NGOs must target Joe Public to make change happenApril 2008
Challenging companies is fine, but the brave next step is to take on consumers, says Blake Lee-Harwood
If the last few decades of the environmental debate have been owned by non-governmental organizations, could it be that the 21st century will belong to business? The corporate world is leading a turbo-charged assault on climate change and other environmental issues under the CSR banner, while the NGOs seem curiously baffled about their future strategy.
The dilemma facing such pressure groups is that having dedicated themselves to raising awareness of the environmental crisis and putting it on the mainstream agenda they have now achieved their objectives, at least in the western world. The problem they face now is quite simply what to do next.
The obvious answer is that they should use their legendary communication skills and creativity to go and persuade the people who really matter – the general public. The British government, for instance, isn’t refusing to restrict aviation or impose speed cameras on motorways because it has failed to take climate change seriously. The lack of action is because any such attempts would provoke an angry public backlash that would see politicians thrown out of office.
The world is already full of scientists predicting disaster and governments promising to take action, but members of the public continue to lengthen the queues at airports, buy patio heaters and drive ever-larger gas guzzlers. The futility of extracting further promises from democratic governments that can never be delivered at an acceptable political cost should be self-evident.
But NGOs really don’t want to engage the public on an issue like climate change where personal sacrifices might creep onto the agenda. Their communications and fundraising advisers are screaming at them to save something furry and at all costs avoid anything that looks like lecturing. They can’t afford to antagonize the public with a painful truth and they certainly can’t risk offending their members.
If NGOs won’t speak the naked truth, then who will? The cruel reality is that if everyone in the world flies as much, drives as much, and eats as much meat as the average Brit or American, then the planet will just give up. That may not be a popular message and it’s not where you start in a wider communication project to shift public behaviour, but somebody has to say it to provide a benchmark for the rest of us.
NGOs should be there to be brave and honest and to say things that are true even if they hurt, regardless of financial consequences. The world needs them to keep governments, corporations and humanity honest and focused, particularly when we seem to be facing the greatest environmental challenge in history. So where the hell are they?
Blake Lee-Harwood is a consultant and former campaigns director of Greenpeace UK
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