The Green Pledge: A Rationale

Nicole Schild and Andrew Self

The Green Pledge is an annual, climate-focused public outreach and fundraising campaign based in Friends of the Earth (FoE) Melbourne. Here we discuss the background and rationale for the project.

Averting environmental disaster is among the defining challenges of our time. That perspective is progressively making its way into mainstream awareness. Even so, the environment − and more specifically, the issue of climate change − has plummeted in terms of public priority and political urgency in Australia.

Governments aren't doing enough, but neither are individuals. Widespread awareness is not translating into widespread action, at least not at the rate that is required for stabilising the situation. Why? With a majority of the country claiming to believe in the reality of climate change, it seems we can put aside a lack of broad awareness as a key barrier to action.

What, then, is keeping the general public from taking and demanding swift action? A body of evidence has mounted over the past decade to suggest that it could be the fact that many people believe that their actions cannot have meaningful effects on a problem as large-scale as climate change. A 2009 report published by the American Psychological Association, which identifies some of the key barriers experienced by individuals in responding constructively to the issue, puts it that the removal of structural barriers to action will not be sufficient if psychological aspects of the situation are left unaddressed.

Renee Lertzman, of the Cardiff School of Social Sciences and a well-known researcher in psychological factors in relation to environmentalism, says: "If people don't recycle I am not going to assume they don't care about the environment. There is not a simple causal relationship. In fact it could be if there is a sense of inevitability or powerlessness then recycling is not going to make any sense to them."

She goes on to highlight a key problem for parts of the environmental movement: "If a psychologist was confronted with the same situation with a patient they wouldn't shout or bombard them with all kinds of facts about their damaging or destructive behaviour. They would actively try to work out ways to mobilise their ability to respond constructively."

Numerous other voices have, in recent years, indicated that the environmental movement could benefit from opening up more space for acknowledging the sense of helplessness that many people are experiencing. This is not to be done through reassuring platitudes, nor by playing the role of psychologist, but through doing what we can to empower individuals to take responsibility for their part in facing the collective challenges ahead. To succeed in this, we must take this pervasive sense of powerlessness seriously, which means allowing space for a variety of interlinked levels at which active responses to climate change can occur. This includes 'entry level' action that provides direct pathways into more self-directed and harder-hitting action.

Bob Pickard, one of the world's leading PR experts and a vocal advocate for his profession to get involved with the climate issue, has remarked that "many people must conclude that they as 'atomized' individuals can't have much of an impact solving an intractable global problem. ... Certainly the lack of efficacy seems overwhelming, and this won't change so long as climate change is communicated so badly."

Pickard goes on to note that horizontal (peer-to-peer), rather than top-down, communications strategies are generally regarded in the PR world as the future of that discipline, and recommends that this be taken on board by scientists and campaigners hoping to change public opinion.

Pickard's recommendation can be interpreted in a way that complements non-hierarchical, collective and cooperative organisational approaches, pointing to a possible pathway for broadening their sphere of influence without the need to resort to the questionable tactics of traditional advertising. It rests on the notion that humans are, generally speaking, collective animals whose behaviours are influenced by social values, norms and perceived judgements. We can elaborate on this to say that, in taking an action that defies the status quo, a person effectively endorses others in doing so, offering reassurance to their peers that efforts towards change that look like 'drops in the ocean' will not be isolated. These mechanisms lie at the heart of solidarity.

The Green Pledge: September 5‒11

If it's acknowledged that peer support is an influential factor in generating mass behavioural change, then it becomes easier to see how campaigns that work primarily towards offering pathways into active communities can be meaningfully integrated into a multi-pronged environmentalist strategy. The Green Pledge is a campaign geared towards reaching out beyond FoE's usual spheres of influence and building new pathways into and between diverse communities.

In doing this, it addresses the problem of perceived powerlessness in three interrelated ways, as follows:

1. By providing clear, measurable and readily achievable parameters for action, the Green Pledge supports participants to experience the rewards of small scale goal-kicking in an arena where the goal can seem insurmountably high. This, in turn, has the capacity to start building confidence, reducing anxiety around personal effectiveness and breaking down barriers to taking further action.

2. The actions given for participants to undertake, via their clear connections to other FoE campaigns, are designed to serve as sparks for deeper participation and reflection. The Green Pledge aims to leverage these connections in assisting participants in understanding the context of their activity in the broader landscape of advocacy and activism, and inviting participants into the organisation and its diverse activities. In addition to serving as an outreach tool for the organisation, this effectively offers participants access to a networked community of role models that set the goal high.

3. As well as opening up access to the wider FoE community, the Green Pledge offer a low-barrier group project within that community. The 'pledge' concept organises diverse individuals around a common experience and gives rise to a sense of accountability. In this respect, the medium of the campaign is a major part of its message. By structuring it around social networks and relationships, we're aiming to activate participants' interpersonal resources to generate social flow-on effects, which occur through their (a) stepping into the role of modelling behavioural change for their peers and (b) explaining their motivations for action directly to those in their personal circles of influence. Importantly, participants are placed in a position of solidarity with each other in doing this. In this way, the Green Pledge supports people to support each other in being socially impactive.

On behalf of the Green Pledge team, we're asking FoE's member base to help us build a more effective campaign. You can read about how it works on our website, spread the word, start conversations on our social media channels, and send us feedback. And do consider taking the pledge yourself from September 5‒11 ‒ if our suggested actions don't challenge you, we invite you to creatively build on the suggestions in our 'take it further' streams. Support others to change their habits by setting your personal bar higher than you have before, and let us know what you're doing so we can share it around.

Our vision for the Green Pledge is that it be not merely a fundraiser (although we hope it will be a successful one), but also a 'gateway drug' to environmental consciousness and associated cultural change. This is founded on the belief that individuals can make a difference, but that this depends on their access to support systems that break through their own barriers to self-empowerment.

More information and to get involved:

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016