Advocates for a green economy need a narrative to compete with that of the free market
By Megan Darby
In 1947, a group of scholars led by Friedrich Hayek conceived an economic narrative that still dominates: a free market brings prosperity.
The creed of neoliberalism formulated at that gathering in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland, defeated socialism in the ideological battle to shape world economies.
Today, the greatest global threat to future prosperity is climate change. This is a fact supported by any number of scientific studies and economic analyses.
Yet those who appreciate the urgency of the situation struggle to find the narrative that will spur people into action.
That is the problem posed at a Green Economy Coalition meeting in London on 1 September. What will make this story a mainstream political priority, a front page and a pub conversation?
Judging their efforts are an MP, a journalist and a sustainable business advocate – although the latter is a tame description for Hunter Lovins, a charismatic Coloradoan in a cowboy hat. The facilitator gives a more personal introduction: “One of my heroes.”
This is not a search for the killer bit of evidence that will defeat the doubters. Campaigners have bombarded the public with information for years and got a lukewarm response.
Rather, it is an effort to frame the problem in such a way that people feel motivated to help solve it.
Polls show most people accept the evidence for man-made climate change. But they do little, if anything, about it. Certainly, their combined efforts are not enough to limit the world to the politically agreed “safe” warming threshold of 2C.
Most stories on climate change involve a disaster narrative. But this is a counsel of despair that leads to paralysis.
Recognising this, the environmental movement increasingly stresses the opportunities a green economy can bring. They talk of green jobs and building sustainable industries.
This is contested political ground, with opponents citing the high upfront costs of new green technologies compared to established “brown” infrastructure. In this version of events, switching from coal to wind power raises energy bills, destroys heavy industry and pushes households into fuel poverty.
Equally, some of the more bullish messaging on green technology risks being overly reassuring: don’t worry about changing your behaviour; engineers have the answer.
At the conference, each table is invited to prepare a “pitch to people and power” – a story to inspire and engage politicians, media or the public at large.
Each table valiantly attempts to articulate why people should care about climate change.
One draws a parallel with the abolition of slavery and talks of taking on the economic power of incumbents.
Another takes the perspective of a shareholder, urging green businesses to explain how their actions reduce risk.
A third suggests a triple labelling system to get consumers to buy green, with carbon emissions and water use alongside price.
All identify some useful messages or ways of thinking, but the storytelling element is not quite there.
At meeting discussing what narratives about green economies resonate with people. Few people seem to understand what a story actually is…
— Joshua Howgego (@jdhowgego) September 1, 2014
Lovins gets the loudest applause for telling delegates “y’all suck” (environmentalists may be woolly and ineffectual, but at least they can laugh at themselves).
“I heard one story,” she says, identifying the only table that had the benefit of a professional storyteller (yes, there is such a thing) taking part.
But their story was about a politician, radically depicted “as a person”, who cared about leaving a better world for his children.
“What is the story for 100% of the whole world?” asked Lovins.
It is Lovins who brings up the Mont Pelerin Society, in an engaging lecture that covers comedian Russell Brand’s infamous call for revolution (“Is that really what you want? Sarah Palin shoots better than any of you”) and the American dream.
The neoliberal project has had mixed results: yes, the world has got richer, but at the cost of huge inequalities and depletion of natural resources.
But using the language of freedom, neoliberals created a narrative that appealed to individuals, businesses and politicians alike.
Those who would champion the next great societal shift, to a green economy, could learn from them.