(Photo: a couple stands on a beach in Thailand)

Chris Winter and Nancy Palardy recreate a screenshot from a video of tourists on a beach in Thailand before the 2004 Tsunami.

I’m travelling the world looking for answers. And on a beach in Thailand, I may have figured out why environmentalists’ messages fall on deaf ears.  

I was reminded of a video on YouTube of a couple on a beach in Thailand. It is December 26, 2004, 9:15 am. They are on holiday. Life is good, and they are watching the waters recede. 

Within ten minutes they will be running, but right now, they are merely curious. Something abnormal is happening, but there is no sense of fear, not even precaution. At this moment, everything is distant. All too soon, a tsunami will be at their feet, and sometime in between will come the realization that what they are watching is a threat to themselves. Their holiday over, they will start to run and seek the safety of higher ground.

In the span of human history, our generation is an earthquake of the size that could spawn a tsunami.
From two to eight billion people in under a century, an exponential explosion of consumption, and life is good.

We are that couple on the beach. We are watching the resources recede. We can sense that something abnormal is happening, but life is good. We are loath to run, let alone seek higher ground. Those of us who see the danger shout warnings, but those who see a threat to the good life deny the danger. We are standing when we should be moving, and we will move only when it is too late.

So, what is the wave that will jerk us into action? It will not be resource depletion, climate change, extinction or pollution that will move us. They are the earthquake: a seismic reaction to the increased pressure of population and consumption. Only a direct threat to our wealth and comfort will make us turn, run and head for higher ground. The real wave will be economic: the loss of “the good life.”

That couple on a beach in Thailand, December 26, 2004, 9:15 am – they are the fractal clue to why we do not act. In the end, we will act not out of concern for the planet, but out of fear and self-preservation. Not until job losses, a market crash, scarcity and a rising cost of living loom before us – and we personally feel their impact – will we turn and run toward efficiency, austerity, resiliency, alternatives and self-sufficiency, praying it is not too late.

You can see why the anti-green movement is effective: It paints environmentalists, not environmental crises, as the threats to the good life. 

Understand this, and you can see why the anti-green movement is effective: It paints environmentalists, not environmental crises, as the threats to the good life. During a televised 2005 debate, US anti–smart-growth lobbyist Wendell Cox and Mark Winfield, who represented the Ontario Smart Growth Network, traded arguments and statistics, blow for blow, but Cox always added a personal message to the audience: “You won’t be able to afford your dream home.” The line was effective because it spoke to viewers’ aspirations and because we, the Ontario Smart Growth Network, didn’t present a counter-vision: a dream community or an urban village. In 2006, Cox followed up with a book, War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Cox is just one small example of why the anti-eco message is so successful: it speaks to the dream of the good life. No matter what the issue, the common element is that life is, and should be, good. And those people who cry warning – they are the enemy of the good life.

Time and again, environmental messaging focuses on dangers that are still removed from the security and good life of most individuals. Popular in my Facebook feed this week has been a post from The Guardian showing photos of overdevelopment, overpopulation and overshoot. The photos are stark, and they have been widely circulated by friends who share the concern for the future of the planet. But they won’t change policy and they won’t change consumption.

We must become the defenders of the good life. The issues will be the same, but the subtle shift is to connect them to people and the good life we love.

Is there a better tack? I think so. We must become the defenders of the good life. The issues will be the same, but the subtle shift is to connect them to people and the good life we love, or desire.

For example, if you knew what was coming, you probably would tell that couple standing on the beach, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Find higher ground!” Our warnings about environmental crises, be it climate change, urban sprawl, resource depletion or extinction, need to make a clear and personal connection to the very real threat to our treasured and peaceful good life:

Look out! – Understand the potential impact on our economy and your quality of life.

Run! – Take personal action to reduce your risk.

Find higher ground! – Support economic and social resilience.

More than just a tweaking of environmental messaging, this approach needs to become a major realignment of the environmental movement. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein writes of the need for a broad social alliance, which is indeed coming to pass with the recent climate marches. But the marches still use the traditional approach of public pressure for political action. Like the Blue Dot tour, or Earth Hour, they ask the public to show their support for political action through token displays of support. These are all important campaigns, but we need to go further.

I truly believe we need a full-on campaign aimed at protecting the good life we have in Canada, backed by an alliance of organizations, businesses, and governments that embrace and support conservation as an immediate step, and are willing to invest in a sustainable future that offers the best prospects for maintaining our high quality of living in the face of the many environmental and economic challenges that lie ahead.

Protecting “the good life” does not mean protecting the status quo. On the contrary, it means we focus on achieving a comparable, if not better, quality of life by reducing our ecological footprint. The solutions are the same – green power, transit, compact urban design, local economies – but they are framed in terms of improving our lives, saving money, investing in the future and building economic resilience. Live better with less.

There are good precedents for such a campaign. The Ontario Clean Air Alliance, with a membership of over 90 health and environmental organizations, faith communities, municipalities, utilities, unions and corporations, has achieved an enviable track record by focusing on specific and significant actions with both environmental and economic benefit. The Blue Green Alliance is another good example, linking high-level labour and environmental groups in common cause. Also impressive is the work of CivicAction, the social alliance in the Greater Toronto Area, and a new US initiative, The Next System, which is focused on creating new approaches to sustainability and which mirrors many of the suggestions in my report from last year, The Next Wave.

Canadians already understand the danger. We need to work together to protect what we value the most – our quality of life – in the face of very real economic threats on the horizon. Do this, and we may just help solve the bigger issues of climate change and global equity.

And the biggest threat to our good life? It’s all those people who are telling us we don’t need to do a thing.

The former executive director of the Conservation Council of Ontario, Chris has started a new initiative to help Canada transition to a sustainable future by “living better with less,” Canada Conserves. After 30 years in the environmental movement, Chris Winter is on a well-deserved round-the-world sabbatical with his family. Along the way, Chris will be sharing examples of how other countries are dealing with climate change, resource scarcity and economic turmoil. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook. You can also follow the family’s Hello Cool World tour blog.

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