New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

Riding the elephant

Bruce Stanley

Despite overwhelming evidence of our effect on the environment, humanity seems stubbornly in denial about climate change. Bruce Stanley finds out how faith groups carry a blueprint for more effective activism.


I didn't know it at the time, but I became an activist at only four years old. We spent the summer of 1975 travelling by horse and cart between rural villages in Somerset as part of a pub garden theatre show. I got to stand on a cider barrel and accompany my anti-nuclear folk-singing mother. As the years rolled on the activist's message shifted to acid rain, pollution, oil shortages or the ozone layer. Yet 1975 also saw the first mention of the issue which would ultimately trump them all. Wallace Broecker, an American scientist, wrote an article with the title, 'Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?'. That was nearly 40 years ago! Why is it that so little progress has been made?

I'm not here to argue over the existence of climate change. I'm no scientist, but the IPCC is full of them, and they seem convinced. Instead, I want to understand why those of us pushing to convince others have so far failed to encourage positive action beyond short-lived, flimsy and counterproductive behavioral change campaigns.

There is nothing about this problem that we can't solve. It isn't impossible so why are we still searching for an effective way to galvanize the momentum necessary to start making things better? How can we wipe the slate clean, crawl out from under the baggage the issue has accumulated and begin to tell the story in such a way that people, families, whole communities listen, accept with conviction, change and act?



Gus Speth, a US academic, scientist and policy advisor, gives a strong clue in the way he frames the problem:

'I used to think the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought with thirty years of good science we could address those problems but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy - and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we scientist don't know how to do that.'

But the church does. Could it be that in asking itself this same question many times over the last 2000 years, our faith communities have some ideas to transfer? That's the suggestion in an intriguing new book written by George Marshall, a secular writer and communication expert. It's called 'Don't Even Think About It. Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change' - and as the title suggests, the nub of the problem is communication and psychology.

For starters, those communicating climate change must begin by recognising some of their own bad communication habits. It's pretty clear what isn't working: images of retreating glaciers and stranded polar bears; anything with any hint of 'eco' or 'environmental' in the language; messages full of facts or hocky-stick graphs; messages using 'uncertainty' language or apocalyptic language; messages from outsiders into established groups; polarising arguments - none of these work, as Marshall details, and most are an immediate turn-off for the deniers.



Of all the metaphors for how our brains work, my favourite is that of a rider on an elephant . The rider is the new part of our brains where we handle logical, rational and values based thinking. The rider is also able to look into the future and make decisions about where we're going and it acts as interpreter for the elephant, which it barely acknowledges even exists. The elephant is the ancient, emotional, automatic part of our thinking - and no matter what the rider thinks,if the elephant doesn't want to do something, it won't. It's an elephant.

When our self-control seems to crumble or we act in ways that seem illogical and irrational, it can mean that the elephant has taken control and the rider, trying to deny the elephant's existence, is left confused. Ever since I've been a life coach I've been collecting elephant training techniques. The first step is to recognise your inner elephant. The second step is to learn how to steer it. The challenge for any communicators promoting change (a terrifying word to most elephants) is to speak in harmony to both parts of our minds. For example, compelling presentations full of science, graphs and predictions makes a lot of sense to the rider who may agree with the values based conclusions that behaviour change is vital. However, the elephant is either worrying about enough already or thinking about dinner or other animal things.



After all, we're just animals trying out a beta version of a new way of thinking and despite our confidence, it is far from perfect. Some problems come our way that we're wired to ignore.

The problems that get us responding effectively are the ones which have a direct personal impact on us, which motivate both elephant and rider, are immediate, local and visible and are often caused by an identifiable enemy. Climate change is none of those things. It's remote, scientific rather than emotional, over there and in the future at some indefinite time, it impacts us only indirectly and is caused not by an enemy but by us.

Some of the elephant's habitual resistance is caused by various biases, most of which are explored in Marshall's book as they relate to the mind of the climate denier. For example, people can receive the same information but draw different conclusions. This can be down to confirmation bias whereby we look at the bits of information that are consistent with what we already believe.

Or we might draw the wrong conclusions basing too much of our decision on immediate, to-hand information - which is known as the availability bias. Cognitive bias is similar to confirmation bias in that it gives too much weight to previous experience when we take on new information. Optimism bias thinks the problem will affect them but not me; and single action bias puts any motivating worry, fear or emotion to rest by thinking everything is solved by the first, simplistic steps.



How can the 'God squad' help? It isn't a question of theology, it's about harnessing social change techniques, compelling values and vision. It isn't about the church taking on climate change as a mission agenda (although many are), it is about other activists learning from 2000 years of experience. People of faith, Marshall points out, have long understood that there is no clear dividing line between the rational and the emotional, but rather a conversation between the two.

Moreover, both believers and environmental campaigners face the same cognitive obstacles. Each group requires people to accept that something is true solely on the authority of the communicator; similarly, religious faith and climate science both manifest in events that are distant in time and place - and both challenge our normal experience and our assumptions about the world. And both require people to endure certain short-term losses in order to avoid uncertain long-term costs.



All of which, according to Marshall, puts faith communities in the position to offer tried and tested solutions to the cognitive challenges faced by climate change:

They call on people to inhibit their short-term desires. Religions embody long-term thinking, encouraging their members to accept responsibilities and invest in a legacy that extends far beyond their own lifetime on Earth. Above all, religions have found ways to build strong belief in some extremely uncertain and unsubstantiated claims through the power of social proof and communicator trust.

Marshall isn't saying that climate change conviction and communication is a new religion - but if it were, I've been wondering what its ten commandments could be? Based on ideas in Marshall's book, various other sources and my own coaching experience, here's a cursory overview of some ways to improve communication.



Climate change is an environmental issue isn't it? To some it may be. To others it might be an issue of national security, personal health, economics or land use. It might be an issue of social justice, technology, politics or corporate power - the list goes on. It is of course all of these and more, but when one frame is used to describe the issue the audience narrows. Even a single word can alert us to the frame and the risk of partisan confirmation bias. For example, some deniers have decided that all this claptrap about climate change is a conspiracy from lefty environmentalists so may stop listening as soon as they spot an 'eco' trigger word or image.

Understanding some of the psychological biases we line up as we ignore climate change has helped me see just how challenging the issue is. Acceptance and change might involve exposing levels of grief, anger and pain.



Another lesson contemporary church leadership has to pass on are the models of leader as both visionary and coach. Having a vision is key, but if you can spot and coach the talents of others then the message grows exponentially.

An audience can be made up of people who've never heard the message before, those that have heard it once somewhere, those that are sceptical, those that are close to sharing your conviction all the way to those that are raving fans. Each require a different strategy but raving fans are special, these are the people who take a message and with no further effort on your behalf, run with it. To any business these are individuals to identify, coach and support especially if they can carry the message into communities and networks to which you have no access. As with the church, so with climate change communication.



It is a simplification, but riders respond to values, logic and reason and elephants respond to emotions. That's a fine line to walk as both elephant and rider are needed for change (of mind or lifestyle) to happen. Messages containing both emotional appeals and reason make sense but it is easy to overdo the emotion. Elephants have a limited capacity for worry and can easily beoverloaded, but if messages only contain facts and science they won't be heard at all by our most powerful parts.



When I was training to be a coach I was taught that broadly speaking people are either motivated by the avoidance of pain (away from something they don't like) or by the pursuit of pleasure (towards something they want). In my experience the split of the population is about 70 per cent with the former. The problem with avoidance motivation is that the motivation dwindles as you move away from the thing causing pain or difficulty so coaches tend to encourage pursuit motivation in messages when possible.



Try not to get into arguments. George quotes cognitive linguist George Lakoff in his book, 'never accept your opponent's frames - don't negate them, or repeat them, or structure your arguments to counter them'. An example is how the media presents false debates on the issue by emphasizing clashing frames.

When in dialogue, it's more effective to recognize your own bias and frames and be open to having your mind changed.



We have an advantage when communicating with groups and networks we already belong to, because we've earned the right to speak as trusted communicators. But it's all too easy to end up preaching to the choir - and that isn't the challenge we face. To communicate to a new, sceptical audience, you're dead in the water if you don't attempt to respect their values and frames, so make it a priority to find out what they are. If that isn't possible, avoid the negative triggers such as the eco/environmental frame and use a lot of the others.

In a nutshell, all of the following help develop trusted communicator status: honest story-telling, positive testimonies regarding change, solutions related to wellbeing and no apocalyptic narratives.



We have a limited worry pool and it is easier for us to pay more attention to near-term and local threats than long-term distant ones. Here-and-now gets our attention rather than there-and-then. But messages about climate change often not only use the easy-to-misinterpret scientists' code language 'uncertainty' but also talk about 20 or 50 years in the future and places on the other side of the world. To anyone with the various biases described above that means, 'don't worry, it may never happen and not to us anyway'. The elephant is capable of powerful, sustained change but only when correctly motivated.



A quick test: if you were facing a step outside your comfort zone to change an aspect of your belief or behaviour, which one of these words would you need to feel first: comfortable, control, competence, commitment, confidence, or courage? In all of my coaching experience there is no avoiding the need to commit. We often feel the requirement is for courage or confidence but they are attributes which develop once a journeyhas started. The advice is to look for moments around which commitment can happen and commit towards positive visions of the future.



Change needn't be hard. One elephant training technique I love is to make change so incrementally small that the elephant doesn't notice. The fortunes of big business and to some extent whole countries have benefited from this techniques and the post war Japanese are a good example. Read up on Kaizan management to find out more .

If you're a policy maker, another approach is to exploit a bias that works in change's favour, the default option bias - because if it is easier to choose the more climate friendly option then we will. Someone who designs new processes for large organizations once told me she does so 'in such a way that it is harder to do them any other way'.



To paraphrase Rob Hopkins, the leader of the transitions movement: 'If we wait for government it'll be too late, if we act as individuals it'll be too little - if we act as communities it might be just enough, just in time'. Cooperation isn't the same as unity, just as networks aren't necessarily geographically close. Again the church has lots to offer in this field.

So, Marshall is suggesting that secular activists learn lessons from faith leaders. I wonder if the church or its most gifted communicators (which may not be its traditional leaders) could be more powerful as social change activists than the government or corporate power?

My hope is that we'll find out soon, as more of us take on this agenda and find the courage and skills to act.



1 George Marshall, Don't Even Think About It (Bloomsbury, August 2014)

2 Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (Arrow 2007)

3 Chapter 40, Seeing The Light.

4 Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life (Workman Publishing 2004)