It’s Easy! Steps To a Do-It Yourself Eco-Crisis

Written by Wes Walker on April 4, 2014

Global Warming, or Climate Change (or whatever they’ll call it tomorrow) is getting long in the tooth.  Sure, it’s still a great revenue source for pressure groups, and is still effective at browbeating the public to accept policy change but it — like alarmist causes before it — has got a Best Before date.

Since “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” (not to mention the long, cold winter, some failed predictive models, and Niagara Falls freezing solid… twice) we will need to find our next environment scare.  It just won’t do for us to have nothing to panic about.

The good news is, we already know where to look. It’s simple. Just study the enviro-scares of days gone by, copy their playbook, and get back in the game with a new-and-improved panic.

Then it’s just a matter of certifying specialized experts to authenticate it, lining up lobbyists to hijack (sorry … “improve”) policy, mobilizing some (very lucrative) “charity” groups, set up specialized research grants and (for bonus points) cash in on the business side with products or services that just happen to tie in and profit from the original scare. (Right, Algore?)

We’ve seen quite a few come and go. There was the “Population Bomb”, “Global Cooling” (yes, cooling in the ‘70s), we had Ozone, Acid Rain, using (or not using) bottled water, Saving the Whales (or baby seals or the left-handed-purple-spotted-transgendered mole rat or whatever), Rainforest Deforestation, desertification, and acidification. That’s just naming a few off the top of my head.

What ingredients constitute a proper eco-scare? What makes the big ones effective? A variety of elements, taken together, seem to bring it to critical mass.

The one thing you do not want is a dull statistical problem. People, especially GROUPS of people respond poorly to ordinary facts, plainly stated. Even if your crisis is real, they’ll yawn it off. (Think “debt ceiling”.)

Your biggest problem isn’t an information gap. People know — factually — that they should eat right, get some exercise and save for retirement; they also know that, say, smoking crack or random hook-ups can be dangerous.

For some people, knowledge is enough. But many others still over-eat, don’t exercise, waste their money, or take foolish risks. Their problem isn’t ignorance but passion. They DESIRE (emotion) to do something even if they KNOW (reason) that it’s a bad idea.

Your starting point, then, isn’t even the problem. It’s the emotion. You have to “frame the issue” in terms that will generate a specific, useful emotion.

It is important that you trigger the right kind of emotion. Anger, defiance, love, contempt and moral indignation are good if they can be harnessed into action. Passive emotions — like ordinary sadness or happiness — are not.

Now that you have your target emotion, look for issues that can leverage it. There are two elements that will be present in an optimal crisis.

First, the crisis itself should exist as an abstraction. If you select something too specific and measurable, your rate of progress will be evident to all. You risk solving your problem too soon, (cutting off any benefits your crisis was supposed to provide), or having people notice you’re not really solving the problem.

If the problem remains abstract, or requires special instruments and training, the public will have to take someone’s word for it. Then, your crisis can be milked for a long time. For example, cleaning the debris from a local river — not helpful. Solving the problem of the Ozone Hole, or clear-cutting the Rain Forest? Much better.

Second, just like the debt ceiling example, if your crisis is too abstract, nobody will care. This is where “narrative” or “storytelling” plays its role.

Telling someone to put out a campfire? Boring. Nobody cares. But having a bear in a ranger’s hat tell us that only YOU (notice the personal touch?) can prevent forest fires? Suddenly, the viewer is connected to the story, and his actions (now personalized) have greater significance. Do the right thing. The mascot (Smokey) made the abstraction (forest fire) personal. (Which mascot you choose makes a difference. Smokey the Slug would never have worked.)

At this point, things are falling into place.  Now just find a story involving those elements, build a movement around it, make it political, and count your money.

Of course, making it political requires another step.  You need to frame a moral high ground, set up good guys (you) and scapegoats (not-you).

You need villains to punish, behaviour to censure, virtues to reward (enter: government carrots and sticks where money will change hands as fines and/or grants). Companies that play along will get advantages with preferential laws or tax structures. Those that refuse can be buried in red tape by new, specialized government departments.

Let’s try it out. The old narrative with polar bears in the open water isn’t working anymore, since there is now enough ice that you could skate to Russia. But wait! Seals! Everybody loves seals!

If ice is frozen TOO solid (vague, subjective statement), how shall the poor seal come up for air (emotion)? The ice caps are too frozen! Somebody save the seals! (Narrative, Moral Imperative)

Next steps would be the scapegoat and the miracle snake oil cure. But hey, why should I do ALL the work for you?

Image: Curtesy of: