Are we reaching a breaking point?
Growing up in Southern Ontario, the main environmental health risk that was top of mind in the media and on policy debates during the late 1970s was the emerging “hole” in the ozone layer. In the 80s, dioxins (“the most dangerous chemicals known”) was our greatest fear. In the 90s we were kept awake at night worrying about endocrine disrupting chemicals affecting everything from frogs to fertility.
We have stopped panicking about these issues, in part because the media had stopped pumping the “what-if” fears across their front pages. But that does not mean the issues behind the fears were resolved. There is still significant depletion of the ozone layer, we still have dioxins in the environment and endocrine disruption effects are still being detected. What has happened though is that our fear perception plateaued – they were “banalized” and are no longer considered as newsworthy. Risk banalization (the loss of shock and outrage, normalizing an uncertainty into a mundane occurrence) is a nightmare for NGOs who had invested heavily in such campaigns. Falling out of the public narrative also means less fundraising opportunity.
Climate activists have learnt from these banalizing case studies and have developed techniques to keep their issues in full focus.
The Evolving Climate Fear Lifecycle
For the last 25 years, the Western fear narrative has concentrated on the potential of cataclysmic effects of climate change. Mapping the evolutions of the fear lifecycle and the forces and interests that have kept climate as the main media story for so long is an important part of the study of activist campaign management. At each downcycle point in this climate campaign history, from the University of East Anglia Climategate emails to the Greenpeace damaging of the Peruvian Nazca Lines to the nihilism of Greta and Extinction Rebellion to the economic failures of wind energy and electric cars, when it seemed the climate hysterics were finally done and dusted, the activists have been able to recover from the public ridicule and even raise the issue to higher levels. Why is that?
Climate campaigns have kept ahead of the banalization and fatigue by continually evolving. First their campaign was based on a war with climate deniers, then the big fossil fuel polluters, to the regulators who failed to act, to the lobbyists trying to upend the UNFCCC COP process and now to the failure of companies to adopt green technologies. The fear was always externalized toward some evil entity or some failure of leadership.
At each evolutionary phase, the threats from climate change reached more apocalyptic levels (to the point where human extinction by 2030 became a regularly cited consequence in our narrative discourse). And just in case you thought you could not get more apocalyptic than the extinction of humanity (how pre-COVID), the climate fear managers have now broadened their base, tying their climate sails to biodiversity collapse, a food system crisis, massive health issues and waves of (climate) refugees. Every weather extreme, forest fire, crop failure or species under threat became an opportunity to reinforce the climate fear.
The ozone depletion, dioxin destruction and endocrine crises also played their own apocalypse cards but they failed to maintain such a dominant narrative force. Or rather, the climate industrial complex had learnt from the other campaign failures and was able to resist banalization.
The Breaking Point
Each environmental issue – each concentrated fear campaign – dies off when it reaches a breaking point: some event, scandal or redirection that refocuses public discourse away from the environmental threat or crisis. The war in Ukraine and the subsequent increase in global food prices was a breaking point in the food system transition campaigns. Today we are seeing restrictions on agricultural technologies being loosened in Europe and Africa as the fear of risks from food cultivation practices is overtaken by the fear of unaffordable or inaccessible food supplies. No longer health driven, agricultural transition issues have now been coopted by the climate campaigners.
The ozone layer panic came to an end when world leaders signed the Montreal Protocol and people thought the issue had been solved. Likewise, campaigners started moving on after the COP 21 Paris Agreement was achieved. At that time there started to be an increase in anti-pesticide campaigning as many large NGOs like Greenpeace needed to “retool their campaign capacity”. But the climate funding dip following COP 21 was short-lived as the Climate Industrial Complex was too large to simply wind down because a few hundred people wanted to dance in the streets of Paris.
Dioxin and endocrine campaigns hit their breaking points when campaigners hit banal roadblocks. Dioxins, released in everyday activities (anywhere there’s smoke) lost its fear impact and while these chemicals have severe effects on guinea pigs, it seemed less so on humans. When populations realized they were ingesting high levels of known endocrine disrupting chemicals in coffee, soy milk and contraceptives, then the possible risks from low-dose exposures of potential EDCs did not advance public fear and outrage.
Climate campaigners have managed to resist these breaking points … until now.
Man-made or Industry-made?
After more than a generation of climate activism, there was a subtle shift in the fear campaign: from climate change being caused by man to it being caused by industry (the worst evil of man). Environmental activists have tended to occupy the left wing on the political spectrum and while once a radical fringe, the anti-industry rhetoric has been integrated into their climate campaigning.
Industrial production, global trade, free markets and capitalism, they argue, are responsible for the rise in CO2 emissions (dating back to the Industrial Revolution) and if we are to save the planet, we must put an end to these ideologies. As Naomi Klein argues (and has sold a lot of books): you can solve climate change or have capitalism – not both. Instead the green solutions are to concentrate on degrowth, deindustrialization, small, local production sources, circular economies and consumption cutbacks (while paying more to get less).
This may be the climate fear industry’s breaking point. Struggling consumers don’t want to see their electricity bills go up while the lights go out and nuclear power plants are being decommissioned. They cannot pay more for an electric car (especially if they have no means to charge it) and get less in return. Few are willing and able to pay more for a poorer quality food or give up certain culinary traditions and pleasures. These ideological impositions, masked as climate-oriented “transitions”, are seen as a unnecessary suffering imposed on the less affluent by a heartless, uncompromising green elite with a predilection toward righteous dogma.
Backlashes, from farmer to consumers to voters, are becoming more frequent. Perhaps the activists now pulling these policy strings may need to compromise. Except, as ideologues, they cannot.
Activism does well when it hurls criticisms on the status quo from the edges, shouting from outside the factory gates or protesting government policy in market squares. But when in power, or trying to introduce green solutions, these contrapreneurs hit ideological roadblocks. Today the renewable energy alternatives (wind and solar) are becoming a subsidy money pit, as are electric cars. The promotion of organic food is leading to increased prices, lower yields and food insecurity. Economies are far from blossoming under anti-capitalist, deindustrialization ideologies.
Another sign of “progress”: even the World Economic Forum’s WEF24 has stopped talking about degrowth and ESG. Perhaps climate campaigners are finally experiencing the breaking point every activist fear evolution goes through.
Onward to the next apocalyptic fear.