In a coffee shop, not far from here, a young professional opens a newspaper and finds a familiar headline – “Environmental Destruction Continues Worldwide”. She rolls her eyes, and turns to the entertainment section – or at least, she would have, if such a headline were considered interesting enough to publish in the first place.
Since the 1970’s students have been sitting (or sleeping) through lectures about the environment. Few of them would know that James Cameron’s Avatar is an echo of what’s happening today in the Congo, the Amazon and even as close as Indonesia.
Even in the UK, a very substantial portion of citizens are doing very little, despite government climate change commercials urging them to reduce their impact.
Avatar did not sweep up the Oscars, but with 75% of Oscar tweets referring to Avatar, it has certainly swept up public interest. So how did a story of environmental destruction become the highest grossing film of all time?
In short: because it isn’t.
Avatar is not a story about environmental destruction – environmental destruction is the backdrop to a far more compelling story of moral choices, social justice and personal relationships.
But equally important as what Avatar is, is what it isn’t:
Avatar is not a lecture filled with facts and figures. It isn’t a documentary of the wilderness of Pandora, or the culture of the Nav’i. Jake Sulley doesn’t confront us with figures of the rate of destruction of the natural habitat, or how many years it would take for Humans to exhaust all of Pandora’s unobtanium.
This is not to say that facts are not important, or that all environmentalists are boring.
Journalist and Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter well understood the value of creating a media spectacle, or “mindbomb” as he called it.
The first of these mindbombs catapulted Greenpeace into the public spotlight in 1971 when they sailed an old boat into a Nuclear testing zone. An act which eventually resulted in the cancelation of further tests by the end of that year.
Historic moments that garnered public support are often traceable to stories that touch us. Silent Spring caused public outrage over the use of dangerous pesticides with the story of a once picturesque town sickened and devastated by it’s reliance on chemicals. The book sparked increased media attention and rapid growth in public and political support for more stringent chemical regulations in the U.S.
The use of stories to spread the message continues today. Annie Leonard’s Story of Cap and Trade uses cartoons to show the human story behind environmental policies. While the production values hardly compare with Avatar, the video has been viewed over half a million times on Vimeo and YouTube - more than the estimated attendees of the Obama inauguration concert.
More recently, the international day of climate action was hailed as the largest world wide political action. This success is at least in part due to 350.org’s catchy video campaign. Just like Annie Lenard’s, their most popular video uses simple illustrations to tell the story of their campaign.
The video and the campaign focus on a number – 350 – but the video uses the number as vehicle to tell the stories of those affected, and how the public can be involved. The video has been viewed over 200,000 times.
Environmental organisations have certainly had successes over the years, but many of the environmental threats identified decades ago are still with us, and more are being introduced every year.
The creative campaigns of a few are drowned in an endless sea of flyering, email petitions, and membership drives.
Those of us in touch with environmental issues may feel passionate, even terrified, about the future of the environment, but the way this passion is being directed does not move the general public. There is a very large section of the public that not only aren’t particularly interested in the environment, they’re tired of it.
They’re tired of being told how their lifestyle destroys the earth, they’re tired of companies making vague claims about how green their product is, and they’re really tired of their activist friend Chris, who gives them dirty looks when they don’t recycle a coke bottle.
Just how tired are the public? In a study of consumers by the UK Institute for Public Policy Research, introducing climate change into workshop discussion caused the group to become “notably less animated”. The study, ‘Consumer Power’ is a valuable resource for anyone hoping to garner more public support for climate change action.
But people still love a good story. The Avatar fan forums are littered with posts from previously indifferent people claiming the film has given them a new sense of compassion for the natural environment.
One fan even paid his life savings of $15,000 to buy a plot of forest, just so he could protect that portion of the Earth.
Unfortunately, the power of story telling that Avatar has shown may be lost on environmentalists who have refused to see the film.
Some environmentalists feel that the money spent on the film could’ve been put to better use in environmental programmes. Others feel that they have nothing to gain from a movie about issues they already know well because of their day-to-day work.
What those who didn’t see Avatar are missing is perhaps the most important lesson for anyone who wants to change the world:
If you want to move people, you’d better have a good story.