Over the years, I have explored a number of different ways of encouraging people to meaningfully reflect on environmental issues and, in all honesty, none have been very successful.
First lesson: brow-beating friends is not particularly effective. I think I can claim as one of my few successes a friend who, after I pointed out it probably wasn’t necessary to have to wear long sleeves on a 40 degree day, reconsidered the default temperature on her air-conditioning. My more common experience is epitomised by another friend who still buys the super soft and patterned toilet paper. This is despite my rational and (in my opinion) highly persuasive arguments in favour of the unbleached, brown-paper-bagged recycled stuff. Apparently she finds the fluffy ducks on the packaging just too irresistible.
Second lesson: trying to guilt shop-owners into being more environmentally conscious can have unexpected and disturbing results. Case in point – asking a Vic Market fishmonger which of his available stock was “sustainable”, and being rather gutted when he pointed at the swordfish and said, “This one – we have a stack out the back. No way we will run out today.” !#$@?! Where do you even start? Protesting doesn’t always get the desired result either, with a media who are often too determined to find the “crazed young hippie” angle, rather than exploring the issue at hand.
Then I discovered film. And I saw how complex issues could (in the right hands) be expertly, persuasively and comprehensively conveyed in an accessible and engaging manner. And it worked – people could be influenced not to unquestioningly accept the values handed to them by society, and the most recalcitrant “environmentalists bore me” types moved to rethink their consumptive choices. Screening one film at last year’s festival, “Bag It”, saw more behavioural change than all my previous attempts combined. Workmates started bringing their lunches in metal boxes instead of using gladwrap. Relatives swore they would never microwave in plastic ever again (excuse the soapbox, but I had only been saying that for 10 years). Pregnant friends went through their cupboards with a fine-tooth comb and pulled out all the cosmetics, shampoos and skin lotions listing “parfum” on the ingredients label (to understand why, I recommend you watch the film – it is amazing and disturbing). It was a beautiful and satisfying sight, and we were sold on the power of this medium.
Apparently, this effect has been long known. The mining companies are all over it (I refer you to the anti-minerals resource rent tax campaign). Al Gore milked it for all he is worth (and, let’s be honest, that is quite a bit). Even more interestingly, an organisation called the Population Media Center has had quite astounding success using soap operas to promote family planning in developing countries. Cleverly engineered plots have seen entire communities’ attitudes to contraception, women’s rights and HIV sufferers markedly shift. I encourage anyone interested to read a little more about their work – it is quite inspiring.
But the impact of different types of films can be surprising. For example, research out of the US suggests that, in terms of changing people’s perceptions, The Day After Tomorrow had a substantially greater impact on people’s perception of climate change risk than Inconvenient Truth. Part of this was put down to the fact that The Day After Tomorrow had broader public appeal than Inconvenient Truth, which was far more likely to just be preaching to the converted. But part may also have been due to the strength of the narrative and special effects: exaggerated and scientifically flawed, but compelling nonetheless. In fact, the results from The Day After Tomorrow study suggested people would even (and remember – this is in the highly polarised US) change their voting preferences after watching it.
But how lasting is behavioural change prompted by film. Does it only last to the end of the post-film coffee, or until it causes slight inconvenience? There has been some research performed into this – the study mentioned above did a follow up study 5 months after the film was watched. I recall that the results weren’t quite as impressive as the initial results suggest, but couldn’t find them in time for this blog. If anyone has any sources or studies that have looked into this, please put them in a comment! Regardless, what can be concluded is that The Day After Tommorrow reached more people and had a more profound impact on the average member of the population’s perception of climate change risk than any IPCC report or government publication. I am not sure if that is a happy thought or a sad one.
So next time I am not going to chain myself to a tree, but rather make a film… About chaining myself to a tree…. Or someone else chaining themselves to a tree. Or about a tree.