There was a meme circulating a few months ago which contrasted the competing virtues of Greta Thunberg and the Dutch inventor Boyan Slat as poster children for the climate movement. Both Greta and Boyan are young, idealistic and passionately committed to environmental causes. They were both still teenagers when they first came to public prominence. But Greta, these days, is far better known than Boyan. She has a level of global celebrity on a par with world leaders and movie stars – this despite the fact that she’s neither a scientist nor an economist, and is offering no practical solutions to tackle the crisis. Boyan, on the other hand, has made very concrete contributions to environmental protection with his innovative Ocean Cleanup project, but despite this has almost no name recognition amongst the general public.
What’s noteworthy about this meme is what it indicates about the state of the climate crisis debate today. The science itself really isn’t the problem. As one of the many notable statistics has it, 97% of scientists agree that global warming is the product of human activity; and there’s a similar consensus about the measures we should be taking to address it.
The problem is with the politics; with persuading those in power, those with the ability to actually do something about the situation, that the science is real and needs to be taken seriously. At this stage in our history it’s not a deficit of knowledge which threatens the species, but a surfeit of apathy and intransigence. Which is why political action, and particularly political protest, is so central to the fight against climate crisis.
One of the fundamental principles of modern political communication, be it in electoral politics or protest movements, is that you need to engage voters on an emotional level rather than trying to persuade them solely with facts and rational argument. It’s for this reason that narrative can be such an important tool for political persuasion. Telling a story in which the audience feels personally invested is a proven way of winning support for your cause, and of motivating people to take action to support this cause.
This is why the story of Greta Thunberg has gained so much prominence for environmental causes. Her trajectory from lone child protesting outside the Swedish parliament to outspoken teenager berating global governments at the United Nations maps onto the classic template of a gutsy individual marginalised by society but fighting, against the odds, for what she believes is right. She – or at least the image presented of her by the media – has come to personify a range of different dramatic conflicts: the struggle between the powerless and the powerful, between young and old, between idealism and the cynical pragmatism of the establishment.
But is the power of this story enough to actually drive and maintain the sort of change that’s necessary in the world? It certainly enchants the media, and thus raises awareness of the issues that Thunberg is highlighting. But one of the persistent difficulties faced by climate protesters is how to portray the crisis as something which has an immediate and personal impact on people’s lives. The concept tends to remain abstract, its effects seen as incremental and often occurring elsewhere. It’s not something that can be easily blamed on an individual or group who can then become a symbol of iniquity against which to leverage support. And while the Greta Effect has mobilised political engagement, especially among the young, intransigence at government level mostly continues.
Since their founding at the end of 2018 Extinction Rebellion have been incredibly successful in forcing an awareness of climate crisis into public consciousness. From the design and management of their aesthetic, the directness of their messaging and the specificity of their demands, to the organisation of their events, they have created a phenomenon which has garnered huge amounts of public support and media coverage. And they too, centre their campaigns around a core narrative, and one which, potentially, has an even stronger emotional pull.
The central story for Extinction Rebellion is one of grief. It’s the spectre of death, looming across the past, present and future, along with an urgent call for humanity to face up to this and take action to break the current cycle of self-inflicted destruction. This narrative is signalled in the name of the movement itself. It’s reflected in the imagery it uses, from graphics depicting skulls to effigies of skeletons and coffins. It’s expressed in spectacles such as the mock funerals, the die-ins and ‘grief marches’.
Grief can, and often does, operate as a very strong political force, mixing together sorrow with anger, and transforming private emotions into forms of communal activity – activity which, in some cases, has the ability to unite huge parts of the nation (as, for example, in the response to the death of a high-profile public figure). But grief is felt most strongly about people or things with which we’ve formed a close emotional bond. And here again, the perceived remoteness or abstraction of those affected by climate change threatens to limit the power of the message. For the harnessing of grief to translate into political resolve it needs to strike directly at the emotions and experiences of the public at large, for the grief to be felt at a local, almost personalised, level. And despite the impact XR have had, this remains an on-going challenge for the movement. Which is why creativity and the arts can play such a fundamental role in the process of political protest, helping to translate facts, predictions and a call to action into emotionally resonant narratives aimed at the heart of public opinion.
Watch The Language of Protest.
This accompanying film, a collaboration between the Open University and Hamlett Films, follows a group from Extinction Rebellion as they prepare to protest against the impact that the fashion industry is having on the environment. Exploring the ideas and the actions that drive the Extinction Rebellion movement, the film asks how it is that people who have no access to institutional sources of power manage to get their voices heard. How do they raise awareness of the issues that affect their lives, and how do they influence public opinion and put pressure on those in power?
Philip Seargeant is the author of The Art of Political Storytelling. He works at the Open University, where he teaches and researches the relationship between language, politics and social media.