‘You can make a difference.’
I use this phrase a lot — you can make a difference. I intend to make a career out of it.
Follow any climate justice activist on Twitter, read the emails by NGOs like Change.org and Friends of the Earth, find this phrase in the solidarity speeches by politicians and protestors alike.
Telling people that they matter is fundamental to any major social change. We all stay at home during COVID-19 lockdown because we believe we can have an impact on the spread of the virus. We choose to go zero-waste or sign petitions online because we believe that it makes a difference. For climate activism, convincing people that they are fundamental to battling the consequences of the devastating climate crisis is a necessary step towards sustainable social change. By convincing people of their power to change the system through lifestyle edits — eating less meat and demanding less plastic packaging and more recycling bins — we push change from the bottom-up.
This is the job of climate communications. It shapes the story of the climate crisis to place you as a main character. To tell you what the current state of the world is and how it’s going to be — unless you, the hero, step in.
It’s our job to make the climate crisis palatable to you. Palatable because if it’s too shocking, people turn away, keep scrolling. But not shocking enough and there’s no incentive to change. We work on finding that balance: things could become unpalatable, could affect you personally in the near future in undesirable ways, unless you take a very simple action right now.
Do I sound cynical? Maybe. There’s nothing new about people needing a story they can relate to in order to be engaged in an issue. We naturally draw links between what we read and our own lived experience — think of Barbara from the supermarket telling you that she cares a lot about deforestation in South America which is why she brings her own reusable cup to coffee shops, thank you very much.
We search for ourselves everywhere: in TV shows we cry when the main character does because we feel their pain, and in real life we care about the climate emergency when we realise it jeopardises our future plans.
Creating stories out of crises and real-life suffering and picking your words carefully so they influence the audience in just the right way. It’s almost clinical. Tell me that millions of people are dying of hunger and I feel nothing. Tell me that 8-year old Rashida begs on the street to try and raise the equivalent of £3 keep her sickly infant brother alive and I feel heart-wrenched because I have a protagonist to latch onto.
Don’t say We need change because it doesn’t place the responsibility on anyone specific. You draw together a picture of the current situation like an artist selecting colours for the canvas. Not that one — it’s too dark. But that one is too light in tone.
You lose yourself in your word choices. Perhaps the right verb will combat the climate crisis. How do I make people care? How do I convince them they matter? Sometimes a dark critical part of me begins to wonder if I believe my own words — can I make a difference? Or is that what I say because it’s the only way to get people to care?
I feel like an imposter surrounded by experts working for a better future. I’m a graduate working in an NGO. I have been in the working world less than a year and yet this is what I aim to do for a living: to tell people how to live, before I’ve even lived myself. No wonder I feel filled with doubt at my own words, the veracity of my own messaging. What gives me the authority to tell people what to do, what policies to back, what they should worry about? Why should I know better than anyone else?
This is classic imposter syndrome, the sense that you don’t belong and the accompanying paranoia that eventually, the people around you will figure out there’s been a horrible mistake. That they grabbed the wrong CV in the employment process and then were too polite to admit the mistake. It’s a common fear for graduates, for whom offices are unfamiliar terrain and who have to learn to BCC people in emails that you’ve never met.
The lack of experience can be a paralysing mental obstacle. A constant siren in the back of your head every time you’re asked to draft a blog that goes oh god I don’t know what to say I’m going to fuck it up. How can I convince people that they can make a difference? How can I make people believe in their individual capabilities when I barely believe in my own? I have paranoid daydreams of random strangers asking me to justify how exactly their £5 donation will help tackle gender inequality in Bangladesh, or be confronted with my own ignorance in a hypothetical staff meeting held just to point out my inaccuracies.
The other day I wanted to buy a yoghurt in the supermarket. There was a yoghurt in recyclable Tetrapak and there was one in a plastic container that was a different flavour. After a brief moral debate in the aisles, I bought the one in plastic. And I felt awful.
I knew deep down that the climate battle wasn’t decided by my yoghurt purchase in the supermarket that day, but to me it represented the disparity between my values and my actions. And worse — the disparity between what I want to tell people to do and what I actually do.
I stared at that container in the fridge each morning. Why did I buy the plastic container if I knew that it would make me feel guilty? If it had been anyone else I would be tempted to write it off as laziness or insufficient willingness to make choices that are better for the planet. It is so easy to recline on the knowledge that you work on climate issues and use that to look down on people who don’t and say ‘you didn’t recycle that because you don’t give a shit about the planet.’
Maybe it is that. Maybe I was just fatigued from constant climate talk and the never-ending doomsday headlines and I got lazy. But I know there was another reason — I felt, on some level, that my actions didn’t matter. Just as in the office I struggle to believe that my tweets could really make a difference or my work could ever really be good enough to push for change, this fear that I can’t, in fact, make a difference bleeds into personal life choices. It’s not that I don’t care about the planet — far from it — it’s that I still struggle to believe my own words.
But if I don’t believe it and I’m the one saying it, then who will? If none of us ever felt confident to demand social change until we had all the facts and the deepest understanding of the climate crisis possible, none of us would be able to say anything. Being held back by personal insecurities about my lack of what I perceive to be ‘real-world’ experience has a knock-on affect on my ability to be an effective advocate for the climate. If I gave in to the voice that said shut up, nobody’s listening and you don’t know what you’re talking about then that’s one less voice fighting for meaningful change.
Perhaps ultimately it’s not useful to be guided by our beliefs about how much individual power we have, but rather by our values. I might not believe that buying the recyclable container makes the difference but I can still do it because I don’t want to add another plastic tub to the landfill.
You don’t have to believe that you will make all the difference to start acting like it. I’m not sure anyone ever really grows out of imposter syndrome. Every time I’ve talked to an adult, and I mean a real Certified Adult, who does things like talk about mortgages and can refer to organisations they were working for in the 1980s, about this topic they’ve said the same thing. ‘You will never feel like you know what you’re doing.’
A bit discouraging perhaps, but also true. No climate activist has all the answers. No NGO or politician or scientist has all the answers and knows exactly what we should be doing. We don’t know how much of a difference individuals make, and this is part of the problem. For every campaign telling you to act now, there’s another article saying citizens can’t impact anything in a meaningful way until the government changes. What an easy way to wipe off your individual responsibility, an easy reason to turn a blind eye. An easy way out that ultimately doesn’t make sense because what are governments but a collection of individuals?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realise that imposter syndrome can be used as a useful tool. The nagging sense that I don’t know enough pushes me to keep learning and asking questions, to admit to being the only person in the room that has no idea what that acronym we’re using means. It makes me work better at making sure everyone else understands too, and also asks questions. I might not know what I’m doing 100% or feel confident in my abilities, but I believe that I’m doing what I think is best.
The question is not can I make a difference but what difference am I making now? Who am I already influencing around me? Friends, family, coworkers, that random cashier that always tries to chat you up. You are already a main character in many people’s lives just by existing. You don’t need to fix the climate crisis on your own to be a meaningful source of influence to the people around you. You don’t need to be the best or the wisest to have a positive impact. You can make a difference.