Cutting the cynicism: why are community-level environmental campaigns so effective?

Community campaigns can cover all kinds of environmental topics

A quick Google search of the term “individual action on the environment” yields thousands of studies and opinion pieces with conflicting conclusions. “Individuals cannot solve the climate crisis,” a Guardian article states, while another, hosted by the Sierra Club, states that “Yes, in fact, individual responsibility is key.”

Both sides clearly have their limits. From an individual perspective, will my choice to drive an electric vehicle (EV) even account for 0.1% of the impact of the UK’s ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars? And, on the systems change piece, the simple fact is that the action isn’t happening fast enough, despite the increased talk. The world is still ready to violate the Paris Agreement, despite new commitments made at Biden’s Earth Day Summit, and the sixth mass extinction is still imminent.

Action at the community level offers an antidote to both of these limitations. Impact is more easily scalable than working alone, and often groups can be more nimble than national governments and large corporations, forcing them to scale up.

As Beth Thoren, Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Action and Initiatives for EMEA, explains: “While we need governments and corporations to make huge systemic changes to give us a chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C, fortunately, the collective power of individuals can make an incredible difference.

we power

Patagonia may be best known for its outdoor clothing and camping gear, but its history of environmental activism is probably close behind.

This year, following successful campaigns on community-owned renewable energy projects in the US and EU, Patagonia began helping UK residents follow suit. Its “We The Power” campaign describes the potential benefits of community renewable energy projects to the general public and encourages them to get involved in existing and upcoming local projects, while supporting the local electricity bill. Drafted by Power For People, the bill aims to ensure that Ofgem creates a framework for the right to local supply. Such a framework would help array developers with installation and running costs.

Image: Joppe Rog/Patagonia

Thoren tells Edie that the campaign reflects Patagonia’s comprehensive “solutions-based” approach to environmental action, which has proven effective in engaging people “regardless of political leanings, age, vocation, their current financial situation or knowledge”.

“As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said, the cure for depression is action,” she continues. “To feel that we can play an active role in saving our planet is extremely empowering…. and of course the beauty of community energy is that each individual contributes, has a voice and benefits from this community level approach.

In addition to the campaign’s initial research and YouTube documentary, Patagonia will continue to flag existing community energy businesses through its online Patagonia Action Works hub. This site contains information on how to join or support in other ways, such as petitions and donations. Patagonia “follows the chops” here with its own 1% Earth Pledge.

As the UK has made great strides in decarbonising its electricity mix – and has ambitious targets for 2030 and beyond – the launch of We the Power in the UK comes at a crucial time for energy community. MPs worry that current and proposed policies only support large-scale private projects, undermining the potential of smaller, community-owned networks. A letter from the environmental audit committee last week called on ministers to remove regulatory hurdles that “appear to block any significant new rollout of community energy projects”, including high grid connection charges and the lack of minimum prices to export.

Plastic-Free Communities

This idea of ​​timing maximizing the effectiveness of a community campaign is shared by Canary Wharf Group (CWG) sustainability director Martin Gettings, who was instrumental in getting the estate certified by Surfers Against Sewage as a plastic-free community. Over 730 sites in the UK now carry the certification, but CWG was the first shopping center in the world to achieve the accolade.

“Bringing people together is the common theme of all our best campaigns, but the time also has to be the right time, the time has to be there,” Gettings told edie.

“If people are hungry for change, the launch shows that you are aware and ready to support. Listen and watch to make sure you pick something that resonates with the communities you engage. »

When CWG announced the making in the summer of 2019, the so-called “Blue Planet 2” effect was of course still in full swing. The process of engaging with companies using CWG’s office buildings, stores, cafes, bars and restaurants in the first place, to help them eliminate all single-use plastics where possible, has been led close to even more of the culture-changing documentary.

But Gettings argues that, despite a drop in attendance during the lockdown, the appetite for participation remains strong among the business, commuter and wharf visitor communities. The estate has maintained its plastic-free status and Gettings believes that as the next “new normal” emerges, there will always be a demand for “visible, loud and participatory” campaigns that are “relative and scalable”.

Surfers Against Sewage’s (SAS) own chief executive, Hugo Tagholm, believes the lifestyle changes brought about by the lockdown are likely to make people more community-minded and more eager to connect collaboratively. Dozens of new locations have received Plastic Free Communities certification since last March and the charity has also been busy expanding its beach cleanup offering, with a “Million Mile Beach Clean” kicking off on May 15.

Tagholm tells Edie: “I think social contact and cohesion is something that we have missed the most during the pandemic. By its very nature, Plastic Free Communities aims to bring people together; on solidarity, support and collective action.

Calling for a video call from Cornwall, he goes on to describe Covid-19 as a ‘jolt’ that has ‘made people think a little differently’, acknowledging that environmental issues, social issues, public health and the economy are all interconnected.

For Tagholm, the benefit of engagement at the community level—beyond the immediate social gains for participants and the overall environmental impact—is the power these voices have to affect change at a higher level.

“Government continues to respond, and businesses continue to respond, to the movement of people; we saw it in 2017-2018 with plastics and we see it now with climate,” he says.

“There is a lot of rhetoric [i.e. new targets]so it’s important for communities to step up and say “we don’t just want to hear from your targets, we want to see action, faster”.

Indeed, the UK’s ban on single-use plastic items like straws came after campaigns by groups such as SAS.

With the environmental narrative in the UK now focused more on climate than plastics, especially with Covid-19 complicating the picture, both Gettings and Tagholm believe community campaigns can be an important part of the solution. to any global environmental problem. The ability of communities to act faster than their nations on climate can be seen in the dozens of local authorities that have declared climate emergencies and developed net zero targets by 2050, from Edinburgh to Exeter.

“We have to look at this whole decade as a decade for grassroots movements,” concludes Tagholm.

Sarah Georges

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