How activists can use stigma to fight climate change

Posted in: activism, Business and society, Climate, Communication, Environment

The war against climate change has many fronts. Activist organisations like Extinction Rebellion (XR) fight back through acts of non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience - often targeting specific organisations that they feel are contributing to the crisis. Here Aliette Lambert and George Ferns use their recent research to suggest how groups like XR might complement their existing methods with a communications campaign that stigmatises the offending organisations.

Climate activist group Extinction Rebellion blockaded Amazon warehouses all over the UK on Black Friday – one of the busiest shopping days of the year – in order to “expose Amazon’s crimes, while holding it up as an example of the wider economic system, which is designed to keep us hooked on buying things we don’t need, at a price the planet cannot afford.”

The actions of Extinction Rebellion are notoriously divisive. While many support their resilience and courage in battling behemoths such as Amazon, others find the disruptions a nuisance and ultimately ineffective. In the years since their inception, the movement has not moved any closer towards becoming mainstream - although their actions are meaningful, wider public support evades them.

Using ‘stigma’ to change public opinion

We recently published a study on how an insignificant student group – Swarthmore Mountain Justice (SMJ) – sparked one of the most successful divestment campaigns in history, in a largely successful effort to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry. Based on our findings, we suggest that Extinction Rebellion could also engage in symbolic action – such as stigmatizing Amazon using analogy – to complement and strengthen their other methods of protests (such as blockading).

From the beginning of their campaign, the SMJ students realised the power of language and - in particular – analogy to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry. Importantly, stigmatization requires the support of the wider public to shift meanings around an entity (e.g., Amazon or the fossil fuel industry) from normal or acceptable, to maligned or stigmatised.

The power of analogy

Early on, divestment activists identified analogical contexts – particularly South African Apartheid and the tobacco industry – to draw stigmatised meanings from already stigmatised contexts. In an interview, a student activist from Warwick University said:

"Even if you were not born then [during apartheid], you know racism is immoral. You also don’t need a PhD to know smoking causes cancer. It should therefore not be difficult to make people believe that we should cut our ties with the fossil fuel industry, just as we did with South African government, or tobacco.”

Divestment activists also specifically used two types of analogies with two different motivations: deep analogies to evoke emotion and surface analogies to explain that the target of stigmatisation (i.e the fossil fuel companies) is deviant or wrong. Analogy is a device that helps us understand something unknown by referring to something known. The analogy “her eyes are as blue as the sea” for instance compares two distinctive domains to generate meaning about eye colour.

Deep analogies are those that have a structural connection rather than a literal, simple connection (e.g., veins are like rivers) and are effective at conveying complex emotions. For example, divestment activists used the analogy of South African Apartheid to cultivate an emotional and/or moral impetus for divesting from fossil fuel. For example, emotions  related to seeking justice, such as empathy, were incited to motivate stigmatization on the basis that like in Apartheid, the vulnerable would (again) suffer most. In fact, Desmond Tutu made this clear link, publishing an article in 2014 which said:

"The most devastating effects are visited on the poor, those with no involvement in creating the problem. A deep injustice. Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, today we say nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels."

Surface analogies make simple comparisons between two similar domains. This mainly involved likening the fossil fuel industry to the tobacco industry. By convincing people that these two industries shared certain overlaps, divestment campaigners transferred the deviance of an already-stigmatized industry (tobacco) to the fossil fuel industry. They did so by creating cognitive links between industries. For instance, campaigners used the link – “merchants of death” – to highlight how tobacco companies profit from causing bodily harm, like the fossil fuel industry by advancing dangerous climate change, disease and death. The tobacco analogy was heavily supported by imagery that replaced representations of smoking with the use of fossil fuels, e.g., substituting a factory smokestack which represents the burning of fossil fuels with a cigarette or using the iconic image of Joe Camel from the Camel cigarette brand advertisements to represent a fossil fuel company CEO.

Simple, powerful tools

What makes analogical reasoning so effective is that analogies are flexible and adaptable. Therefore, a wide range of stakeholder audiences can adopt, and adapt, the analogies in supporting the cause – in the case of our example, divestment. For instance, faith-based organisations with a history of divestment caught on to the emotional appeal related to justice (above) and reminisced that they too had divested from South African businesses during apartheid. The healthcare institutions, on the other hand, strongly identified with activists’ analogical work around the source domain of tobacco. A British Medical Association spokesperson explained:

"Doctors have long recognised that it is wrong to treat smoking-related diseases whilst investing in the tobacco industry. This vote makes a similar statement in relation to fossil fuel investments and the immediate and grave threats to human health posed by climate change."

Analogies provide a host of meanings from already successful social movement efforts. These meanings are legitimated by history, and multidimensional in their interpretation and adaptation. Activist groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, can take inspiration from this type of action to hopefully improve public support of their existing actions such as blockading. What we need now more than ever is widespread support for movements intending to stem the progression and consequences of climate change. Stigmatizing Amazon could be just the ticket.

Posted in: activism, Business and society, Climate, Communication, Environment


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