Critical, creative and digital writingEcriture critique, créative et numérique

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Catastrophism and admonishment

The shortcomings of environmental communication

If you take a look at the literature concerned with environmentalism, it seems that contemporary societies possess all the answers to the environmental problems that plague our global ecosystem. Yet, it seems that there is not much being done at a global scale to change the course of events, which raises the question of the reason for which our contemporary societies continue on a seemingly destructive trajectory despite all the information available. A part of the answer lies in the way scientists, governmental as well as non-governmental institutions and mass media–the Big Four–communicate on environmental issues. Environmental communication is indeed largely based on an apocalyptical frame of reference, where communicants reveal the end of the world, often emphasizing its inexorability. Therefore, if all is said to be lost, not much room is left for improvement, and thus the vicious cycle is perpetuated. A second probable cause for the failure of environmental communication consists in the type of attitude held by scientists, governmental as well as non-governmental institutions and mass media, that of constant admonishment. Putting the emphasis on remonstrances instead of solutions antagonise the population, thereby alienating the environmentalist movement.

Put an end to catastrophism!

If environmental issues are described as inexorable, how can the population of contemporary societies accept to change the way they interact so as to diminish their impact on the global ecosystem? The answer is obvious: in a context where apocalyptic scenarios are legion, people are not going to change. Instead of changing, people will reinforce the behaviors that provide them with immediate pleasure, i.e. behaviors often realised to the detriment of the common good. Instead of emphasizing the possible catastrophes that await human societies–we have seen it was not efficient–the Big Four should devote more of their time to the development of educational tools. In other words, instead of saying "If you go on, you'll be punished", the Big Four should say "Here is another toy, you'll have much more fun with that one". The difference might be slight, but what is advocated here is indeed the end of threats and the beginning of action, the end of catastrophism and the beginning of proactivism. What remains to be found are indeed the educational tools that will allow the human organisms of contemporary societies to deeply alter their interaction with the world. More on that here.

The paradox of admonishment

If threats of upcoming catastrophes do not incite people to diminish their impact on the ecosystem, it is also true that repeated admonishments do not help either. When the Big Four so often seem to repeat that we will be punished in the future for our environmental carelessness, being punished verbally under the form of an immediate admonishment of the type "You should be ashamed for your destroying nature" clearly antagonises human populations. The problem with remonstrances is that they do not make the population aware of the possibility of changing one's interaction. On the contrary, admonishments tend to emphasise every one's responsibility for living in a system one has not chosen, for having a cultural background one has not willingly adopted. In that way, the admonishments of the Big Four shame people into antagonization and inaction. Instead of understanding the underlying message, populations understand that some people are trying to make them change their way of life forcefully. As a reaction, populations stand their ground and favour stasis over evolution.

Towards willful change instead of unwanted punishment

To conclude, environmental communication must change its methods. The Big Four (scientists, governmental as well as non-governmental organizations and mass media) ought to understand that threatening and punishing is not a way of making people change. On the contrary, threats and admonishments antagonise and are therefore inefficient. Contemporary populations should change willfully, because they want to, not because they are threatened to be punished. Though it may frustrate some advocates of the green movement, willful change is necessary if we are to improve our way of life.