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Learning from the environment movement

Speech by Sean Kidney to the 2007 National Conference of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Young People

The environment movement has made our air and water cleaner. It’s a movement that has re-conceptualized our relationship to the planet over the last 20 years. That’s a fairly substantial level of achievement.

It’s also a movement that has created the world’s 6th best known brand — Greenpeace. A rather extraordinary “activity-related” achievement.

There’s a lot we can learn from environment campaigning. Below are seven tips to consider:

Tip 1. Be clear about the change you want.

Sounds so simple. Yet in many campaigns, especially government campaigns, behavioral change required is not specified. There is often too much focus on attitude or awareness; but, if people think kids are more important they won’t necessarily change their behavior.

An example: housework. In the mid-1970s the Australian Bureau of Statistics did a survey on time-use in people’s homes. They found that something like 2% of men did any work in the house. They also found that roughly 5% of men thought it was important to do housework to share the load.

In the late 1980s they repeated the survey. They found something incredible: roughly 95% of men now thought it was important to share the housework load. That’s a pretty amazing achievement — if you’re into changing attitude. But talking of this achievement tends to make women laugh, because, of course, concurrent time-use surveys showed that only 5% of men had significantly changed their behavior, despite their new-found consciousness.

Attitude and awareness change does not lead necessarily to behavior change. If you’re ever in a situation of trying to change something and someone tries to focus on the need to change opinions, you should say “that’s a tactical question that may or may not be the way to achieve the desired outcome”. Focus on actions.

In the environment movement the focus has been things like on “Stop Polluting”, rather that getting everyone to think it’s a good idea to stop polluting. “Save the Whales” is concrete; the objective is not to get everyone thinking about how great or cute they are. “Clean up our Beaches” is a very behavioural objective.

On the other hand, the slogan “Care for the Environment” is pretty wooly. When I started off in the environmental campaigning (when I was in short pants in 1970s) “Care for the Environment” was indeed a campaign slogan. Too woolly, awfully vague, it certainly didn’t mobilize me.

Environment movements do still struggle with clear and measurable outcome indicators. For example, with climate change, we’re having problems. We’ve got a headline objective, a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but this seems very abstract for nearly everyone we want to reach. We have to do better at translating that into an understandable and more practical set of outcomes which we can measure against and focus around. “Stop burning coal” is one.

Think about the structural changes needed.

A I have said, campaigners often think they have to change the minds of their targets; but this often doesn’t lead to behaviour change. Even when someone does change their mind there’s usually a whole system of issues keeping their actions in line.

I have a view that mass campaigns that ask (or try to frighten) people to change their behaviour are the toughest to pull off. Objectives will be more easily achieved by making it easy for people to change, by changing the structures around them, usually by first agreeing as a community, or the choices they encounter in every day life.

That might mean:
  • Physical, like traffic calming in roads to slow down drivers;
  • Financial, such as taxes on social destructive behaviours;
  • Legal, e.g. laws against sexual harassment; or
  • Access, for example arranging for low-energy light bulbs on supermarket shelves right next to incandescent light bulbs (mind you, I’d still rather ban them).
Educational effort then becomes the follow-up so people understand, support and properly respond to the structural changes made.

Depending on how you approach structural change, it may prove to be more popular than voluntary change. For instance, sexual harassment and drink driving laws are now widely supported; they were not necessarily popular when they came in.

An economist called Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago has been looking at the relative popularity of voluntary versus mandated initiatives. He has studied the impact of mandatory and voluntary schemes in US companies that provide health funds to staff.

In the US, health insurance is largely provided as part of employment packages rather than a society-wide scheme in Australia or European countries. Some companies provide a voluntary scheme and say sign up if you want, but you don’t have to be part of this health fund. These are called “opt-in” schemes. Such companies get about a 55% take-up rate - which means 45% of people in that company are uninsured. If they break a leg, they could be bankrupt. This is not a good social policy outcome.

In other companies they ask staff to vote on whether they will all be in a health fund or not – although, unlike drink driving laws, they usually allow people to stay out of the scheme if they really don’t want to be in it. These are called “opt-out” schemes.

What Thaler has found is that most votes for opt-out schemes are successful. If employees do vote for such schemes, say by 55% majority, two years later on 80-90% of people think it’s a great thing and are pleased to be a part of it. Essentially, if the community has a chance to decide, those that voted against generally go with the tide. Bringing in a mandatory scheme through a democratic process delivers the best (and fastest) policy outcome.

So, yes, we do still need to engage the community, but towards acting together as one rather than the alternative which is you go down changing your own light bulbs in your house.

How many people here know about energy efficient light bulbs? How many people have changed all the light bulbs in the house to energy efficient light bulbs? That’s about as good as it gets with voluntary action. Because a lot of people think:

“Well, why should I go out of my way because my neighbors are not getting their act together and I’m trying to save their lives by changing light bulbs. I’ll get around through it eventually but it’s not a high priority” or “I’m so damn busy I just haven’t got time to think about it”.

Instead you just change the availability of light bulbs in the supermarket – such as by banning the things, or taxing them to buggery. You look for the structural ways of achieving change.

Most significant social change in the last 20 years has had a structural aspect to it. For example, drink driving laws: we would never have convinced everyone that it was a bad idea to drive drunk if we’d gone about convincing people one-by-one. I’d probably be dead because I was a drink-driver when I was a young man. We changed the law — we decided as a community to do so — and we enforced the law and then we went about explaining to people why it was a good idea. We didn’t leave the idea of education aside, but we did it in the context of mandated change. That’s a very important principle.

With pollution, we didn’t try to convince companies to stop polluting, but used big companies as exemplars for change in a campaign to get the laws changed. That’s actually what the main game was, getting attention for an issue. Yes, we did want that company to change, but we also wanted to set an example for the rest of society.

So you look for structural changes that you can make in any legal system you have to work with is a very important thing. Avoid convincing people one by one. And the great worry for me of the climate change campaign in the last few years has been the extent to which people are pursuing change by individuals and making me feel bad because I haven’t got around in changing the light bulbs in my house … I’ve still got an old one somewhere. I don’t see why I should put up with that guilt if my neighbors don’t care.

Tip 2. Be sharp with your targeting.

Think about who can deliver your change fastest.

Greenpeace has made its reputation on targeting big companies. It decided that if it can get a couple of big companies to change their ways the rest will follow suit. That’s clever targeting that has more often than not worked, with companies from Apple to Shell trying to reposition themselves after being spotlighted for poor environmental practices. The more specific you can get with targeting the better.

Divestment in South African investment in the era of apartheid was another example of clever targeting. In the1980s the anti-apartheid movement realised that US companies were quite important to the South African apartheid economy. It was decided that if they were forced to divest from South Africa, that would put a huge amount of pressure on the apartheid regime. A targeted campaign ran for some years which led to many large US firms pulling out; it did indeed put pressure on and many people believe it was a significant contributor to the regime deciding to give up and negotiate with the opposing forces.

Think about “acupuncture points” in the ecosystem you’re trying to affect. Think about who the key individuals to change are.

Even when you’re thinking of groups, try and think about the individuals involved in that group, understand what drives them, their values, the economic and structural pressures they face. Then design your messages to suit the target.

Once you have a target in mind - it might be a marginal seat voter in Penrith or a government Minister in Canberra - you apply a laser like approach to your messaging. Don’t get diverted. You’re not about trying to get messages across to all in sundry; instead you have focus.

Tip 3: Build coalitions

This was one of the early important successes of climate change campaigning. In the early 90s a chap called Jeremy Legett, who is now an environmental superstar in England, was Greenpeace’s climate science advisor. The climate change campaign has been going on since the 80s by the way; it has taken a long time to build.

Leggett went and approached two companies that he thought were critical players in the global capitalist ecosystem: Swiss Re and Munich Re. How many people have heard of Swiss Re or Munich Re? These are the world’s two largest re-insurance companies; most insurance company in the world re-insure their insurance to these companies. The premiums your local insurer charges may not driven by their own actuaries, but rather by the wholesale insurance providers Swiss Re or Munich Re. These are large companies that underpin the insurance system: now that is targeting

Greenpeace used a relationship building approach. They went to these guys and they said we want to talk to you about the issue of climate change. They had a three-year long courtship, convinced them that the long-term projections around climate change were sound, were real, and were of concern to an insurance company with long-term risk exposures; that to protect their long term business they had to see change in the world when it came to climate issues. By the time it came to the Berlin Conference on the environment in the late 1990s the headline speakers were Munich Re and Swiss Re.

That was sharp targeting and then coalition building.

Tip 4: Assert a “norm”

This is an old messaging tactic: just assert your desired “norm” and claim the middle ground for your message

“Cleaning up our mess” when it comes to pollution is an assertion of an idea that was not the norm 20 or 30 years ago. Asserting the relation between housekeeping and environmental care allows a relatively new idea “picking up plastic on beaches for example)

“Australians swim”; well do they? I’ve always thought they do, it’s actually part of a campaign to get people to learn to swim. We affect the whole identity, we focus on the part of our identities: everyone now thinks Australians swim; if you don’t swim you’re not really Australian? It has become part of our identity — a successful assertion of a social norm.

“We decide who comes here”. Boy, that was a bad period of our history. That was an assertion of a negative social norm. I generally argue for asserting positive norms; for communicating hope.

Tip 5: "Frame” your messages

The term “framing” is an important in marketing. The term was popularized by linguist George Lakoff in a short and influential book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. It’s about matching your message to their (the target group’s) values.

By now we know what we want them to do, we know who the hell they are, and we understand what drives them. We now want to create a “message frame” that will talk to them.

An example: in the US evangelism is big in politics. In an effort to recruit evangelical Christians to the climate campaign environmentalists in the US have managed to create a campaign called “CreationCare”. It focuses on faith-based imperatives for evangelists to care for the planet and work to address man-made climate change.

A similar approach to business and unions led to the development of the US Apollo Alliance, around the theme “America can do it again” with tackling climate change.

Another examples involves “heritage whaling” in Japan. Some years back the Japanese industry discovered they were in danger of losing the domestic whaling debate. Ocean whaling is actually a relatively new thing in Japan, as for hundreds of years in was banned by the Japanese Shoguns. As a result, for most people in Japan, the eating of whale meat is not an old tradition but something that only became common after the food shortages of the second world war. It’s not that popular anymore. To shore up their weakening position the whaling industry ran what became a very successful campaign, to present whalers as heroic whale pursuers. They linked whaling to how the Japanese survived hardship in the past, to the idea that foreigners were trying to bully Japan, and to an idea that whales are predators destroying our fish stock. Their spokesperson actually said that on TC, but it’s a straight out lie. This tenuous linking to the Japanese identity delivered an incredibly successful campaign.

In the area of child abuse, there is useful at the Frameworks Institute ( It talks about how the dominant frames around child abuse are the bad parents and evil people in the world – that means it’s someone else’s problem we can do little to about. Some people are just bad. The Institute argues that we need to counter that with the idea (or frame when used in this context) that good parents are made not born. There’s a current that goes through the bad frames around child abuse: failed governments, someone else’s problems, stranger danger. Hillary Clinton’s book “It takes a village” was an attempt to try and counter that framing, as has been NAPCAN’s TV advertising campaign in Australia.

Once you’ve got your frame, you focus focus focus.

An example: who’s heard a Labor politician say working families in the recent election campaign. Boring isn’t it. But you know what, it works. If you talk about “families”, people tend to think of John Howard; put the word “working” in front of it they think Labor; and the qualitative research certainly confirms this. So Labor politicians have been talking a lot about what they‘re doing for Working Families”.

This also works with the economy. If, as a politician, you talk about the “economy” people associate the topic with conservative governments; say “An economy for working families” and people think Labor. Listen carefully when you next hear Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd.

During the recent election John Howard had a tough time coming up with alternative framing. Most of his past frames were based on fear: Interest rates, “be alert not alarmed “ … or is it “be alarmed not alert”. I’m not sure. There have been lots of fear campaigns. The Labor campaign trumped that with a slight, stronger, more positive campaign.

In the US the abortion campaign seems sometime to have settled into a battle of frames: Pro-Choice (which was one the pro-abortion campaign until it had a makeover) vs Pro-Life (one the anti-abortion campaign). Both are determined to be the “positive option”.

“Cruelty to animals” is a frame, in that the idea that cruelty and animals were even relevant to each other wasn’t a concept 20 yrs ago. Thanks to Peter Singer and others in the Animal Rights movement, it has become a common idea.

“Polluting our air, our water” is a frame. The assertion of community, communal rights is actually a frame.

And the last tip …

Tip 6: Be bold with your actions

You know your target, you know what you’ve got to do. Now think about how to use your own Zodiacs to get attention.

You need to create a drama, make it a story. A good approach is to think about “spotlighting” bad behaviour that has to change, by drawing special attention (through criticism, confrontation or an action) to what someone is doing.

Greenpeace with the whaling fleet is a continuing story. Greenpeace and its action against the sinking of the Brent Spar oil rig in the North Sea 10 years ago was a story that lasted a whole year. It was a symbolic story of confrontation.

Tip 7: A final point: be bold with your vision too.

It’s important to remember that in this world ideas drive everything. They drive the economy, they drive technology, they drive the way we see our world.

Polluting our air is a different way of thinking about how we see our world. They drive the sense of hope that we need to change things.

That the world is one ecosystem is a new idea that 20 years ago was utterly contested. James Lovelock was the first modern writer to talk about that from a science perspective.

In the face of climate change, the idea of one ecosystem has fairly suddenly become the dominant view of the world.

And don’t be shy of aiming high.

Australia is one of the leaders in great intellectual ideas of the world. The last 20 years or 30 years have seen the growth of:
  • Feminism and womens’ rights. That’s a movement that Australia contributed in an enormous amount to the success of.
  • Animal liberation. The key thinker in that movement was Australia’s Peter Singer, writing in Melbourne.
  • Gay rights is an intellectual movement that owes much of its origin to Australian intellectual force and the writing of Dennis Altman.
  • The Greens as a political force, and the idea of a “Green Society”. The German Green Party, the most successful Green party in the world, got their inspiration from the Franklin River campaign and from Bob Brown. That’s where they started.
We have a role, as Australians, to play in the intellectual environment of the world much as Australia.

You have a great strength with your work, a particular strength: you can see what could be.

You can see what we can make up this world.

That we can make this world a better place, is in itself a massively important idea, a flame that’s yours.

That’s what’s driven the green movement and that’s where I see the parallels with the work you’re doing.

In summary:

1. Be clear about the change you want.
2. Be sharp with your targeting.
3: Build coalitions
4: Assert a “norm”
5: "Frame” your messages
6: Be bold with your actions
7: Be bold with your vision too.