Positive Media, Positive Reinforcement

Conventional environmentalism relies on persuading people not to do things, or to do things so other things don’t happen.

People don’t seem to be responding to this “we need to do this quickly to avoid disaster” approach, at least not with the scale and speed required. Of course it’s ridiculous, and we really should, but we’re not. And we don’t have time to fit society to a solution that doesn’t work; it’d be way more effective to use a solution that is right for our society and the challenges we face.

The disciplines of sociology and psychology are key here.

Of course it IS necessary to educate and inform people about current and pressing problems. Problems need attention so that appropriate solutions can be designed. I’m not saying  that a positive-only approach is a good idea – we need balance. If problems are not known then there’s no supposed reason to change.

What I’m saying is, once problems have been studied and solutions designed, those solutions need to be promoted using positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement.

We need dreams to strive towards. In modern culture, we need the Arts to paint pictures of sustainable, happy and beautiful futures… It’s much easier to get to the right place if your map tells you where to go, as opposed to where not to go.

Apocalyptic future scenarios presented in films such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow show a sensationalised glimpse of what we could be facing if we don’t change our ways. However, they don’t actually help us to change our ways. We require some positive imagery to inspire us.

Modern global challenges like climate change, peaking resources and species extinction are big and scary, and thus inspire apathy rather than action. Many people simply don’t know a lot about these issues, and of the people that do, many more are overwhelmed. We need to collectively inspire each other, not tell each other off.

So we need ideas to strive towards. Imagining desirable futures is a key concept of the Transition Movement, and I think it is a crucial tool for our times. Truly thinking about what you want your future to look like, and then thinking about what steps need to be taken to move closer to that future, is a very empowering exercise. This is not the science of sustainability – which is of course equally important – but the art.

For this task we don’t need to be rational, we need to be idealistic. “Idealistic” seems to have got rather a bad name, but how are you supposed to know if you’ve done well if you don’t know what you’re aiming for? Imagine attempting a jig-saw where the picture on the box is unrelated to the puzzle-pieces, with the apologetic caption: “This is the wrong picture, do not create it”.

Now imagine a film that’s set say, 20 or 30 years into a more sustainable and desirable (but not perfect) future. The plot line could be sustainability based, or it could be an unrelated tale of romance or etc, but with a sustainable setting  presented as if it’s the norm. Such a film would attract mixed responses for sure, with plenty of people having complaints as well as compliments to voice. But the very discussion generated would itself be a helpful effect. It would sow seeds of thought in people’s minds. Most viewers probably wouldn’t ring up a solar installation company the minute they left the cinema, but they would at least have an alternative mental vision of the future to mull over, discuss with friends, and keep in their sub-conscious.

Art and media are hugely powerful, and its time they’re properly put to the task of transforming our society to one of sustainability, happiness and beauty.


2 thoughts on “Positive Media, Positive Reinforcement

  1. I agree that pictures are sometimes a lot more compelling than words. One of the things that first got me into environmentalism was, in fact, watching Planet Earth and Blue Planet. Those two series showed me the wonders of the planet we live on…and then how close we are to losing many of them. That was a powerful and upsetting message when I connected it with how my daily actions were driving climate change.

    A while ago, I read an article that suggested that people were more likely to change when faced with peer pressure (everyone else around them is using reusable bags, CFLs, etc.) than scary facts about climate destruction OR positive reinforcement. I think it’s interesting how clear it’s becoming that we are not a rational species and can’t be relied upon (at least as a species) to make rational decisions. I mean, we could, we’d already be doing much, much more to preserve the only planet we know of that supports life.

    • Thanks for commenting Jennifer (:

      Hmmm… That does make sense… Peer pressure is a hugely important force… I tried to touch on that in my previous post, The Psychology of Change. I was thinking about how “looking cool” and social influence are going to have to be on our side before wide-scale and deep change will take place. Interesting you’ve read it is actually THE most important force… Funny how much we’re still governed by evolutionary traits from thousands of years ago…

      Also thanks for sharing how those TV programs made you begin to care for the environment. I always find it fascinating hearing what made certain people “wake up” to these issues…. (:


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