How we communicate
For many, green campaigners can appear fanatical, naive, uninformed, smug, judgemental, patronising or offensive. So what is the most skilful way to get the message across?
When I lived in Ireland in the late 1990s and was involved in developing one of Ireland’s first ecovillage developments, we held a public meeting in the village hall in the run-up to submitting our first planning application. We were inspired, enthusiastic and naive, and were convinced that because we thought it a fantastically exciting project, so would everybody else...
Be mindful of the language you and your group use in talks, printed materials and events, avoiding divisive ‘them and us’-style messaging, however subtle. Work actively to avoid perceptions of being ‘hippy’ or excessively rooted in alternative culture; rather, ensure that the project remains as accessible to as wide a range of people as possible.
When I lived in Ireland in the late 1990s and was involved in developing one of Ireland’s first ecovillage developments, we held a public meeting in the village hall in the run-up to submitting our first planning application.
We were inspired, enthusiastic and naive, and were convinced that because we thought it a fantastically exciting project, so would everybody else. We compiled our drawings, slides and maps and our reasons why it was such a great idea and set off for the hall. Once the event was under way, we found ourselves in front of a hall filled with local people with their arms crossed, suspicious looks on their faces.
I had been involved with environmental projects for years, but had never encountered the perception of ‘greener’ options as being an inherent criticism of how things are presently done. When we talked about how we were going to build green, low-energy houses, back came the tight-lipped question, “What’s wrong with my house?” When we talked about mixed, diverse land use and sustainable food production, the question came back, “What’s wrong with my farm?” That experience greatly shaped my thinking. The film we showed, featuring an Australian ecovillage with people doing Tai Chi in the sunset and an old man bellydancing, which we thought was great when we watched it with each other, probably didn’t help much either.
Over subsequent years I rapidly developed a sense of what people like, and what turns them off. I also learnt that, within the environmental movement, there is often a lack of awareness of what turns other people off: we can be so convinced of our rightness that we don’t think we need to pay any attention to how the message is communicated. The fact that it is communicated is enough. The ultimate example of that was the, to me, deeply mistaken film produced by climate campaign group 10:10, No Pressure, which showed people who didn’t believe in climate change being blown up. A visual in-joke that when viewed by people outside the circle of those who conceived it, became a very unpleasant, bewildering and, unfortunately, self-defeating piece of work.
How we come across can depend on the time and place. I often think of doing Transition skilfully being the ability to change hats depending on who you are meeting. I present Transition very differently to a council, to a group of businessmen or to community activists. With each there is language that engages, and language that leads to the listeners switching off. Talk of communities having fun, of community-building, of the psychology of change, tends to leave councillors cold. Talking to businesspeople about economic contraction, showing graphs of peak oil and waxing lyrical about planting nut trees, will rapidly lead to their glazing over. They want to hear about opportunities, about how to get things done with little time available to make it happen. They want, often, to know about the bottom line. Speak to people in their own language, appeal to their passions and about what fires them up.
When you get invited to speak somewhere, do your homework first. Who are you speaking to? Why have they invited you? What attracts them to hearing about Transition? Dress appropriately . . . you wouldn’t wear a suit to speak to the local school, but you may well to address the council. I always like the idea of confounding what people expect of you. If people imagine a Transition speaker to turn up in a kaftan and sandals, wear a suit. If they imagine you’ll turn up in a suit, dress more casually (but probably best not a kaftan).
Transition in Action: Transition Stroud’s Potato Day
In February 2011, Transition Stroud celebrated National Potato Day with its own event in celebration of our nobbly national icon. They set up shop in the local shopping precinct, rather than at the local farmers’ market, which introduced Transition Stroud to a whole new audience. It proved to be a bold and highly beneficial step out of the comfort zone. A grand total of 4,700 seed potatoes of 20 different varieties were sold during a manic day that needed 20 volunteers to keep up with demand. The group also produced a book called Pan-fried, Peeled and Proud – Potatoes from Stroud, written by the aptly named Maris Piper and Desiree de Romano (not, I am told, their real names), which was available on the day. Several local restaurants also did interesting things with potatoes for the day in support of the event. The rare and unusual varieties attracted great interest, especially the ‘Salad Blue’, which produces blue mashed potato!