Shock, Fear & Buzz: A Sustainable Battle Against Climate Change?

It was while I was watching Kony 2012 video that I decided to write my first post for the CliM’Blog. For those of you who aren’t among the 100 million people who watched this video the other week, you should know that one of the greatest and most criticized buzzes to date is a 29-minute video made by a handful of American activists launching a worldwide viral communication campaign to raise awareness of atrocities committed by Joseph Kony in Uganda and to arrest this “bad guy”.

I don’t mean to sound anti-mainstream, but I really disliked this video. Indeed, my tendency to support such laudable causes was blocked by the Manichean triviality and the glut of emotions of this video. My reluctance surely stemmed from my French Cartesian education, which naturally makes me overly critical at every media buzz, especially when it appeals to basic emotions and images.

But then, my friend Amélie told me that this kind of campaign is what actually works! THIS is what makes people get involved in making change happen. The originality of Invisible Children’s video certainly lies in their targeted population: the Youth. What could be more effective at explaining something to a young or unaware public than a hot dad telling a story to his son in a simple and accessible way? They were also savvy in dealing with the social media, triggering a viral spread and a rapid increase in information on their cause thanks to Internet surfers’ Views, Tweets, Likes and Shares around the world.

So I wondered: should climate change be depicted as the “bad guy”? Should CliMates provoke, shock, evoke pity or otherwise move the large public? Would this be an effective strategy to raise awareness of the threats that the Earth is facing, but also and above all, to trigger action against them?

First, it is essential to recall that viral communication campaigns were not the invention of Invisible Children! On climate change only, there have been songs (ever heard of Michael Jackson’s Earth Song?), NGO advertising campaigns, interactive debates, celebrity endorsements (Leonardo Di Caprio about the movie The 11th Hour) and several high-impact movies. Interestingly, the follow-ups of the well-known movie “An Inconvenient Truth” were, according to Al Gore himself, “unprecedented”. Both governments and households integrated Al Gore’s recommendations, leading to the offset of over 106,000 tons of carbon within just a year after the film’s release. And although I could provide countless examples, there is still no international agreement to mitigate climate change, or even the perspective of a climate of change. How, then, can communication and public awareness lead to a significant re-direction of tendencies?

Sure, education and information matter. And sure, we live in a digital world where images are more appealing than words. Don’t get me wrong – people need to realize that climate change is already a reality and that its effects are already palpable. But climate change (as well as armed conflicts in Africa, while we’re on the subject) is such a complex issue that reducing it to simplistic – if not awkward – facts and images, in typical Internet buzz fashion, would necessarily downgrade its scope and importance.

Viral buzzes, which generally rely on knee-jerk emotional reactions, can also be tremendously detrimental to the causes they defend. Strategies that install a climate of fear and spread deadly and catastrophist predictions tend to strike me as counter-productive and often fuel the fire of climate skeptics. « Fear won’t do it », as people’s reaction to hazardous risks is usually to bury their heads in the sand and reject the veracity of such a risk.

Last but not least, what could be less sustainable than a media-wildfire? Who still gives money to Darfur or to the Rain Forest preservation? Awareness and involvement in the fight against climate change should go beyond superficial “clicking epidemics”, which, far from highlighting a profound consciousness of upcoming challenges among the population, reveals a cultural tendency to fleetingly put topics in the spotlight.

Climate change must be demonstrated to be a part of people’s immediate lives, by accurately exposing the risks and the urgent need for action. But it should not be portrayed in such a way as to crudely scare or sadden the public. More importantly, there needs to be a dialogue on manageable solutions to which people can commit. The zoom lens should focus on perennial frameworks of expression and proposition, thereby putting climate change at the forefront but also providing hope and solutions.

Wait, isn’t that CliMates’ goal?

Une réflexion sur “Shock, Fear & Buzz: A Sustainable Battle Against Climate Change?

  1. I stumbled upon your article through a friend’s facebook feed. Thank you for your contribution on this subject, i was a interesting read. Part of my work and personal comitments deal with the issue of public education and innovative means of communications, which explains my taking a stand right now

    Though I understand your perspective, I feel some of your arguments and conclusions are terribly misguided, dut to the dual trappings of reduction and generalization. But allow me to develop.

    Reduction: although Kony2012 is one of the most successful viral awareness campaigns to date, it does not represent them all. Buzz communication does not always have to fall in such simplifications. The medium does not define the content. Therefore, by asking whether « climate change [should] be depicted as the “bad guy »? », you are from the start falling into the trap of « manichean triviality » you’re trying to denounce. Furthermore, you summarize the reaction to such a video with terms such as knee-jerk, or crude scare. Those exist, but are only epidermal reactions – not to mention to ones that are the most easily shown, which is to say the ones that are the most easily read. But who’s to say that beneath all the pathos, people have not also registered all the evidence, testimonies, etc. Pathos is in the rhetorical tradition a way to attract attention of your audience, to be then backed up by more reasonable content. I feel the simplifications you make are at best random guesses based on facebook reaction, at worst the assumption that people are drones who only respond to easy feelings and act only upon them, by burying their head in the ground.

    Generalization: you say simplification would « necessarily downgrade [an issue’s] scope and importance. » I’ll grant you that, but add: so what? I remember having to start by reading stupid and trivial stories about talking animals before being able to fully grasp « The Great Gatsby ». You cannot expect people to understand an issue before teaching them vocabulary, grammar and syntax. In a way, what you’re doing is throwing Finnegans Wake in people’s face and expect them to follow you. They won’t. You have to accompany them from the start, through a learning curve.

    Which is why I believe that though your intentions are benevolent in their own right, you come up as elitist. And I don’t say this to put your efforts down. After reading this article, I looked up your organization, and your endeavors are more than praise-worthy, I really support what Climates does from the bottom of my heart. But for all your efforts of trying to encourage quality student debate and, more importantly, contribution,l you have to understand that the entrance price is really high: specialized knowledge, higher education and so on. Obviously, you’re not the only ones to fall in this double bind. Many other non-profits do. But this is why I feel your position towards « buzz communication » is dangerous. Either you also do the work to help the larger audience climb this learning curve or, if you’re a believer of social division of labor, you should support the better educational means of communication. But you cannot simply reject this form. You say you want to focus on « perennial » forms of expression, but communication as seen in Kony2012 is perhaps the most perennial form there exists, only in a new medium. Since Ancient Greece great orators have used public libel, educational simplifications and pathos to stir the audience and get their message across. They could back it up with content. Gruesome films have replaced gruesome metaphors, but it’s nevertheless the same, nearly three millenia later.

    Once again, I don’t mean to put down all your efforts, I support them. And I hope you won’t take the « elitist » label harshly. As I’ve said, those problems of education and communication are part of my own personal projects, and I’m always amazed how some non-profits I support tend to just disdain the form of buzz communication, instead of making it their own. Because if we leave this excercise to « the bad guys », stand away from it and simply criticize it from time to time, we are only running away from major battlefields, to eventually lose the war. Vulgarization and buzz cannot be an end to itself. It must be the first rungs of the ladder. And right now, ours has several of them missing. No wonder people are afraid to climb it.

    Don Marathe

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