The giant tree sculptures house vertical gardens and also harvest solar energy.
For more on solar punk check out this thorough explainer, or for an interesting example of this community remaining, listen to artist and architect Olalekan Jeyifous discuss his project “The Frozen Neighborhoods”, a vision for a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York where the community develops sustainable practices that support people and the planet.
Another ‘punk’ genre worth mentioning is hopepunk. A literary genre rather than solarpunk’s broad art’ movement, hopepunk emerged as a counterpoint to grimdark, and celebrates ordinary, everyday courage and ‘doing the right thing’ in the face of impossible odds. The word hopepunk was coined by an author, Alexandra Rowland, in 2017. She describes it in this way: “It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done, though”.
Hopepunk worlds aren’t inherently hopeful – in fact they can be very grim – but the active choices of their characters to enact gentleness, kindness, cooperation and courage shapes the story and reframes those behaviours (behaviours that will prove key to our success or failure in responding to climate change) as powerful, not weak, and valuable for their own sake.
How do we build positive futures into our conversations?
In short, we can become better climate communicators if we stop framing climate change in terms of danger and loss, and frame it in terms of solutions, transitions, and resilience. What’s more, we can draw on different ways of thinking about the future to build a picture – for ourselves and others – of the world we want to create.
Tell stories about people and places
Thinking back to the idea of moving from issue to action, we can do this in our own lives by shifting how we talk about climate, moving away from causes and impacts to sharing examples of things are going in the right direction.
Where to find these positive stories? Sometimes we can draw on examples from the past – such as international collaboration to heal the ozone layer, the UK smoking ban, the return of red kites back from the brink here in Wales, or the speed with which the Covid vaccine was developed. Or we can look to encouraging current events, usually under-reported in favour of catastrophe. We love:
For example, did you know that Scotland is piloting schemes to provide free bikes for children, Sweden just shipped the world’s first consignment of coal-free steel, an enormous peatland restoration project has launched near Manchester, and Iceland’s 4 day working week trial was a massive climate and wellbeing success?
These things didn’t happen magically by themselves – they are stories about people, and stories about people are the ones that grab our attention the most. Going back to those ‘dynamic descriptive norms’ we talked about in part two, relatable stories of change from your own life or people in your community can expand our perception of what’s possible.
For example, when I was looking for a way to transport my two kids by bike I initially didn’t consider pulling them in a trailer because I assumed that I didn’t have the strength, or skill, or bravery to do that. Then I saw a lady with her daughter in a trailer in Cardiff Bay and she was a normal looking lady wearing normal clothes and just getting on with it like it was no big deal. Then I read some blogs by mums who were giving trailers a go and sharing their experiences. Learning that other people who were quite like me were making this work totally changed my perception, and I biked my kids around Cardiff in a trailer for two years until they got too big for it.
If we want more of the good stuff on our news feed then we can also support solutions journalism. This is a movement based around the idea that solutions to problems and people finding fixes should be just as newsworthy as the problems themselves. If you write, or aspire to write, news stories then the Solutions Journalism Network have loads of great resources or you can subscribe to a regular newsletter to get solutions focussed news in your inbox.
Choose pictures with care
Although these blogs are about conversations, some of us also have opportunities to communicate using images – for example bloggers, teachers, people promoting events and anyone communicating on social media. What stories do the pictures we choose tell? Climate Visuals have developed seven evidence based principles for effective use of climate photos. They recommend steering away from the classics (polar bears, melting glaciers, deforestation) and using pictures that tell new stories about real people. On the climate visuals website you can search through a huge collection of images showing real people implementing real climate solutions.
We can also help develop conversations about positive futures by:
- Avoiding perpetuating the narrative that the problems we face are permanent, inherent to human nature, or just too tough to solve – I feel like the oft quoted ‘just 100 companies cause 71% of emissions’ falls into this trap, as it takes the power out of our hands. Make it a question of how we solve this, not whether or not it’s possible.
- Showing how individual actions fit into a bigger strategic picture. It can be demotivating to be asked to do something small when it’s clearly inappropriate to the scale of the problem, but if you can share some insights into the ripple effect of individual choices, especially the effects of these choices get supercharged by talking about them with others, everything clicks into place.
- Celebrate effort and change. Take a tip from the fitness industry – adverts for running shoes don’t show the wearer sitting down for a pizza having completed a marathon, they celebrate the struggle. It is more useful to honestly share the barriers you’ve overcome in your climate action journey, the dead ends, the difficulties, than to gloss over them. In my story above about the bike trailer I should have told you that the first time I took it out for a spin (with no kids in it!) I attached it wrong and it slammed into my bike, bending spokes and breaking the mudguard. I didn’t tell you that drivers yelled at me on more than a few occasions and called me a bad mum. Because biking instead of driving is important to me, I didn’t let these things stop me and ultimately they made me a much more confident cyclist and put me in a better position to talk realistically about what’s achievable. There are very legitimate reasons why people don’t just instantly shift to low carbon choices, so let’s avoid making eco-perfection the norm and instead acknowledge effort and celebrate small wins and milestones to encourage each other.
Visioning positive futures as a group
So far we’ve mainly focussed on day to day conversations, but if you’re part of a community group, a team, or a class then it can be a really positive experience to spend a bit of time exploring a shared vision of the future. I thought it might be helpful to finish with a few ideas for doing that in a group setting
The door to the future
Ask everyone to sit or stand comfortably and focus on the door of the room you’re in – if you’re outdoors then feel free to create an imaginary freestanding door where you are! Explain that in a moment you’d like everyone to close their eyes if they feel comfortable doing that, and imagine opening that door, and finding themselves in 2050. This is a 2050 where global climate goals have been achieved, and exceeded, and the planet is on a more stable pathway. To achieve these goals, society has been restricted in positive ways that prioritise wellbeing and equality over economic growth. What do you see when you open that door, and walk out of the building and down the street?
- How has the physical environment of your local area changed? What’s new and what’s missing?
- What are the buildings being used for? What kind of businesses and organisations can you see? And how are people using them?
- How are people getting from place to place? How fast are they moving? Where are they going?
- What can you hear? What can you smell?
You can take this as far as you like, or make it more personal to the group, for example by asking people to imagine walking into their home or their school. Once everyone has had a chance to think through the questions and build up strong mental images, invite everyone to share what they saw if they wish. Draw out some common themes or ideas, and ask everyone to try and hold their ‘future memories’ in mind as your group works together.
Responding to pictures
Find some images to share with your group – you could choose fictional solar punk illustrations, real life places, or browse Ashden or Climate Visuals for images of existing climate solutions. Invite your group to respond to the pictures:
- Is this a world you’d like to live in? What about it interests you? What wouldn’t you enjoy? What would you change?
- Which of the technology, resources, infrastructure and skills needed to create this world do we have already? What can be repurposed, and where are the gaps?
- What would need to change to bring this vision to life? Legislation? Culture? Technology? Working practices? Education?
- What capacity, influence and ideas do we have to bring these changes about?
Creating your own picture
A collaborative artwork is a really fun way to start shaping the future as a group – no artistic skills needed! As above, set the scene by explaining that you’re going to be thinking about the year 2050 where the climate has been stabilised. The group will work together to build a vision of the local community of that future, starting broad then adding in detail. You could spread out a roll of paper and do a giant group doodle, or you could make it 3D with junk modelling, plasticine, or lego. Or, like the amazing Pop Up Tomorrow activity from Transition Towns you really could go ahead and build a small scale community!
Ask a lot of questions as you go:
- Why do you think that will be a useful resource for the community, and why did you choose to put it there?
- How do these parts work together?
- Who would visit this? Who would run it?
- How are people travelling around? Where do they naturally meet?
We hope that today’s post has been useful, and if you try any of the ideas we’ve suggested then we’d love to hear how it went. Next week we’ll be wrapping up by thinking about greenwash before tying everything together. As we’ve had a lot of interesting feedback on this series we’ll also be running two informal Climate Conversations Coffee Mornings as part of Great Big Green Week on September 21st and 23rd where we can discuss some of the opportunities for powerful and positive conversations we encounter in our own lives. If you’d like to join us then you can register here.
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