How individual actions make a difference, but not necessarily how you expect... Published 22 November 2023
Anyone who is concerned about our current relationship with the environment will find themselves saying at some point "But my action won't make a difference." It's human to feel overwhelmed in the face of such a huge problem as climate disruption. It's human to perceive your action as an individual as ineffectively small - how can recycling that plastic cup save the oceans? How can putting a lavender plant on your window sill save the bees? How can switching to eating meat once a week cut greenhouse gas emissions? But your actions aren't just about chipping away at a specific issue. Your actions are about starting a psychological and cultural shift. You're a change-maker, and I'm going to explain how.
We're social animals. Even the most introverted among us know in our core that we do need community to survive - feeling lonely is bad for our mental health, being alone makes survival tough if something does go wrong. We all work out our place in society through a psychological process called "Social Categorisation".
Social categorisation is the process of identifying an individual as a member of a social group (eg "Chelsea fan", "student", "environmentalist") and defining our own social groups as the “ingroup” and others as the “outgroup”. Some groups are defined on appearance, but many more are defined by behaviour. So every time we participate in a certain behaviour (eg recycling; taking public transport rather than driving; or raising our voice when a tree is threatened by property developers) we make a statement about ourselves and the group we want to be associated with - our "ingroup". Everybody wants to be in the ingroup. Being in the outgroup is not good for survival. We've all seen those David Attenborough documentaries when the wolf or lion or whatever gets ousted from the group and has to go fend for itself in the wild. Never ends well.
Living up to our responsibility as humans to look after the environment that sustains us, and not push thousands of other species into extinction, relies on us creating attractive ingroups. "Attractive" can mean lots of things - "cool", "not preachy", "at ease with itself", "thriving". Imagine being one of the humans that instigates and nurtures an attractive ingroup that gets on with doing its individual actions for the environment and has fun in the process. By so doing you make humans not doing those things the outgroup - "uncool", "uncomfortable", "missing out". Everyone wants to be in your group. Numbers rise. You create a cultural shift that politicians, advertisers, corporations have to fall in line with to survive. You're the ingroup - you get to hold them to account.
And how does the media fit into all this? Enough of the superheroes. Enough of the Erin Brockovich's too actually. Let's see more everyday heroes doing everyday things that make a difference on our screens. I'm excited to see Robin and the Hood next year, as an example of the kids showing us adults how it should be done.
So if you find yourself feeling your individual action doesn't make a difference, reframe it. Maybe your direct impact for the environment was small today. But maybe your direct impact on another human, and the humans that human interacts with, and the humans those humans go and interact with, was seismic. You're a change-maker, your actions as an individual always count.
If you’d like to discuss any of the points above, please email me at email@example.com. Photo is Krishnan Guru-Murthy performing on the BBC show "Strictly Come Dancing"
London Film Festival: Cli-fi or Sci-fi? Published 16 October 2023
Emerging from three weeks of screenings at this year's London Film Festival, it would be easy to think climate disruption isn't happening. It's absence from the screen is perhaps not surprising, given the lead-in time for feature films and our historic avoidance of the topic. There were, however, some notable exceptions, so a celebration of those brave producers and creative teams is set out below.
First up, a feature that puts climate disruption front and centre in its narrative. The End We Start From could easily have been another climate disaster movie, focusing on a significant flooding event forcing Londoners out onto the road, into refugee camps, into the wilderness. But here's where it's a success from a climate psychology perspective. We see very little of the flood itself. Instead we focus on our protagonist's emotional and physical journey as she does what she has to do to keep her newborn baby safe and well. The film acts as a guidebook to building emotional resilience. Relationships, established and new, are essential. Having a purpose pulls you through the worst times. Being part of a community, and committing to that community, makes us feel better. Ultimately the film challenges us to ask ourselves what we would do in that situation. Having that conversation with ourselves and with others helps build our resilience.
Secondly a film that acknowledges climate disruption through character motivation. May Decembercentres on forbidden love between an older woman and an underage boy. We join the action when that boy has hit his 30s - a father, a medic, a pretty cool and popular guy. And it is his character that is given the environmental heavy-lifting to do. He rescues and breeds endangered butterflies. This gets a big thumbs up from me. For too long those who care about and conserve the environment have been "othered" in movies - always the outsider, always the weirdo, always a sub-plot. Here caring for the environment becomes a fundamental element of a central character's way of being in the world. Subverting stereotypes of environmentalists is a key step towards making us want to be an environmentalist and affiliate with other environmentalists and support their beliefs. The majority of us don't relish the thought of being an outsider - our natural instinct is to join a successful group and film has a significant role to play in establishing who is "in" and who is "out". Finally, a film that flies under the radar as climate fiction, marketing itself as science fiction. Smart move - feeding audiences climate content by stealth is probably the best strategy while the majority of us are feeling climate avoidant a lot of the time and particularly when we are looking for entertainment. Foe is set in a climate apocalyptic 2065, they tell us the date upfront. Not the best start from a climate psychology perspective - one of our major barriers to facing up to the challenge of climate change is that the threat feels distant in time from where we are now. I instantly did the calculation in my head and figured I'd probably be dead by the time the action in this film would be happening. But it's my job to stick with the story and I'm glad I did. It's pretty grim outside but humans are still finding ways to survive, to love, to plan their futures. And it's the beautiful female protagonist who gets to be the champion for the environment - she is the one that understands that we are symbiotic with our environment, not here to dominate it and extract from it endlessly before moving on to the next frontier - in this case, outer space. It's not the most hopeful vision of the future we could be offering up as storytellers, but it's something.
Author Sarena Ulibarri famously said "Any near-future fiction that does not engage with climate change is fantasy". I hope the above examples, and the fact that the Festival's Best Film Award went to eco-film Evil Does Not Exist, encourages makers and audiences to embrace climate fiction on the screen. When produced with reference to what we know about our psychology in relation to the environment, climate fiction can support us in facing difficult challenges and taking appropriate action.