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If we hope to avert climate apocalypse in the decades ahead, we must

make fundamental changes to industrial society. Before those changes can

be approved and implemented, citizens and policy makers must first

come to understand they are essential to our survival. Public relations -

the management of the spread of information between an individual or

organisation and the public - will be an unavoidably necessary tool in

the process.

But a PR message capable of persuading policy makers and citizens to end society’s

environmental rampage remains elusive. In this essay I hope to explore why an effective

PR message is so hard to formulate, and how the whole project might be reconsidered.

Let’s start with what needs to be conveyed. After years of research and thought, I would

summarize our dilemma with three general conclusions: 

1. Energy is the biggest single issue facing us as a species.

2. We are headed toward a (nearly) all-renewable-energy economy one way or the other, and planning is essential if we want to get there in one piece. 

3. In the process of transition, the ways that society uses energy must change at least as much as the ways society produces energy. 

This is all quite discouraging, to the point that a fourth conclusion seems justified:

4. Managerial elites will not be persuaded of all three previous conclusions until it is too late to organize a proactive energy transition capable of sustaining the current basic structures of industrial society. 

It may be that our inability to voluntarily overcome our reliance on fossil fuels is hard-wired into our DNA. Coal, oil, and gas have offered humanity a temporary but enormous energy subsidy. All animals and plants deal with temporary energy subsidies in basically the same way: the pattern is easily visible in the behavior of songbirds visiting the feeder outside my office window. They eat the seed I’ve provided them until the feeder is empty. They don’t save some for later or discuss the possible impacts of their current rate of consumption. Yes, we humans have language and therefore the theoretical ability to comprehend the likely results of our current collective behavior and alter it accordingly. We exercise this ability in small ways, where the costs of behavior change are relatively trivial—enacting safety standards for new automobiles, for example. But where the costs of behavior change might include a significant loss of competitive advantage or an end to economic growth, we tend to act like finches.

***

Does this mean that society is headed for sudden and utter ruin, that there is nothing we can do to improve our prospects, and that there is absolutely no point in attempting to use public relations to persuade a broad audience of the need for behavior change?

Hardly. As Dmitry Orlov explains in his book The Five Stages of Collapse, there are degrees of disorder that can unfold as societies hit the wall. The five stages he identifies are:

1. Financial collapse

2. Commercial collapse

3. Political collapse

4. Social collapse

5. Cultural collapse

In a recent essay he adds a sixth stage, ecological collapse. His book (and essay) are worth reading in full, but the take-away is simple: if you see that the society around you is approaching a period of disintegrative change, do whatever is necessary to stop the process before it reaches stages 4, 5, or (heaven forbid) 6.

Partial success in societal adaptation is better than none at all. Something similar may be true with regard to our public relations efforts: messages underscoring “it’s all about energy” and “renewables are the future” are marginally helpful in moving society and its leaders toward greater understanding—even if they fail to point to the inevitability of reductions in energy availability and the realisation that “growth is over.”

Now add a time dimension. As Everett Rogers pointed out in his book Diffusion of Innovations, new ideas and technologies are adopted in stages: first come the innovators, then early adopters. An early majority heralds more widespread acceptance, which spreads even further with the late majority. At the far end of the bell curve come laggards, who resist innovation the longest. While today only a tiny portion of the population accepts that “growth is over,” perhaps time and circumstances will change that. Some recent shifts in social values and opinions (such as public acceptance of gay marriage) have moved from an “early adopter” to “early majority” phase surprisingly rapidly; perhaps energy and climate awareness will likewise eventually overcome what currently appears to be overwhelming resistance. 

Another source of inspiration is Donella Meadows’ perennially useful paper “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” Meadows identified twelve leverage points (from constants and parameters, to mindsets and paradigms, to the power to transcend paradigms), which she organized into a hierarchy of relative effectiveness. If we need to change our energy and economic systems profoundly and quickly, we should intervene at the level of paradigms, not regulations and taxes.

Innovators have already teased out the implications of Meadows’s paper and acted on them. What’s needed, evidently, is an attractive new paradigm that might lead us in the direction of proactive reduction in energy consumption. The voluntary simplicity movement blazed that trail back in the 1980s, and the Transition Network has made considerably more headway by organizing whole communities around the task of reducing fossil fuel consumption while relearning pre-industrial skills and rebuilding local economies.

Transition also emphasises building community resilience as an essential strategy in adapting to our emerging energy, economy, and climate reality. This is because (for reasons discussed in the first portion of this essay) we’ve waited far too long to begin the paradigm shift, and therefore it may not be possible to sustain many of the systems that currently support an industrial mode of societal organisation. Shocks are on the way, and we need to bounce rather than shatter.

It’s easy to see how elected leaders could help in this vital transformation if they were inclined to do so - for example, by ditching GDP in favor of Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) or Gross National Happiness (GNH). But most policy makers are likely to remain in the “late majority” or even “laggard” categories. (For more suggestions to electeds, see this “top 10” list compiled by Herman Daly.)

If, like me, you’re an innovator or early adopter, there are lots of reasons to feel apprehensive these days. But there is too much at stake to indulge in the luxury of cynicism. Our job is to keep coming up with convincing, well-reasoned, and well-documented arguments for change; attractive PR messages; a compelling new paradigm; and impressive demonstration projects—while opposing further fossil fuel extraction, new roads, and other things that lead toward ecological peril. And we must do it all with as much commitment and vigor as if the fate of the world depended on it.

As far as I can tell, it does

                                                                                Richard Heinberg

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