Issue 297: 2021 10 21:Hearts and Minds

21 October 2021

Hearts and Minds

Saving the planet.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Remember the cold snap at the beginning of this month? There was no heating here in our block of flats, even though it usually comes on at the beginning of October each year. My shivering neighbours and I sent desperate emails and texts to the managing agents – when will heating be available? Has someone forgotten to flick a switch or press a button?

There was no initial answer. Someone suggested that the management board was deliberately delaying turning the boilers on so that its carbon zero emission target could be met by the end of the year. A joke, but perhaps not a stupid one – I did wonder what the reaction of the residents would be if they were canvased about the idea of, say, turning the heating on a month later than usual (November rather than October) and off a month sooner than usual (March rather than April), for the sake of the environment. And putting on extra layers of clothing in the meantime. How many of us would be indignantly horrified by the suggestion? How many of us would be supportive of it, perhaps even inspired to do more – to turn our thermostats down two or three degrees when the heating was on, for instance?

Perhaps those of us who were willing could sign up to some sort of pledge about these and other measures. Reducing our consumption of meat, restricting our journeys by car, renouncing air travel, etc, etc. We could form a club, a society, a cult, getting residents from other parts of our neighbourhood to sign up as members. Spreading membership across London, the UK, Europe, the world, until we had a global mass movement of individuals committed to fighting for the environment by modifying their own behaviour. There could be different levels of membership. The lowest level could be a relatively undemanding one; committing to turn the heating down by two degrees, use the car only once a week, fly only once a year, eat meat only once a day, etc. Other levels would be more demanding. Ultimately, the top level would involve the complete rejection of fossil fuels, plastics, meat, etc; a life-style which only a few hard-core saints / fanatics would be able or willing to sustain, certainly initially, but which would inspire and encourage the rest of us.

Why on earth doesn’t such a movement exist? Most of us are in sympathy with the cause and willing to make sacrifices (and even the smallest ones would be helpful) but don’t really know how or where to begin. Such a movement would be able to advise us and encourage us. Small successes would inspire us to make an effort to rise through the levels of membership. Hearts and minds.

Isn’t this exactly what Extinction Rebellion and its off-shoots should be doing? Instead of its divisive and futile strategy of confrontation, shouldn’t it be winning hearts and minds instead? Shouldn’t it be doing everything it could to enrol us all as soldiers in its cause? Rather than hectoring democratic governments which have no mandate for extreme changes demanded by a bullying minority, shouldn’t it be helping everyone around the world to make the appropriate changes in their own lives? Its current obstructionist strategy is counter-productive because it antagonises ordinary people and alienates them from its cause; it’s also futile because the governments it’s trying to influence are democratic governments and therefore cannot initiate change until the majority of their citizens demand it.

Win sufficient hearts and minds around the world, and then significant change will occur without waiting on government or business to do something about it. With charismatic leadership and evangelical fervour, this could happen quite quickly. (Pride, shame, competitive spirit and herd instinct could all be exploited; “What grade are you on? Only level 9? I’m on level 6 and I’m about to go up to level 5. And all my children are already on level 3…”.) And once sufficient hearts and minds have been won, then governments and business will have to change. The nature of democracy and the power of market forces will guarantee it. In fact it’s the only way (apart from corrupt lobbying) to influence government policy and change commercial activities.

Don’t start at the top, start at the bottom; initiate a grass-roots, ground-up, self-responsible, popular mass movement to encourage change in our personal behaviour and every-day lives. After all, the Temperance societies, Methodism and trades unionism did far more to combat the horrors of the industrial revolution than the Luddites did.

(The boilers in our building were eventually turned on, two weeks ago. But I haven’t turned our radiators on yet. Not because I’ve necessarily seen the light, but because the weather immediately improved and it’s warm and sunny again. It’s a very confusing business, climate change.)

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