It’s Great To See Some Countries Going Against The Flow

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

In the space of a week, three rivers in different countries have been recognised as people under the law. New Zealand became the first country in the world to take this step by granting legal personhood to the Whanganui River this month. A few days later the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand did the same for the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.

Under the changes, all three rivers are considered to have the legal rights of a human being and can be represented in court. The intention is to provide greater protection to the health of the rivers as well as address historic grievances in the case of the Whanganui River and the local Māori communities.

These world firsts represent important legal advances because they provide a promising means of protecting the environment. But their significance is greater than this — they represent a growing challenge to the anthropocentric nature of our societies.

Our political, economic and legal systems have largely been built around placing human rights and interests first. This has led to considerable environmental problems, from climate change and resource exploitation to species extinction and mass pollution. Reversing this damage (and preventing new problems from arising in the future) requires balancing human interests with those of the natural world which sustains us. The decisions of New Zealand and India are the the most recent examples of this growing awareness.

In 2008, Ecuador recognised the legal rights of nature in its constitution, as did Bolivia a few years later in 2011. These decisions did not emerge from nowhere. As with New Zealand recently, they were the result of extensive campaigning by Indigenous people to recognise the long-held spiritual and cultural importance of the environment to them. The changes incorporated a different way of valuing the environment, which is less about its use value and more about its inherent value.

Underpinning the New Zealand law, in fact, is the more holistic view of nature held by the local Māori community. Te Awa Tupua is protected not just as a waterway but as ‘an indivisible and living whole’ and comprises the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”

But it’s not just Indigenous knowledge that is changing our valuation of the environment. Scientific and technological advances are increasing our appreciation for the complexity and value of non-human life as well as our own relationship with nature. Research is giving us new insight into the cognitive abilities of animals as diverse as apes, crows, dolphins and octopuses suggesting they’re capable of metacognition, counting, play and, in the case of dolphins, ‘naming’ each other.

A recent study by Stanford University found that people felt a greater connection to nature and greater awareness of the potential impacts of their consumption habits after using a virtual reality headset to experience the perspective of a cow heading to slaughter or coral being eroded due to ocean acidification.

In economics, the services that ecosystems provide, for instance water filtration by wetlands, are increasingly receiving a monetary value so that greater weight is given to protecting them. The value of the pollination of farm crops provided by honey bees in the US in 2010 was estimated at $29 billion by Cornell University while the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been estimated to provide between $5.7 billion and $7 billion annually in economic benefits.

None of these are silver bullets for our problems and many have their shortcomings. But to find the myriad solutions we require to greatly reduce our impact on the natural world, we must embrace new and old forms of knowledge which help us more wholly and accurately value the environment.

This will inevitably involve reassessing ourselves and our place in nature in meaningful and concrete ways. The Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change provides promising direction to help us do just that.

The declaration has been designed by the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment to stand alongside the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It holds that to adequately tackle climate change we need to properly recognise and protect human rights, and this means protecting the environment. After all, by damaging the ecosystems we depend upon, climate change threatens our security and prosperity. The declaration would compel governments and businesses to take action on climate change in order to avoid harming people and denying their human rights.

The declaration, like the decisions in New Zealand and India this past fortnight, reflects a growing appreciation of the dependence of our long-term wellbeing on the health of the environment. They suggest that we’re beginning to recognise the inherent value of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. It’s this awareness that will help us properly clean up our act and take the action we need to safeguard our future.


(Photo at top: “Whanganui River – Whanganui Journey” by Department of Conservation is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The Private is Public

The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, recently announced her council’s intention to reduce the city’s use of private cars in order to cut air pollution and carbon emissions. As a means of cities taking action on climate change it’s promising but what I found particularly interesting was the way Colau framed the action as an issue of social justice.

To quote Colau in the article, air pollution is “a social issue because it affects the most vulnerable people – children, those who are ill – so it is a problem of the city, not just an issue that abstractly affects the sustainability of the planet”.

Now given that my previous post discussed recent research suggesting that framing climate issues in terms of justice was polarising (generally finding support from the left-leaning and not the right-leaning) this may not be the most effective communications message.

What is interesting though is that the environmental and health impacts of private car use are being treated here explicitly by a political leader as a public concern. That is to say, the externalities (ie. the costs borne by others) of private car use are not being simply ignored as an unfortunate side effect of private choices to drive a car. They are being clearly identified as an issue of public and collective concern, particularly for the most vulnerable amongst us who bear the costs often without gaining the benefits.

This is significant because in a pro-market view many individual choices are seen as simply private decisions. Indeed, in many developed countries, particularly geographically large ones like Australia, the US and Canada where urban sprawl is a common feature of cities, private car use is often seen as a personal right. Colau is calling that right, that personal choice, into question as a public issue. She is asking us to recognise and act on the social cost of excessive private car use.

This reminds me of the seminal feminist argument of the 1960s and 1970s that the personal is political. Issues that were often dismissed as private or personal, such as division of household labour, reproductive rights and childcare, were challenged by feminists as inherently political. By bringing these concerns out into the open and making them subject to public debate and even state intervention fairer arrangements could be reached that achieved greater gender equality and addressed negative personal and social impacts.

By addressing excessive private car use as an issue of social justice Colau is issuing a similar statement: to paraphrase the feminist argument, that the private is public. This is important because the environmental and social impacts of private activities will increasingly have to be recognised and acted upon as public problems if we are to address issues of the scale of climate change and environmental degradation. When it comes to the environment the private needs to become public.

This should not mean of course only targeting individuals and their choices that have negative environmental impacts. It means also targeting, challenging and changing the political, economic and social/cultural structures that enable and promote such choices and the broadly held assumptions that protect them. The environmental impacts of private business activity also need to be increasingly made a public concern. This is why Colau’s words and actions are exciting, because they represent just such a challenge.

Where you at?

The concept of speaking to where people are at is a common one, in my experience at least, within behaviour change communications and activism. Put simply, it’s the idea that in order for a message to resonate with someone it should be framed in a way that’s relevant to their personal context and values.

When it comes to climate change, unfortunately, the high degree of polarisation means that messaging often speaks only to one group of people. For left-leaning groups or those that simply realise the pressing need to address climate change, messages around the threats of climate change and the technological and economic advances of renewable energy and energy storage are compelling.

For right-leaning groups or people sceptical of climate change, similar messages fall on more deaf ears when compared, perhaps, to messages about the economic contribution of coal and concern over the loss of coal mining jobs.

If we want to compel national and global action on climate change we need to be able to create widespread support by convincing people based on their values. A great piece of recent research by Cardiff University and Climate Outreach suggests a way forward.

The study of 2000 UK residents found that narratives of climate change and energy that focused on climate justice had a polarising effect, appealing generally to left-leaning individuals. Narratives, on the other hand, of avoiding energy waste and supporting renewable energy as a patriotic cause not only reduced scepticism amongst right-leaning individuals but had a broader appeal across the political spectrum.

The clear takeaway is that climate advocates need to adopt narratives of patriotism and avoiding energy waste in order to increase support for renewable energy and climate action across the political spectrum, particularly on the centre-right. (This Superbowl ad from last year is a great example of patriotic, pro-renewables framing).

I would even go so far as to say that advocates should adopt the narratives of economic growth and job creation so often used by centre-right politicians to oppose renewables or climate action. This is the promise of adapting to the inevitable low-carbon economies of the future. Stated in another way, it is about inspiring people with the promise of renewable energy to provide prosperity and health for a nation and its people. For those on the centre right, it is about activating a shared sense of optimism and pride in their country and people (the national character perhaps) based on this promise.

It’s easy to forget, or not even realise, that support for renewable energy comes in all shapes and sizes and for very different reasons (this piece I wrote on support for renewables in unusual places expands on this). If we want to tackle climate change properly and grow renewable energy then we need to bring as many people along with us as possible. This means convincing people that these are things they need to care about – in other words, speaking to where people are at.


PS. Off the back of the study, Climate Outreach has produced a guide to communicating climate change with people on the centre-right in post-Brexit Britain. Here’s a summary of tips but it’s worth reading the guide (which isn’t too long) for more explanation:

  • In the post-Brexit landscape amplify local, non-elite voices & the ‘will of the people’
  • Emphasise people and relationships, over places, and a shared sense of pride and optimism in the people
  • Frame new technology as preserving families and the environment (ie. not disruptive)
  • Stress continuity not change (ie. continued progress of the nation through renewable energy)
  • Emphasise simplicity and family activities/togetherness
  • Make climate change impacts tangible and local (ie. emphasise local environmental problems)
  • Nostalgia can be as powerful as a ‘bright future’ (ie. passing on the ‘clean’ world of one’s childhood to one’s children)
  • Focus on ‘balance’ (ie. the importance of providing balance)
  • Be humble about the claims of renewable energy’s potential.


(Photo at top: The Hamster Factor, Flickr)


In Defence Of Vegetarians (By A Meat Eater)

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Vegetarians get a lot of shit. From Australia Day ads featuring flamethrowers destroying a vegan hipster’s kale to politicians hijacking vegetarian campaigns, people who eschew meat in their diet have to put up with a fair amount of mockery for their choices.

This needs to change.

We should start recognising vegetarians for what they really are: trailblazers standing up for their principles, questioning popular assumptions and bravely changing the world for the better. Their tough choices and ideals demand not just our respect but our support and admiration.

Sure, a lot of this ribbing is light-hearted, but it speaks to an irrational distaste for vegetarianism that it’s time we got over. “But I’m not vegetarian,” my friend stressed recently after informing us that he would be ordering a dish of greens with his noodles. It was as though the very idea would have made me disown him on the spot.

Now, before you get ahead of yourself, I’m not a vegetarian either (although I have recently started to reduce my meat intake). I’m not here to get on my high horse and I’m not here to tell you to give up meat.

Indeed, there are strong arguments that getting rid of meat from our diets entirely could have arguably worse impacts on animals and the environment through increased deforestation and animal deaths from agriculture. Also, by being meat eaters we have the power, through our choices, to promote sustainably reared meat and animal products.

But it seems we to need to start reducing our meat intake because, in Australia and the developed world, we eat too much. Australia has one of the highest rates of meat consumption in the world. In fact, on average we eat 111kg a year, more than four times the recommended 26kg a year.

Studies suggest that diets high in meat (particularly processed meat), eggs and dairy can increase the risk of various cancers and even diabetes.

While the debate about the exact amount of carbon emissions created by meat and dairy consumption continues (anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent in Australia) it seems clear that reducing our meat intake will reduce carbon emissions. (In fact, eating less of everything would really help reduce our carbon footprints.)

Then, of course, there are the animal welfare impacts of factory farming and live transport of livestock that put animal products on our tables but are often far too easily swept under a tasty, 24-hour, slow-cooked, pulled-pork rug.

This is why vegetarians are pretty cool. Almost all of us grow up eating meat and loving it. It’s such an ingrained part of our diet and culture that it’s hard to change.

But vegetarians and vegans have been persistently paving the way, leading to vegetarian meal options at more and more restaurants, developing and introducing us to vegetarian cuisine and making it easier and increasingly normal to eat less or no meat.

They’re also opening up discussions about the impacts of our diets. Campaigns like Meat Free Monday and Meat Free Week as well as diet alternatives like ‘flexitarian’ are emerging, encouraging people to reduce their meat-eating in a flexible way.

And it seems people are catching on.

While The Simpsons convinced us that “You don’t win friends with salad” it seems that, increasingly, in Australia you do. From 2009 to 2013, the number of Australians who identified as fully or mostly vegetarian increased from 1,608,000 to 1,935,000, or 10 percent of the population. That’s one in 10 of us. And New Zealand saw a nearly 30 percent increase.

We love it so much that Ben and Jerry’s recently launched four vegan ice-cream flavours.

Even former Mr Universe and The Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger is now encouraging people to give up or reduce their meat intake in order to reduce our impact on the planet.

And in case you were thinking that settling on a meat-free diet is the preserve of white, latte sipping, inner-city types, 2013 research from Roy Morgan found that it’s actually quite common among people from ethnic backgrounds.

“But hang on,” I can hear you saying. “Some vegetarians can be too much to take.”

Sure, when dealing with people with strong beliefs some can be quite forceful and they can suffer from the same biases and emotional responses that meat eaters can.

But reducing our meat intake is important for our health and our planet, and vegetarians and vegans alike have, through their choices, fearlessly promoted alternative diets and cuisines (often in the face of much ridicule) and opened up important and necessary debates about the impacts of what we eat.

As a meat-free or reduced-meat diet becomes increasingly appealing as we look for ways to reduce our impact on the planet and the animals who inhabit it, it’s our plant-embracing friends we need to thank and support more.

So throw another eggplant on the barbie and let’s salute our pioneering vegos.

Fuck plastic bottles

Check out these recent ads from Sodastream which use the tagline ‘Fuck plastic bottles’. I’m not endorsing the product at all but the ads are really refreshing, suggesting, as they do, that companies can push a clear environmental message in a humorous, irreverent and genuinely entertaining way. Saving the planet can be funny and cool.


In a similar (though non-commerical) vein, the website encourages people to adopt more environmentally friendly habits (by sharing simple, daily tips) with a cool graphic design-aesthetic made for social media (follow them on Insta). And they don’t shy away from colourful language which is part of the, somewhat cathartic, appeal.



It’s great to see environmental comms and marketing adopting a more relatable framing, particularly one that cuts through and provides more appeal to young people.

The right language

Yes! We’re starting to use the right language and framing around renewable energy. Or, more to the point, John Kerry is at the BNEF Summit yesterday:

Clean energy is one of the greatest economic opportunities the world has ever seen.

He mentioned too, speaking earlier on MSNBC about renewable energy, that “millions of jobs could be created. This will be the biggest market on the planet.”

And with Tesla receiving over 200,000 orders in less than 48 hours over the weekend for its new Model 3 electric car (which won’t even be produced for another 18 months leaving some to claim Tesla has “just killed the petrol car“) it seems he’s right – renewables are our future in a huge and profitable way! So let’s start shouting it!


Here are some tweeted excerpts of his speech for good measure…

Who We Are

This great 30 second ad from climate advocacy group NextGen Climate which aired during Super Bowl 50 last week is exactly what I’ve been waiting to see! And we need to see more of it.

It uses a grand, positive, opportunities frame and simple language to communicate a pro-renewable energy message to American audiences all with a nice, clear (and admirable) call to action and target – Demand a Plan for 50% clean energy by 2030.

Give it a watch…

Notice how it reframes renewable energy and climate action as patriotic, distinctly American callings by linking them to American characteristics – not being “quitters”, facing “problems head-on”, innovation – along with imagery of farmers, workers, veterans and the iconic raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. The repeated use of the word ‘we’ also evokes a united and uniting cause, the opposite of the usual divisive connotations around climate change.

For non-Americans like myself it may seem a little cheesy but it’s this kind of talking to where people are, this kind of speaking to people’s core values, that is key to reaching people and changing their perceptions about renewables and climate action.

More of this please!