He Had Our Back – Peter Melchett’s Contribution to Greenpeace

(This post first appeared at the blog ‘Celebrating Peter‘ where many other contributions can also be found).

Chris Rose

Peter on a walk round his farm in April this year.  Behind him is a field full of cowslips, part of a new wildlife habitat.

Peter Melchett, who was a Minister in the Northern Ireland office used to dealing with Ian Paisley across the conference table, was never going to be fazed by the 15 years he spent as chair and Executive Director of Greenpeace UK (1985 to 2001).  To supporters, politicians and media in the UK he is best remembered for his part in a white-suited action against GM maize but the greatest contribution he made to Greenpeace was as a leader, and most of that was invisible to the public gaze.

Once Peter put himself at the service of Greenpeace, although he continued to give speeches and interviews, his personal profile was far lower than it had been when he forged the alliance of environment and conservation groups as Wildlife Link and led many political and legislative battles for the environment in Parliament.


By the mid 1980s Greenpeace was already in transformation from a charismatic but chaotic entity often riven by personal rivalries, into an effective international campaign group but Peter guided its UK development into a resilient and stable campaigning machine, and professionalized and grew the organization at the same time.

He brought systems and organization, introducing specialist science, legal, accounts and political units, together with HR policies and management practices drawing on his previous experience in government and the third sector.   Although resented by some campaigners used to a more anarchic environment, he made these changes not just to treat the staff better and improve efficiency but to make Greenpeace harder to infiltrate or attack by government or corporates.


With a background in politics and a family background in business large and small, Peter understood power and influence in a way few other NGO campaigners or leaders did, then or now.  He knew that politicians might never win a popularity contest with Greenpeace, but could disable or sink it through stealthier means such as injunctions, asset seizures or subversion.  As its support grew, it posed a greater challenge to vested interests so the stakes got higher.

Largely un-noticed both inside and outside, Peter set about making Greenpeace’s UK ‘ship’ legally and financially watertight, with reserves to ride out headwinds.  On his watch, it invested in the expertise necessary to locate strategic targets that could change the trajectory of environmental outcomes, and then plan and run high-risk campaigns involving non-violent direct actions, with the optimal chance of living to fight another day.

He Had Our Back

Peter had a massive sense of duty and honour.  He took a personal interest in looking after the volunteers who physically and legally put themselves on the line when he often could not.  So he was always ready to take responsibility and lead from the front when the organisation came under fire.  “He made me feel safe”, said a director who served under him. “As a young campaigner”, an activist said “you knew whatever you did, he’d would support you in public: he had our back”.

Two Jewish friends who worked with me at Greenpeace say they used to call him a a ‘mensch’ – Yiddish – a man of integrity and honour.  “He was so solid, and reliable especially when the shit hit the fan – you could always count on Peter” says one.

In the 1980s he had already been involved in several demonstrations against nuclear weapons.  Just before his time at Greenpeace, he and partner Cass Wedd were arrested on a CND protest at Sculthorpe a USAF base not far from his farm in Norfolk.   It amused him that as he stepped forward to make his symbolic cut in the fence, plummy voice of Lady Olga Maitland (of ‘Women and Families for Defence’) rang out: “Peter, Peter, don’t do it. It’ll ruin your career!”

Once Chair and Executive Director, Peter rarely took a front-line part in Greenpeace actions, not because he didn’t want to but because he felt responsible for remaining available at the helm.  In 1999 he broke with this rule by leading an action to remove a GM maize crop.   A former criminologist, he spent a night in Norwich Jail.  I asked what it was like: “everyone was nice to me” he said, “anyway Eton prepares you for that sort of regime”.   Eventually a jury found all defendants not guilty of criminal damage, agreeing with Greenpeace’s defence of ‘lawful excuse’:  by destroying the crop they had stopped a greater harm of polluting other maize crops with GM pollen.

Peter could be obdurate and domineering as well as avuncular, self-deprecating and charming.  In the 1980s I once described him as more Grizzly than Teddy Bear.  He was also modest, for example rarely mentioning his time as a Minister in which he achieved changes which would have provided most people with a lifetime of stories to dine out on.  I think what drew him to Greenpeace was a combination of its potential to deliver results in terms of outcomes for causes he cared about – more or less Green and Peace – and its way of doing things.

For most people, its principles of non violence and bearing witness, inherited from or inspired by the Quakers in their early protests against nuclear testing in the pacific, were simply historical backdrop but for Peter they were lodestones used in in real-life, on a regular basis, and especially when faced with difficult and testing decisions.  As a personal bonus, in the UK this often meant cajoling, pushing or forcing a political and social Establishment deeply opposed to environmentalism, into change.  Greenpeace campaigns repeated the dynamic of that Olga Maitland moment, in which the establishment tried to stop Peter doing what he thought and felt was right, not just once or twice but over and over.  His principles made him a natural fit with the organisation’s hallmark tactics and worldview.

The Truth

Peter said he left Westminster for NGOs because he was fed up with the “lying game”.  In 1995 after the successful Brent Spar campaign to stop Shell dumping a huge redundant oil storage facility at sea, his sense of honour put him and Greenpeace at the centre of a media firestorm fanned by government ministers enraged at Shell’s capitulation.   Just before Shell gave way, Peter had written to the UK Shell Board laying out Greenpeace’s case and including an estimate that the Spar might still contain thousands of tonnes of oil.   It then realised this was due to a misinterpreted sample from an inspection pipe and the likely figure was far less.  Peter wrote to Shell ‘apologizing’ for potentially misleading them. This apology was misused to attack Greenpeace about the campaign as a whole, which was never about the tonnage of oil on board but oil companies and the government wanting to reopen the debate about dumping waste at sea.

Although not personally to blame for the error, Peter took responsibility.  Earlier this year I talked to Peter and he recalled how he had been “hauled over the coals” by Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight.  He said: “after we were off air – I wish this had been recorded – [Paxman] said to me, “I bet you regret telling the truth now don’t you ?”.   I was so gobsmacked, I couldn’t think of a snappy reply.  I mean he just assumed that everyone would normally lie about something like that, and to me it was just unthinkable that an NGO would lie”.

The same year, Greenpeace ‘invaded’ Sellafield and at Aldermaston blocked a pipe discharging radioactivity into the Thames.  Furious Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind sent MoD police to raid Greenpeace’s offices in search of evidence to charge activists with ‘conspiracy’.  Peter responded with an open letter in The Independent ‘J’accuse Malcolm Rifkind’ challenging the minister to come for him rather than ‘scapegoat’ individual activists.

Peter made Greenpeace UK more international, upping its contribution to international operations, and expanded its influence by using his vast network of contacts among more establishment NGOs.  His personal affability and confidence, and his experience of dealing with opponents face-to-face in politics in ways that avoided escalation of differences, were qualities that enabled him to sit down with Greenpeace’s opponents and often talk them into accepting an inevitable change in their ways after a campaign had peaked, rather than continue to opposing it.

Peter’s personal connections came in useful at unexpected moments. Elaine Lawrence, a Campaign Director of Greenpeace remembers:

When we did that die in in front of Downing street by the memorial where we were dressed in nuclear radiation suits [part of a campaign against THORP], Peter and I led the first group around the corner to the site from the House of Commons.  So we were walking at the front of about 30 people trying not to look suspicious when who should come round the corner but Tony Blair who stopped, greeted Peter and started chatting to him.  Everything – every group – was timed down to the last second so this was potentially a disaster.  Peter totally kept his cool and managed to politely get Tony to stop talking – seconds later we round the corner, get in position and put our suits on – it was very funny.

Solutions and Business

I worked closely with Peter as Programme Director responsible to the Board for ‘re-startegizing’ and creating the campaign programmes of Greenpeace UK, and then as his Deputy Executive Director, in the 1990s.  At this time power was shifting from governments to corporates and there was a new demand from the public for practical ‘solutions’ they could buy or adopt in everyday life.  Partly inspired by the example of Greenpeace in Germany, we added to the usual problem-driving element of campaigns, the engineering of solutions.  Today this sounds obvious but at the time it was controversial and counter-intuitive to many activists and environmental groups.

This often meant working with companies doing the right thing or at the least saying “this is a good thing”, and opposing those doing the ‘wrong thing’.  Peter gave businesses what they took to be an ‘establishment figure’ as an interlocutor and his pragmatism played a big role in helping extend the influence of the organization, for example through establishing Greenpeace Business, a newsletter which also ran conferences.  The approach of campaigns plus face to face engagement with corporate CEOs that he helped develop, has been continued and expanded by others in Greenpeace such as its current Executive Director in the UK, John Sauven.

Peter’s love of animals made him a lifelong  passionate anti-whaling campaigner, and played a role in his pursuit of organic farming.  After Greenpeace he returned to the fight against the impact of pesticides which he had first encountered in grey partridge studies on his family farm in Norfolk.  He and Cass were proud of having badgers return to the farm.  Apparently tireless, he was still working as Soil Association Policy Director, only days before he died.

Some people who inherit assets and position become philanthropists and support good causes.  Peter and Cass did indeed support projects with grants from their family Courtyard Trust but his greater contribution was to spend the capital of his inherited privilege (Eton, Cambridge, The Lords, High Office, family businesses, land) like a philanthropist giving away status and opportunity, to make a difference for the environment.  He was a great friend to me and a truly generous man.


(Thanks to current and former staff of Greenpeace for reminding me of things about Peter).

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How Change Campaigns Get Populated By The Usual Suspects

Here’s one for students of values.  ‘Self-agency’, the sense that you can change the world rather than it limiting or changing you, increases as, and if, people ‘transition’ through the sequence of Values Modes.  As a result, any campaign ask or offer which is framed as about changing ‘big stuff’, and or complicated things in open or unspecified ways, and in which it is not clear whether it can or will succeed, tends only to attract and retain people with a high sense of self-agency.

This doesn’t just apply to things labelled ‘campaigns’ but to any endeavour with these qualities.  So for instance I often talk to groups of people undertaking courses with the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership and because that’s largely a self-selecting segment who have chosen to try a career in the uncertain and big-picture world of ‘sustainability’, they tend to be heavily weighted to the ‘TX’ or ‘Transcender’ Values Mode.  Some campaign NGOs we (CDSM and myself) have surveyed, are over 90% TX among the staff, and 60% or more among supporters even though these are as few as 10% in the general population (it varies internationally).  Which has a lot of pros and cons.

Here’s a slide set on how it happens, and below is a bit of an explanation.

(For stories and explanation about how the model works and how values shape decisions and society, see my book What Makes People Tick: The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers.)

Although the researchers behind the model did not start with an intention to test or investigate Maslow’s theory of unmet needs, by mapping the results of asking thousands of people thousands of question, over decades, about their attitudes and beliefs, it does seem to validate Maslow’s basic proposition of a hierarchy or sequence of emotional and social needs.  In essence, we start out in life with an unmet need for safety, security and identity (Settlers), and if that’s fully met we transition to become Prospectors with dominant unmet needs of esteem of others and then self-esteem, and if those are fully met we become Pioneers, with needs for ethical clarity and then ethical complexity.

See links and resources here.

CDSM calls these Maslow Groups.

CDSM breaks these down into 12 ‘Values Modes’ (VMs) which are more cohesive and discrete values sets.  The gist of their outlooks on life are shown above (outer edge six only).  See links at the homepage to more detailed pen portraits of Settler, Prospector and Pioneer VMs.

Behind the simplified picture in a ‘values map’ on a 1000 x 1000 grid of data. Here’s the UK version showing the 100 statistically strongest ‘Attributes’ located by a dot placed at its point of maximum espousal (agreement with the test statements).  There’s lots more you can do with this.

CDSM is gradually explaining each Attribute in postings at it’s website in the ‘Values Alphabet‘.

The Maslow Groups (and VMs) respond in distinct and predictable ways to different cues, eg to change and questions.  A designer familiar with the system came up with the box analogy to express their latent tendencies: get back to the centre, explore the boundaries, get beyond them.

Here’s where it starts to relate to change campaigns: the differences in self-agency.  (There are differences within the VMs but this is the overall picture).

Different default attitudes to time.

The cumulative effect of life experiences, causing transitions.


A previous blog on strategy making with the basic values dynamics.

Above: the “values conveyor”. TX Transcenders are, in this model, ‘at the end of the line’.

How we think it works.

Self-agency. (Not the only factor in determining engagement of course but a huge one).

Summary of how a challenging change campaign – challenging in social terms – is subconciously processed.  Settlers are change averse. Prospectors are success seeking and failure averse.  Pioneers fret about whether there’s a better option.  All can be reasons not to engage, or to question and seek reassurance or proof.

Now for the effects on VMs.

Above: basic Settler VM orientations or priorities.  Defaults if you like.

Same for Prospectors but different of course.  (In all cases, the inside edge VMs have weaker values pulls and in general are therefore less responsive to campaigns, for or against – they are less ‘bothered’ people).

And the Pioneers.  Internal debates in Pioneer-dominated campaigns are often around these different world views.

Reasons for Settlers not to feel they want to engage in a campaign ask or offer which is about big change.  (Such campaigns are of course mostly cooked up by Pioneers).

Prospector reasons not to engage.  (Flip these of course and you can get a different result but that requires redesigning the format of the campaign).

And the same but in Pioneer world.  Typically for Pioneers they will often approve of the idea ‘behind’ a change campaign but one of these reasons may lead them not to engage.  Which is why you often get much higher Pioneer ‘opinion’ support than Pioneer mobilisation or engagement.  Very annoying people.

So by default, you are often left with a lot of TX Transcenders.  Downsides include them tending to massively over-estimate the self-agency of others, especially if they spend nearly all their time with one another!  (Values bubbles).  Upsides include them having the potential to engage Prospectors (especially Now People) more easily than the other Pioneers can, and Settlers. Which is one reason why they are often over-represented among those running organizations.  Plus of course they think almost any problem is soluble.

And there are campaigns which by dint of their objectives and format, are dominated by Settlers or Prospectors.  It perhaps hardly needs saying that to get effective change, campaigns need to engage and involve a wide range of MGs and VMs.

Some generic examples of ways to engage different VMs (shown on a values map overlaying Schwartz space) – more at link.

Diagrammatic campaign ‘cases’. TX tend to be the ones to start campaigns. CE Concerned Ethicals may persist with them for a long time even if nobody else much is.  NP Now people are the boosters, making them ‘bigger and better’ providing they are not too dull, complex, earnest or impossible looking.  BNWs, Settler Brave New Worlds often lead or empower campaigns against change and in defence of identity and norms.








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A TV Watershed for Climate Change Campaigns

Chris Rose  chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk

Long blog – download it as a pdf here

In what should be a game-changer for climate campaigning, the divide between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ has been closed, as German scientist Friederike Otto and colleagues have succeeded in attributing the role of climate change to an ongoing weather event (the Great Northern Heatwave) in just three days.  The breakthrough has added significance because the official German weather agency plans to introduce ‘real time’ climate attribution in 2019, and an EU agency expects to follow suit.  Consequently the ‘climate factor’ should appear in daily weather reports and forecasts.

This has profound implications for public perception and will tend to normalise acceptance of climate change, as ‘climate pollution becomes pollution of the weather’.

This blog identifies three opportunities and needs for campaigners: a ‘weather dividend’ in expanding the base, creating crises of responsibility for corporates and politicians, and pivoting public psychology from ‘giving up’ to demanding action, drawing on attribution itself.

It proposes new weather indices for comparing the polluted to the unpolluted climate, for averages and events, and a climate version of the Atomic Clock.

It warns that fossil-fuel lobbyists will try to keep the climate factor out of weather reports.

Friederike Otto

An important if under-reported connection was made last month, which should be a watershed in the strategies of campaigns against climate change.  Until now, weather has come with added climate change but it’s been missing from weather-forecasts and reports.  From now on TV-weather can come with an identified percentage of climate change.

This change came on 27 July, after a team led by German scientist Friederike Otto spent three days working as fast as they could to analyse weather data from the unprecedented heatwave gripping Europe and much of the Northern Hemisphere, against climate models. They announced at ‘World Weather Attribution’, that the ongoing heatwave had been made twice as likely to occur, due to human-made climate change.

So rather than taking months or years to look back at past trends or individual extreme weather events, as many previous ‘attribution’ studies have done, Otto’s team managed to do so in near-enough ‘real time’.  Three days is a short enough time period for major weather events to still be playing out and noticeable to the public, media and even politicians.

This is a game-changer for communications about climate change, or it should be.  In effect Otto has closed the gap between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’.  Climate-change is joining the mainstream conversation, not as an ‘if’ but as a reality.

Thank Goodness for the Germans

Dr Otto is an Associate Professor in the Climate Research Programme at the Oxford University Environmental Change Institute.  She is one of the world’s leading experts in saying whether the world’s weather is being driven by climate change [aka ‘attribution’ science].  In this case the answer was “yes” by odds of 2:1.

Also with admirable speed, the Science journal Nature published a brilliant article by Quirin Schiermeier on 30 July, explaining Otto’s achievement and attribution science. Ironically many of the scientists working on these projects – the climate equivalent of rapid response in disease control or emergency medicine – have been doing so in their spare time with very few resources, although there are some signs that this may be about to change.   Schiermeier (Nature’s German correspondent) also reports that ‘with Otto’s help, Germany’s national weather agency is preparing to be the first in the world to offer rapid assessments of global warming’s connection to particular meteorological events’.

As a Brit who has worked on climate change since 1988, I simultaneously feel embarrassment that it takes the German weather service to do this, working with a British based German climate scientist, and (on behalf of the planet), gratitude.  Thank goodness for the Germans.

Making The Weather

It’s always been the case that people’s direct experience of weather plays a role in their response to any mention of ‘climate change’.  In 1988 Jim Hansen of NASA famously gave influential evidence of climate change to Congress, in the middle of a heatwave.  His facts and figures showed a progressive temperature increase in line with climate modelling of the effect of CO2 emissions but his declaration that he was ‘99% certain’ it was ‘already happening’, had much greater impact because it felt hot.  A problem with global warming feels more compelling if you feel hot: it’s a salient problem, ‘front of mind’, and our feelings and intuitions influence our ‘rationality’.

Of course it’s not only feeling hot or cold which influences our responses to ‘climate change’ as an ‘issue’.  Because it is conceived by use of data and computer models, ‘climate’ has always been a ‘Track 2’ issue, requiring analytical thinking, weighing of probabilities, faith in the scientific method, and, when it comes to responses in terms of changing how we live and work, a sufficient sense of self-agency to embrace change.

Where these factors have been lacking, many people (including politicians) have avoided thinking about such a knotty and apparently ‘not yet’ problem by resorting to what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘substitution’: replacing a hard question with an easy one, such as “do scientists agree?” or “do scientists say it’s happening now?”, or “do I want to keep driving my [fossil fuelled] car?”.  This flips the ‘issue’ back into everyday ‘Track 1’ world, where decisions are driven by intuitive, feelings unconsciously shaped by heuristics, values and framing.  That has resulted in going on doing what feels normal and familiar on the one hand, and in climate scepticism on the other (denial being a psychological free-pass from having to engage with a new reality).  You can see the effect of values on climate attitudes in 15 countries in this blog and report, based on surveys for Greenpeace International.

Manipulating such reflexes and perceptions to undermine climate action has been easy, starting even before Frank Luntz’s notorious 2002 memo to pro-fossil fuel US Republicans, pointing out that they did not need to win the argument about whether climate change existed, only to sustain the debate.

“Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific
community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly … Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

Given the way science works, a debate amongst scientists is almost inevitable on any topic, so the fossil fuel lobby were gifted a cheap way to sustain disbelief.

Above, from Sustaining Disbelief: Media Pollism and Climate Change (2007)

The UN system set up to respond to the climate change threat put climate scientists in pole position through the IPCC and UNFCCC (Climate Convention), and they dominated ‘messaging’ about it.  Mostly out of naivety, many tried to communicate the need for political and social action by explaining the science.

In 2005 I put that at the top of a list of reasons for why ‘Climate Campaigning is Difficult’.  Not a lot had changed by 2015, when in an article for the UNA ‘Getting the Message Right’, I grumbled that climate scientists had ‘proved fabulously ill-equipped’ as messengers, and ‘seem to think they can ignore even the most basic rules of public communications’:

‘If a scientist refers three times to uncertainties, people conclude that she or he is uncertain. Would you act on uncertain advice? Well, no. When a research scientist is asked what needs to happen next, and she or he says ‘more research’, do you conclude it’s time for action? Well, no’.


“You Don’t Need To Peer Review The Weather Forecast”


Fortunately many more members of the scientific ‘climate community’ are now applying themselves to the task of improving communications, and thinking about what’s needed to get an effect, rather than just getting their next publication out.   For example, Earth Sciences Professor Chris Rapley at UCL chairs a Commission which brings together natural scientists, social scientists including psychologists like Kris de Meyer of Kings College who interestingly studies why people who are wrong think they are right, and communications practitioners from advertising and elsewhere, even sometimes campaigners like me, on this agenda.

Becoming at least aware that there are proven processes for effective public communication, is a first step, and scientists like Otto have started talking in communication terms.  She told Schiermeier “framing and communicating attribution questions is a real challenge”.  He wrote:

‘Otto says a rapid attribution service is needed because questions about the role of climate change are regularly asked in the immediate aftermath of extreme weather events. “If we scientists don’t say anything, other people will answer that question not based on scientific evidence, but on whatever their agenda is. So if we want science to be part of the discussion that is happening, we need to say something fast”’.

Some scientists, added Schiermeier, ‘might feel uncomfortable if weather forecasters announce results before work has gone through peer review’.  But he notes that Gabriele Hegerl, a climate scientist at Edinburgh University, points out that the science of attribution has advanced rapidly and ‘would benefit from being linked to operational weather prediction’. “It can be really useful to have results quickly available for event types we understand reasonably well, such as heatwaves,” she told him.  Or as Otto put it: “You don’t need to peer review the weather forecast”.

When ‘Climate’ Meets ‘Weather’

Ever since climate change became an issue it has been obvious that what’s on the daily weather forecast, influences public perceptions.  Hardly anyone talks to climate scientists but nearly everybody sees weather forecasts, and many TV forecasters are local or even national celebrities.  So far, we don’t have daily climate forecasts but we do have daily weather forecasts. Therefore what media weather people say matters, not just because they have our attention but because they give meaning to the weather, and climate.

Two ways weather meets climate are when ‘weather forecasters’ relate day to day weather to past averages, and when they interpret ‘extreme events’.

While there are cultural differences between nations, in countries like the UK, ‘good weather’ is usually taken to be synonymous with it being warm and dry.  Hence the ‘good weather’ frame in Britain, and probably many other temperate northern countries, contains the elements ‘warm’, ‘sunny’ and ‘dry’.

So weather forecasters in Britain frequently describe warmer, drier or sunnier days as ‘good’ or ‘better’ and describe departures from the long term or past averages as “better than expected” or “good for the time of year”.   So a hot summer day is celebrated, and so is a warmer than ‘normal’ winter day.  You do not need to be a cognitive psychologist to see that this frame tends to confound any claim that warmer, hotter weather is a bad sign.  For decades it was an uphill struggle to interpret ‘global warming’ as a bad thing, in countries like Britain.

Confusingly, the most obvious units of both weather forecasts and of global climate models are the same – degrees of temperature – yet they have very different meanings.  People are used to seeing TV weather charts with a range of temperatures of say 5 – 10.C over one day or within a week, and it makes little difference aside from the warmer ones being welcomed as something to look forward to, or signalling that you might need to ‘wrap up’ or ‘put on sun cream’, or that you are ‘lucky’ to live in one of the warmer spots.    With this framing, it makes no intuitive sense to be alarmed about a 1.5 – 2C rise as a disaster and 3-4.C as probably a catastrophe, just because it is applied to global averages.  Consequently campaigns and ‘scientific’ announcements to that effect, are simply filtered out, discarded as George Lakoff might say, because they do not ‘fit the frame’ [of warmer = better].

The conventional answer to this problem from the meteorological establishment and media such as the BBC is to occasionally introduce an ‘expert’ voice such as a Science Correspondent, usually when there is a report from the IPCC or UNFCCC to talk about, or if weather extremes make the news and advocates of climate-action are asking attribution questions.  They then try to ‘square the circle’ by resorting to what has become a mantra along the lines of “while you cannot attribute any single event to climate change, scientists say [this is consistent with what we may expect in the future] [this is the sort of event we may see more of in the future as…]”.

Repeated over and over these amount to raising the question “is this climate change?” and then dismissing it.  Question-dismissal, question-dismissal, question-dismissal … etc.

So such qualifications decode as reassurance; it’s expected, it’s not climate change, it’s not immediate, and “there are a lot of if’s but’s and maybes”: uncertainty.   Scientists taking this approach may think that listeners will realise that some of the events or part of the drivers behind events are driven by climate change but if the out-take from each one is that it is not attributed to climate change, the overall effect is ‘climate change isn’t affecting our weather’.

Weather Forecasts as a Political Analgesic

Weather forecasters sometimes use a different frame, one of ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ weather [as opposed to better/worse = hotter/ colder] but even then, they usually do so by reference to statistical averages, and very few of the population or media or politicians understand averages in an analytical way.

Explicitly saying “this weather is abnormal” could have a very different impact but in their Track 2 professional world, weather presenters and meteorologists are aware of the backlash they might experience if they appeared to say something ‘not scientifically accurate’.  So even when weather has become so extreme that their audience is already talking about it, there is still a residual reflex to play it down.  For example by saying that although it’s the biggest X for decades, it did happen once before at some distant point in the past.   Although that’s not exactly ‘scientific’, it is arcane knowledge and sounds expert.

As a result of all this, far from being a driver of public concern about the reality of climate change, for many years most media weather forecasts have acted as a political analgesic.

John Morales of NBC

Trying to squeeze a climate change perspective into a TV weather forecast is obviously a fraught business.  Some who have tried, have got into a tangle as they try to explain probabilities and intermediate factors like large scale weather systems (jet stream, arctic vortex, oscillations etc).  One who has had some success is John Morales, award winning meteorologist for NBC in Miami Florida.  Morales (@John MoralesNBC6) has even taken the fight for scientifically realistic interpretation of the weather and climate to Donald Trump.

In June Morales said on twitter that he and a handful of other TV meteorologists had been relating weather to climate change for years and ‘curiously’ were considered ‘mavericks’, but now there is a ‘groundswell’ of many more doing the same thing.

We Need Climate Indices For Weather

Morales may soon be getting reinforcements.  Schiermeier now reports that the German weather service is planning more or less immediate climate attribution analyses in 2019 or 2020, and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading, UK, is also planning a pilot pan-EU scheme in 2020.  Presumably this will leave TV weather presenters with little excuse for prevarication over climate change.

In my view, what they really need to turn the impact of climate change on weather into something that is news-friendly, is an index, or maybe more than one.  The ‘cognitive ease’ of an index is why news services routinely report stock market indices, even though most of the audience has little real idea what the Dow Jones or FTSE 500 actually means, and it’s questionable what they say about the ‘real economy’.  In the news room, economics and business are held to be important, and this is a quick and easy way of covering them.  Likewise, the Saffir-Simpson 1 – 5 category scale for Hurricanes makes them a lot more ‘newsworthy’ because it makes them easier to report.

Temperature Pollution     

The essence of human-induced climate change is that polluting the air with greenhouse gases raises the temperature of the atmosphere.  The objective (Art 2) of the Climate Convention includes:

‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.  Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change …’

Relating ecosystem (and farming) tolerance to rates and total amounts of change is where target figures like 1.5C or 2.0C in the C21st come from, compared to the 1961-1990 average.

So for its’ benchmark, any such Climate Attribution Index should relate to the ‘unpolluted’ atmosphere, when it comes to temperature records.

A couple of autumns ago, dismayed by Halloween temperatures hugely above the average of the previous 30 years, and with midsummer flowers blooming and insect pollinators buzzing around at a time nature should be shutting down for winter, I suggested a ‘UTA’ benchmark:

‘An Unpolluted Temperature Average from before the anthropogenic (human pollution) signal really kicked in ?  Then we could talk about Polluted Temperatures and Unpolluted Temperatures.  Which would be more honest.’

This won’t prevent people experiencing the shifting baseline syndrome: my children can’t remember the frosty autumn mornings I experienced as a child because they weren’t born then but it could ‘bake in’ the destination-objective of returning the atmosphere to an unpolluted state, which presumably is what climatologists and meteorologists actually want to happen, within the public climate conversation.

Weather interpreters also need a scale for events – expressing the ‘amount’ of Human-Induced-Climate-Change  attributed to an event [HICC index or maybe Hansen Units or Otto Units?].

It might help if climate scientists also had something like the ‘Atomic Clock’ which was some sort of ‘attribution’ index reset every once in a while, so anyone trying to ‘take the temperature’ of the issue could say “with the XXXX set at YY, it is …”.

I don’t know for sure but as they see the reality of climate change crashing weather all over the world, some campaigners may be wondering where next to throw their efforts.  One thing they could do is to help the climate attribution community navigate the process of bringing out the truth in terms the public can understand.

What Next ?

Otto’s work creates three openings:  first, to activate the ‘weather dividend’ in terms of public engagement,  second the need and opportunity to hold politicians and corporates to account over climate change, and third the need to pivot the psychology from ‘giving up’ to demanding action.

The Weather Dividend

For a  long time surveys have tended to find that more people say they have noticed the ‘climate changing’ than that they ‘believe in climate change’.  Two of the statements tested in the 2011-2015 series of surveys for Greenpeace International mentioned earlier were  ‘I have noticed that the climate seems to be changing’ (in eight countries) and ‘Climate change – I don’t believe in it’.

A majority of people in all eight countries agreed they had noticed the climate changing (see more detail here), and an outright majority in every country except the UK and Australia ‘strongly’ agreed.  (It would be interesting to ask the question again in Australia and the UK as these were surveyed in 2014.)

This can be compared to results for the statement: ‘climate change – I don’t believe in it’, (details here).

The chart shows the proportion who agreed strongly or slightly that they had noticed the climate changing, and the proportion who were ‘active believers’ in climate change, in that they slightly or strongly disagreed with ‘climate change – I don’t believe in it’.  In every country, more people ‘have noticed’ climate change rather than ‘believe in it’, and these can add up to more than 100% because some of the people who profess not to believe in it, have also ‘noticed it’.

This apparently irrational response is because the two questions are not answered analytically – hardly any of the public will have conducted or studied a ‘climatology’ of long term data or are experts on ‘detection’ of a human made climate signal – but intuitively (using Kahneman’s System 1 not System 2).  Emotional reflexive rationality, not analytical reflective rationality.

Although asked if they ‘have noticed’ the climate changing, this equates to ‘weather’, or short term or easily recall-able or ‘available’ experiences or events, including things like changes in wildlife and plants in the garden or at work, ‘unseasonal’ weather, and social conversations about them.  These are in the realm of personal experience and are probably cued by being asked if you have “noticed” something.

Especially in countries where ‘climate change’ was polarised as a political issue, the ‘belief’ question cues people to ask themselves “am I one of those type of people?”: a political/social identity test, and answer on that basis.  This is one reason why the response not only varies in degree between countries but is strongly values-influenced in a way which is highly consistent across countries.

Above: some Values Modes differences showing indexes only (for further explanation see here).  Warm colours indicate strongly significant espousal/ agreement with the statement.  The overall difference between the two statement responses is most marked in the Prospector ‘Golden Dreamers’ and the Settler ‘Brave New Worlds’.  These people are more climate sceptic than the population average but do tend to agree they have noticed the climate changing.

It can therefore be expected that if weather forecasts and discussion of extreme weather events begin to include a climate-change factor, there will be an overall increase in agreement with propositions which are predicated on climate change as a reality and this will be greatest in the Prospectors and Settlers, especially GD and BNW.

Seeing as many surveys show these people are the centre of support (although not the only support) for authoritarian policies, Trump, Brexit and right-wing parties, what appears in the weather forecast as a reality, has political significance.  This will not be lost on the paid-for climate sceptic lobby who can be expected to try and keep the climate factor out of the weather reports and forecasts.

The effect of routinely including the climate factor in weather reports and forecasts, will be to normalise it, and Settlers in particular self-identify as ‘normal people’ and thus shift opinions and behaviours to stay in line with norms.  Or as this previous Newsletter noted, ‘like cancer and smoking and the abolition of slavery, an issue, a contested topic, has to mature into ‘social fact’ for wholesale change on it to be acceptable’.

Campaigners can therefore expect a ‘dividend’ in growing and broadening the base of acceptance of climate change, when the climate-factor appears in ‘the weather’.   Climate pollution is becoming pollution of the weather.

Holding Politicians and Corporates to Account over Climate Change

This is mainstream ongoing work for climate campaigns but with the gap between the changing climate and changing weather now disappearing, it too can be re-appraised.

When Dawn Stover published an article ‘Global heat wave: an epic TV news fail’ in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on July 19, a senior scientist asked me why with all the evidence of climate change in progress, there was so little media and political reaction.  My answer was:

“Obvious contributing factors:

  • Distraction (Brexit, Trump) of NGOs and media and politicians or big business — the ‘newsmakers’
  • No clear threshold response from scientists
  • Northern hemisphere holiday psychology – hoping to get a tan on the beach

Beyond that the other explanations are worse, eg shifting baseline psychology”

Well Otto has changed the second factor significantly, for which she deserves some sort of medal but I was being a bit glib: there is another factor, namely no perceived crisis of responsibility.  Politically, Teresa May is in ongoing crisis over Brexit: will she fail to deliver, or fail to hang on to her job? Likewise Trump has a permanent crisis monkey on his back because of unresolved inquiries into his Russian links and other allegations but is only in real trouble if his supporters turn against him.

In truth the fates of Brexit, May and Trump are inconsequential compared to the onslaught of climate change but media and the political classes feel no crisis from climate change.  For most such ‘leaders’ it’s only a political problem, and at that principally a presentational one, on the main plenary days of COPs of the UNFCCC.  Their reputations, jobs, status and freedom do not depend upon resolving it because as yet, they are not expected to take responsibility, and feel no political pain from it getting worse: no blame, no shame.

I wrote about this in 2013 in ‘Why We Need Climate Crises To Avoid Catastrophe’.   It began:

‘Here are three fundamental political truths relevant to many campaigns: first, politicians aspire to be in charge and remain in charge. Second, it is universally recognized that the first duty of government is to maintain public safety – from the integrity of the nation down to the safety of the individual. Third, little sharpens the political mind like being held responsible.

The climate is now plainly lurching into a state of dangerous extremes: record floods are followed by record droughts, storms, heat waves and fires. Seasons are warping and nature, farming and cultures are impacted. Livelihoods and lives are threatened.  People have noticed it is changing, and they don’t like it …

Yet the impacts created by the new climate extremes tend to remain ‘disasters’ not crises. Why? Because there is no crisis of responsibility’.

It went on to argue that we need to complement existing efforts to hold politicians to account in relation to global climate change (eg by activist lawyer groups), by also mobilising affected domestic political constituencies to demand that leaders keep them safe from local climate change.  Otto’s work, and that of other attribution scientists, makes that much more feasible.  Same goes for corporations like oil companies.

It ended:

‘With climate impacts perceived to be occurring in real time, the politics of climate can be real-time, personal and local too. What would be the bigger political crisis, the fate of future generations, or a food shortage tomorrow? The future extinction of a third of the world’s biodiversity or a housing crisis this year?

Once they have a crisis to deal with, politicians will start to look more seriously and more quickly, for the most effective solutions’.

The Psychology of Not Giving Up

When I got sent a link to Schiermeier’s article in Nature I forwarded it to a friend who is a long-time climate campaigner in Greenpeace.  She wrote back:Thanks for that – good work!  Just wonder how we stop people switching off when they finally get how serious it is’.  Which is of course a very good point.

It seems to me that there are two things campaigns and advocates need to achieve, if an era of climate-change-polluted-weather is to motivate action to clean up the atmosphere rather than to ignore it or give up.  First, to fully desocialise fossil fuels, and second, to give meaning to climate-attribution of weather events in terms of the difference we could make.

  • Desocialisation of Fossil Fuels

We need to desocialise fossil fuels so it becomes shameful to use them.  The same goes for other climate change pollution of course but fossil fuels are the most egregious factor.

This should not be done by universalist ethical criticism (Political Correctness which can lead to values polarisation) but is best founded on the one hand, in appeals to morality, to honour, duty, family and Jonathan Haidt’s six moral ‘modules’ or ‘foundations’. (Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression).  These resonate most strongly with the GD/ Settler Values Modes discussed earlier, which is where the greatest work needs to be done.    The Pope is an example of a moral authority heading in the right direction.

The Save Kansas Project reported in the New York Times in 2010

Plus on the other hand, it needs to be founded in social proof: which means qualitatively and quantitatively amplifying the signal that living ‘carbon free’ is right and normal.  The Save Kansas project did this nearly a decade ago: a predominantly Settler community took to building wind farms, side-stepping their existing climate-scepticism, and finding justification in a sense of community benefit and loyalty, and freedom from reliance on foreign oil.  Much more effort should go into making the transition from fossil fuels visible, obvious and socially approved of, and (especially for Prospectors) a positive signal of success and prosperity.

Innovative politicians and campaigners should also make the right to be able to live a climate-blameless life (accessible, affordable etc) into a political and corporate issue. Demanding politicians and corporates make this possible, is a key step in driving out fossil fuels.  We need politicians to compete to get rid of fossil fuels, not form a consensus that it should be done and then give it little priority.

A social norm is defined not just by broad acceptance but by the social sanction that follows when it is broken.  Those cheating, betraying, degrading or subverting our societies and children’s future need to be held to account.  Campaign NGOs might think about how they can help organise or maybe more likely catalyse powerful and directed expressions of social disapproval against wanton climate pollution, and moral appeals to transgressors to change their ways.   Remember that every time you hear a spokesperson or ‘expert’ trundled out in the media who says “everyone” is a bit to blame for climate change, their agenda is usually to avoid a focus on those who are a very great deal to blame.

Nobody likes being blamed.  Living ‘carbon free’ or being part of the disapproval, enables people to exempt themselves from blame.  This in turn makes it possible to hear about climate change driving dangerous and bad weather, and be able to accept and relay that news, without feeling the need to stifle or deny it.

For something which has been ‘normal’, such as using oil, gas or coal, getting there requires plenty of step-by-step disapproval: think of smoking (see Campaign Strategy Newsletter 26).

  • Give Positive Meaning To Events

We need to relate news of weather events attributed to climate change (bad news) to the difference we could make to extreme weather and impacts if we cut out carbon pollution ie fossil fuels (good news). Put the difference in terms of weather: eg it would cut the excess of such extreme floods by x%.

This is what PR people sometimes call a negative-positive story.  We give a sense of agency, the difference we could make, and avoidability, not despondency and despair.  This also feeds the scandal equation: if a disaster is avoidable then it is scandalous, and someone is to blame.

Both of these steps enable people to avoid cognitive dissonance on hearing that their weather is being pollution-driven.  They give people something positive to say when a disastrous impact occurs: enabling disapproval of others who are to blame, and equipping them with a way to express the solution.


Friederike Otto is not the only scientist working in this field but she has done the world a favour.  Campaigners should seize the opportunity she has created.

The heatwave has also brought climate change and weather together in popular perception.  On 25 July, two days before Otto’s report and five days before Steinmeier’s article in Nature, Britain’s most popular daily newspaper The Sun  had splashed a global temperature map across it’s front page, with the headline ‘The World’s on Fire’.

The Sun 25 July tweeted by Mark Campanale @CampanaleMark  https://twitter.com/CampanaleMark

Veteran environmental journalist Mike McCarthy spotted it at his local news-stand and wrote in The Guardian a week later, “I nearly choked on my KitKat* when I read that”.  This is because the Murdoch-owned Sun has long been regarded as a firm part of the ‘climate sceptic’ tendency, so the coverage in The Sun was, as Mike said, a ‘historic shift’.

McCarthy’s article was headed  ‘Was this the heatwave that finally ended climate denial?’  Probably not but the media will be cooling on climate denial, and Otto’s work makes that end a whole lot more possible.

(*For non-UK readers: KitKat is a chocolate bar brand owned by Nestle and popular in Britain).


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Apple: A Genius Way To Treat Customers

Shop containing a Genius Bar – this wasn’t the one

(This story is four years old.  I just never got round to publishing it but it’s a Friday).

A few nights ago I was working at my PC when my 15 year old daughter came into the office and waved her new iphone at me.  The charger cable was slightly twisted and it looked like a nematode worm with a rupture.  It definitely wasn’t working.  It was 9 pm at night, and we were due to leave to get on a train so she could make a long journey, early next morning.

She was distraught that she might not have a working phone with her.  I tried to argue that seeing as I would accompany her to the train, and a friend would meet her off it, the need to have a phone for the time in between, was minimal, especially seeing as trains very rarely strayed from their intended course.  All, of course, to no avail …

So the next step was to see if we could fix it.  A brief Google search showed lots of images of exactly the same problem.  There were also dozens of discussion threads with comments along the lines of “this is the sixth ‘lightning’ cable I’ve had to buy – Apple knows about this problem, why doesn’t it fix it ?”.    And there were videos explaining how you could cut the cable, find the break, and reconnect the wires.  That at least might enable us to recharge it, allowing her to remain ‘connected’ while she got to a shop to buy a new cable.  A lot of fiddling about ensued and by midnight, it half-worked but not well enough.  So there was nothing for it but to change our plans to visit an Apple Store an hour away, first-thing in the morning.

Having read that Apple sometimes simply agreed to exchange the cables, knowing that they were made fault-prone  (ie ridiculously fragile considering their function), and that sometimes this simply involved showing the box, we took the phone, box, evidence of purchase (it was only a month old), and mangled cable.  All we wanted was a new cable.

We found the store and walked in.  I’ve since read that someone should have been waiting at the door to explain to first-time visitors that the apparently random assembly of people in coloured tee-shirts, no visible counters and softly milling customers, all had a hidden purpose.  But nobody did.  Quite a  lot of the Apple employees didn’t appear to be talking to any customers but they were all busy, mostly talking to each other in a motivational sort of way.

I spotted one slightly older, and larger looking Apple person standing at the back of the store on his own.  He gazed authoritatively across the room and was apparently doing no more than flexing his muscles or maybe some sort of secret jaw Pilates.  We went over to him and managed to get his attention by standing quite close until he stopped talking on his earpiece phone, which explained the jaw movements.

I tried to explain what we wanted.  He cut me off half way through the first sentence.   “Appointment ?” he snapped imperiously from behind his immaculately groomed half-beard, giving us a disdainful look.  “Sorry ?” I responded, not knowing that this shop required appointments.  Indeed not realising that despite being in a large Shopping Mall and full of stuff apparently for sale, it wasn’t really a shop at all, or didn’t want to think so.

“You need an appointment – join that queue”.  He indicated a random looking queue in the middle of the ‘shop’, where people were lining up to talk to a young man in long gingham shorts who was do something with an i-pad.  Now I’d got my eye-in, things started to become clearer.  There were people quietly waiting everywhere, many filling out personal details on screens, or answering questions so that apps or some other thing could do something online that might solve some invisible problem.

I tried to think what the scene reminded me of.  The patient, often hopeless looking visitors, the positive uniformed employees, the sense that the latter were very in charge by being ‘helpful’ .. it wasn’t ‘retail’ or ‘service’ it was more like a gathering to follow the script of some invisible Authority.

The Ministry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil perhaps ?   Those old black and white photos of Muskovites queuing with optimism to buy something, anything, in Soviet era GUM stores ?  Or, what I’ve heard Indian tax offices or railway stations used to be like ?

The man in Gingham shorts looked like he had been specially selected for the most stressful job in the ‘shop’ because he was tall but quiet, stooped and unchallenging.  His eyes rarely lifted from the screen.  He had an expression like a mournful squirrel looking for lost nuts on a slow moving computer game.  He reminded me of one of the wizards from Harry Potter, gamefully trying to engage with the ways of Muggles, never giving up, never quite connecting but not noticing it either.

By now we’d been there about ten or fifteen minutes.  No long but really long enough to buy a cable if we had to, or rather had had the opportunity.  In front of us was a 30-something mother with her young daughter tugging at her.  Her phone wouldn’t charge.  Why couldn’t she see someone now ?  No she couldn’t come back then as she worked shifts in a hospital and couldn’t take time off work.  No she lived too far away, she had to get a bus.  She’d already taken time off to come here, and so on.  I tried not to listen.   You could hear the despair in her voice.  Beaten by her need to have the phone working, in the end she accepted what sounded like a distant appointment and left.

Did we have an appointment ?  No.  He would make us one, with Phil (not his name I think) on the table right over here, who was “doing cable swaps today”.  I guess the words ‘broken’ or ‘faulty’ or ‘failed’ are scripted out in the Apple training.  “Doing cable swaps” sounded like something you didn’t realise you wanted but having been introduced to it on an office bonding trip, might quite enjoy, a bit like a free zip wire experience in an adventure park.  The appointment was for about three minutes time.

Having given my name, I was invited to sit on a special chair, possibly to increase the sense of control, possibly to make me feel like a Superhero which is apparently the Apple customer strategy.  Or maybe just to tidy things up a bit.

Our Genius Phil turned to us next.  First a check with the appointment on his device, to make sure the handover had gone to plan.  Ah. He diagnosed the problem immediately.  Our cable was broken.  Indeed it was.  Severed in fact.  No longer connected to the bit that went in the phone.

“That means it is recorded as damaged” he explained (or words to that effect), tapping his screen.  We agreed.  It was indeed damaged because we’d tried to repair it.  Before that it was broken.  That had invalidated the guarantee.  We were not surprised.   The Genius said nothing to suggest that we had been stupid enough to try operating on a fully functioning power cable but sensibly left the possibility open.

Could we buy one ?  Was that possible (or would it require an other appointment,  possibly an email of absolution from the Vatican or Palo Alto ?)  He’d fix us up with help from Jeb (standing about one metre away).

We left the table and entered what I now realise was the Sales Zone.  Was this another appointment ?  Jeb was all smiles.  After a quick check to enter my email into his device (something about having a longer guarantee), we bought the Lightning-to-USB cable for £15, making a mental note to maybe get its next replacement from a company like Belkin.

It seemed we were free to go.  The whole thing had only taken about 25 minutes.  We had a brief look at a new case for the iphone but they were about £35 and my daughter advised that she could get a cheaper one from a supermarket.  We got one for £10 in Sainsburys.

No Tea

Yeas ago a frustrated advertising executive charged with improving the image of the nationalised British Rail, famously invited his clients, who were more concerned with relationships with the Trade Unions and ‘running the railway’ than they were with passengers, to his offices.  They were made to wait.  Invited to sit on uncomfortable furniture.   Given cold tea in chipped cups.  He made his point though I don’t remember what happened next.

Apple isn’t like that of course.  There’s no tea for a start.  The staff are full of Appleness, in a preppy (this is England) pseudo American sort of way, hinting at time spent in the ‘States or wishing to be closer to Cupertino.  “He wasn’t American was he ?” my daughter asked me, doubtful about the strange accent of our Genius.  No but he clearly wanted to give the impression that he might be.  Maybe to himself.

Indeed Apple is more like GUM than BR.  Faced with no choice but the unthinkable risks of attempting defection, staff and customers collude in telling themselves that they are having the best of possible experiences.  Read any of the many vituperative exchanges that break out online when an Apple customer dares to question The Product, and you can feel the power of the Brand, even through a screen.    Believers descend on those who have strayed and smother them like antibodies on an aberrant antigen.  Apple doesn’t have to organise it, hope does it for them, hope that the dream will (one day) be matched by the reality.  Who cares about a badly designed cable and its costly replacement when the Bigger Picture draws us towards the horizon ?

There’s lots of online debate about Genius Bars.  One Apple Antibody points out that although it’s not obvious to the un-initiated, they are mainly for tech-support unmatched by other IT retailers.  You wouldn’t expect to see a doctor without an appointment, so why expect to see a Genius without one ?  But what if you only wanted to buy a plaster ? Would you expect to have to make an appoitnment to visit the pharmacy (= Drug Store) ?  And what if it’s an emergency doctor you need ?  Apple it seems, doesn’t do urgent just because it is.

And if the tech is so great, how come it needs so much ‘support’ ?  But those are questions only asked by non-believers.   Hands up.  I used to have a Mac.  Several in fact. I wrote a book on the first, a 1980s musuem piece still in my loft.  All went well until it went “boing” and crashed, taking the book with it. I had to write it all again and you know what ?  It was better the second time.  That’s the mac genius I guess.

Then I went to work in an organisation that only used PCs and after a short struggle with IT, capitulated.  I said goodbye to my much loved little Powerbook (grey, lumpy).   Before that I used to run a media charity and Mac (Apple) actually gave us a lot of (then even more expensive) computers.  Media folk visited just to look at them.  I remember that in true eccentric Apple style they arrived unannounced and were almost left outside in boxes, on a London pavement.  Later they were properly stolen from our offices by a gang robbing to order.

Real Genius

So decades later, am I just a grumpy old apostate, out of step with the Genii ?  Is there really anything awry with the Genius Bar experience ?   My fifteen year old seemed to think so.  “They aren’t geniuses, they’re just hipsters” said my daughter.  “They are not even proper geeks, they’re just pretending to be”.   Perhaps that’s it.  It has an authenticity deficit.

There’s a little electrical shop on Tottenham Court Road* in London resembling something out of Bladerunner.  It’s one of several in the street run and owned by a fraternity (all men, and it seems, many related) of British-Asians who appear to be actual wizards, able to do almost anything electrical, incredibly quickly.  These shops sell and fix dozens and brands and do anything from installing components to unblocking phones.  My phone (a cheap blackberry) developed a fault a while ago and as I was walking past, I took it in.  Within about one minute they had prized it to bits, diagnosed the problem and giving me the SIM card, suggested I get a cup of tea and come back in five minutes.  I did, and it was fixed.  I’m not sure how they did it but I’d call that magical.  Real genii, it seems, don’t need appointments.

(* For non UK readers that’s the road in where the café scene takes place in the movie Deathly Hallows).

My old mended Mac, recently rescued from the loft in order to amuse young visitors.  We tried plugging it in.  A lot of smoke emerged from the back.  It smelt strangely organic: a mouse nest maybe?.  Then with a loud ping and a small flash, it finally died for a second time.  Electrowaste I guess.


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UK: Most People Say Supermarkets Should Stop Selling Drinks in Plastic Bottles

77.2% of people surveyed in the UK agree that ‘supermarkets should stop selling drinks in plastic bottles’.  32.8% agreed ‘strongly’ when given six options (strongly/ moderately/ slightly, agree or disagree) in a survey of 1001 people fielded for CDSM (Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing) in February.  (The same survey also asked about a phase-out of plastic except for essential uses: 84% agreed, 39% ‘strongly’ so).

‘Supermarkets should stop selling drinks in plastic bottles’


The survey also segmented results by Motivational Values

At a Maslow Group level (Settlers, Prospectors, Pioneers), the Pioneers were significantly (16% index) more likely than the population average to ‘strongly agree’, which is a skew typical of a ‘breaking issue’ and one where campaigns are already being run (against ‘Single Use Plastic’ of which plastic bottles are one of the most obvious uses).  However there is an across-the-board preference among all three main values groups to support a ban.   Pioneers are the group with highest self-agency and most likely to first adopt new behaviours such as giving up single-use plastic bottles in favour of other options such as refillables.

At the more detailed Values Modes (VM) level, the only two VM’s over-indexing on a ‘strongly’ option are the (TX) Transcender Pioneers, the ‘leading edge’ VM in terms of initiating change on ‘strongly agree’, and the (GD) Golden Dreamers on strongly disagree’.  But even most GDs ‘agree’ and there are vastly more strongly agees overall (32.8%) than strongly disagrees (5%).

Males and Females

As with the phase-out question there was a significant skew to females being more supportive of a ban, although overall both sexes are in favour of supermarkets stopping selling drinks in plastic bottles.


There is some class difference with ABs most keen on a ban and Ds least enthusiastic but overall all social classes support supermarkets ending sales of drinks in plastic bottles.


The most marked differences are between age groups:

Older people dominate the ‘strongly’ agree option.  52% of the over 65s strongly agree whereas only 16% of the 21-24 year olds do so.  I haven’t seen age related data for purchase of drinks in plastic bottles but it seems likely that this difference reflects consumer behaviour.

Above: age profile of the Strongly Agree option

On the other hand it would be wrong to think that most young people oppose ending supermarket sales of such drinks bottles: a majority of all age classes err to agreeing:

A ban on supermarket sales of drinks in plastic bottles, voluntary or otherwise, looks as if it would have wide and deep public support.


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In UK, 84% Say ‘Phase-Out Plastic: Essential Uses Only’

An overwhelming majority of the UK public wants to see plastic phased out except for essential uses, according to a survey of over 1000 people reported here.  83.9% agreed that ‘Because of the pollution/harm it causes, plastic should be phased out except for essential uses’ in a nationally representative survey fielded for CDSM (Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing) in February.  39% agreed ‘strongly’.

Public appetite to see the back of plastic follows huge concern at the impacts of plastic pollution revealed in David Attenborough’s top-ranking BBC series Blue Planet 2, and revelations about the penetration of of microplastic fragments into food, water, wildlife and the environment.  As argued in a previous blog, a policy of phase-out while allowing only essential uses (such as medical and safety-critical applications if there is no alternative),  would match the emergency scale and scope of the problem in a similar way to the successful Montreal Protocol model, used to curb ozone-destroying CFCs.

Experts have also pointed out that unlike for some other substances, currently feasible plastic recycling cannot be truly closed-loop so it only delays, and does not stop pollution of the environment.  Consequently it only makes environmental sense in the context of a production phase-out.

The survey shows that the public is way ahead of the UK Government which has so far only proposed ‘working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042‘.

Unlike on numerous other environmental issues in Britain, values groups are pretty much united in backing a phase out of plastic:

Coloured indexes show significant values differences (warm colours indicate over indexes  on a response taking into account the size of the values group in the population).  Although Pioneers over index by 12% compared to the population average on ‘strongly agree’ and ‘moderately agree’, these are slight effects given the overwhelming ‘vote’ to agree that plastic should go, with essential use exceptions.

In campaign or policy terms this means that the subject is already ‘normed’, and public backing is likely to be strong and ‘across the board’.

The most marked difference concerns age, and here it is mainly just in strength of concern.  There is no sign of significant opposition:

The only significant trend is in older people most opting to ‘strongly agree’. 21-34 year olds over index amongst the ‘moderately disagrees’ but large majorities of all age groups ‘agree’.

Despite age differences, a majority in all age classes ‘agree’ with a phase out with essential uses.    On a purely demographic basis, the skew to older voters agreeing more strongly may concern Britain’s Conservative Government as that matches the age-profile of its voters.

There is no class effect.  Wanting to phase out plastic is not a ‘class issue’ which perhaps explains why the Labour Party does not seem very interested in it?

As to sex, women are more strongly in favour of a phase out then men, while men are more represented in the small numbers opposed but overall both sexes are overwhelmingly in favour.  It’s not a gender-divisive issue.

At a detailed level (Values Modes) the values groups most likely to lead most campaigns on environmental issues, the Transcender and Concerned Ethical Pioneers, both over index on ‘strongly agree’ but overall the values differences are small.

A distribution like this means that there is no obvious potential for a phase out of plastic to become a divisive issue.  I’ve seen a lot of values surveys on high profile issues but it rare to see one with so much broad and deep agreement.  The fact that this may seem to have ’emerged from nowhere’ and does not have a legacy of contested campaigns behind it, may have something to do with that, along with sheer salience: plastic is ‘everywhere’.



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Experiences and Encounters with Humanity – In Memory of Jon Castle

In Memory of Jon Castle, 7 December 1950 – 12 January 2018 

Experiences and Encounters with Humanity

Jon Castle, captain of the rescue ship, briefing the crew for their next mission

By Judith Buethe

Can we achieve it? Will we be strong enough for our own project? Does it even make sense to put yet another rescue ship into action when politics will put all kinds of obstacles in our path? How long will it take until we have collected enough money in order to finance a ship and rescue people? The person opposite me – Jon Castle – does not give any direct answer to the questions posed, that deal with the foundation of our own organization shortly before.

“What is it all about?” he asks.

“Your ambition, your fear of failure? Or is it about the people you want to rescue from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea?“

I fall silent, thinking about his words.

Is it, after all, my own ego that it is about? I do not question the necessity of civil sea rescue. “You can doubt – you even ought to!” Jon says, and asks me to take a seat next to him.

We’ve made a good job! We’ve been there for the people who needed our help, we did our best. And we’ve experienced Europe’s disgrace out there. For us as a crew, the time has been very intensive. The missions I have taken part in were exhausting. Certainly one cannot judge the current political development. But should it keep you from going on or should it encourage you? That’s the crucial question you should be asking yourself!”

People rescued the day following an incident with the Libyan coastguard

During the first rescue in October 2016

Couple who had been separated for seven months in Libya, reunited after rescue

A day when eight boats of migrants were encountered

Three year old boy and mother rescued after nine months in Libya

I think about the mission we were on together last year. As a volunteer I was lucky to be part of a crew of sixteen wonderful people among them Jon Castle, our captain. Tens of thousands of people were rescued by civil NGOs since the beginning of the catastrophe in the Mediterranean Sea. Where others look away, they see what is going on and get active for those who try to reach Europe in overcrowded rubber dinghy’s, in hope of a better future. According to official statistics of the IOM (Organization for Migration), since 2014 more than 15.000 people drowned in an attempt to flee across the Mediterranean. The estimated number of unreported cases is much higher. People who are not recovered dead are reported missing and hence are not included in the statistics.

You Mustn’t Give Up

“You mustn’t give up before you even tried. How will you know whether you would have been successful?” he cuts off my thoughts, squeezes my hand firmly and nods confidently. The scene of our first reunion is different – we exchanged Malta for the South of England, open sea for firm ground – the conversations, however, continue exactly where they stopped roughly twelve months earlier.

The spontaneity and arbitrariness of the events that overwhelmed us as a crew, the intensive experiences with which we were confronted, the emotional opposites were part of last year’s rescue mission. As human beings, it made us move closer together. In October 2016, when we worked together, we saw the misery and, still, we can hardly understand how many lives we have saved within two weeks’ time, how many bodies we recovered dead – others drowned before our eyes. In the course of time we were able to rescue 2.400 people and had to record 50 deaths. A good ratio? It is difficult to express a feeling in figures. With us were a captain and a team leader, both of whom held the group together, both addressed our individual concerns and feelings with heart and mind.

“Due to the extreme situation we were in, we were able to really get to know each other and to connect intensely – now there is a close bond between us all”, Jon turns his gaze away from me and watches a bird that discovered the bird-table in front of the window. He smiles. “Having met so many great and different people in all my years, this has touched me differently once more. The spirit was special because we worked together for these people. And this brings us back to the conversation we had on our last night in Malta: we humans are made to look after each other and work together.”

I am surprised that, after all this time, he recollects one of the many conversations I myself also remember well.

Jon Castle cleaning life jackets used in rescues

We talk about the current situation off the Libyan coast. I am angry because of the failure of the EU and, besides the good moments, frustrated by the lack of interest that we experience during our work for the organization. Jon interrupts me and offsets my excess of emotions with his objectivity – as far as I am concerned his unique characteristic in situations like this. “The situation as I see it is pretty muddled. I can understand that Italy is fed up with carrying the burden of the EU that works like a neoliberal capitalistic machine. There are people in Brussels who decide without any touch of humaneness, who have long lost their hearts and minds. The European Union is a great promise, but it isn’t an answer to serious topics like the refugee movement or the mass grave Mediterranean Sea.” His voice gets softer as he adds: “That’s why there are people like us, who understand that we can only function collectively and that things need to be tackled in order to change them.”

When we met on the bridge during rescue missions, our interaction was usually taciturn yet to the point. The clear dialogues were impressive – and pleasantly honest – which cannot be taken for granted, bearing in mind that Jon Castle, as our captain, was surrounded by constantly changing crews for several months, all of whom certainly keen on talking things through, just like we were. You notice quite soon how he steadily reflects thoughts, how important it is for him to question and understand what is going on. I quickly learned that he really listened and paid attention to the individual members of the crew – truly not a matter of course.

On the bridge during the last rescue

Back then we were talking about our lives outside the NGOs, our motives to go on search and rescue missions, his old crews and what he experienced, Libya and the part the EU plays in this construct. It was a heated debate – my counterpart genuinely furious. “Just recently I was reading about early British settlers in America”, he put down his tea next to him and looked at the people who held out exhaustedly on the outer deck since their rescue, waiting to be brought to a secure place. “Many white people went to live with the Native Americans at that time and they were accepted just like they were. They were given the opportunity to become part of the community and hence to lead a better life – without putting obstacles in their way!”

He apologized, left the bridge and turned to a young man from Nigeria who was amongst the people rescued and who apparently suffered from seasickness. Jon gave him some water, allocated a place to him with a view of the horizon and put his hand on the man’s shoulder – both were laughing together for a moment.

A couple of minutes later – Jon had returned to his place on the bridge – he continued the conversation: “It is crazy that the Native Americans of the time were much more open-minded than the Europeans of today, with their specially created image of solidarity and the community of values, are.”

Human, Loyal, Emotional and Idealistic

It was countless moments like this that had a lasting effect on me, as well as on many other young people over the past years. Human, loyal, emotional and idealistic. This can only be a small and reduced insight into his world – in which he allowed us a brief glimpse – a good world, if you ask me. Keep on shining!

22th January 2018

Photojournalist Judith Buethe remembers Jon Castle from their time spent on a civil search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya in 2016.

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Good News: Britain Has An Acute Plastics Crisis

Thanks to a waste-import ban by China, Britain has a window of opportunity to begin real progress on tackling the plastics crisis.  The same may apply to some other countries.

As the recycling industry and the UK media started pointing out around New Year, mountains of plastic waste will soon be piling up all over Britain, with nowhere to go.  ‘Waste meltdown’ said The Sun, ‘impending crisis’ wrote The Independent.

It seems to me that the best immediate response should be to simply stop selling plastic bottles.  Not a complete solution but a feasible and big step in the right direction – towards a phase out of non-essential uses of plastic.  (See more below).

It’s an acute political problem.  Politicians will seek a quick fix, and as being seen to act effectively will take precedence over anything else, so left to its own devices the UK Government(s) may well forgo the opportunity to do what is really needed, which is to start reducing the production of plastic pollution.

On a business-as-usual basis, the obvious ‘easy options’ are to burn the waste, and maybe fend-off concerns about pollution from incinerators by saying that this is what many other European countries do, or to find somewhere else to ‘export’ to, maybe in SE Asia or Africa.   Of course in theory those countries could say ‘no’ but there may be large financial inducements not to.  Most of it would then end up as pollution, as was happening in China.  Extract from Communications and Strategy Challenges Of The Plastics Issue (Dec 21 2017):

Isabel Hilton editor of China Dialogue told the BBC World Service ‘World Update’ on 5th December 2017 that “only ten percent” of the plastic waste ‘sent for recycling’ in China “is actually recyclable”, and  “the rest tends to get dumped in China, it finds its way into rivers, and eventually into the sea, and that has prompted the Chinese authorities to impose a ban on several varieties of plastic”.  Asked what this meant for countries exporting plastic waste to China, Hilton replied: “the rest of the world finally has to face up to its own problem”.

It’s a pretty reliable rule of campaigning that it’s hard to get much done about slow-developing problems, or ‘soft disasters’, and this one was a long time coming.  Big changes in direction tend to come about through disruptive events, often disasters and accidents.  Here’s an extract (p 183) from my book How To Win Campaigns: Communications for Change:

UK Environment Minister Michael Gove has been making waves through his sudden apparent conversion to greenery.  To the frustration of officials, in several Departments, he is known for liking to ‘think differently’.  Here then is  a Gove opportunity.  He’s backed deposit returns for plastic bottles but this is in a different league.  China’s decision to stop taking in much of Britain’s plastic waste and other ‘recyclate’ was signaled as long ago as July 2017 but it seems to have caught the Brexit-obssessed UK Government by surprise.  As to campaigners, they might wait years for an opportunity like this, and such opportunities are very hard to create, while this one has come along thanks to China.

These are the bare bone facts, from authoritative environmental intelligence magazine ENDS Report:

China has implemented its decision to ban the import of 24 kinds of solid wastes – a move which is stoking fears within the UK recycling industry.

The ban, which came into force on 1 January, covers eight categories of plastics waste, all unsorted mixed papers, 11 types of textile wastes not including clothing and four types of metal slag.

A further ban, set for April, will set new standards limiting all imported recycled materials to a maximum contamination level of 0.5%, a percentage that is seen as impossible to achieve across the board by many in the UK’s waste industry.

Around 70% of the UK’s mixed paper recyclates and 25% of plastic packaging are currently exported to China, according to WRAP, and the proposals have caused alarm within the UK waste industry.

The UK’s somewhat feeble plastics recycling capacity will choke on many thousands of tonnes of plastic, mostly packaging and mostly PET bottles, which now has no outlet.

Householders trying to ‘do the right thing’ and be ‘green’, may be dismayed to see mountains of plastic spilling out of depots run by the unfortunate Local Authorities tasked with collecting it and hitting recycling targets.  The recycling industry is furious. What may have seemed a long-term problem is fast becoming a very short term problem.

The UK can’t scale up its recycling capacity quickly but it does not need to, and should not anyway.  Instead it should start towards a phase-out, and the very top of the list, as numerous NGO campaigns have highlighted, is ‘single use plastic’, and at the top of that list in terms of scale of impact, avoid-ability, feasibility, and non-essential-ness, would be plastic bottles.

Nobody needs soft drinks or water in plastic bottles.  Supermarkets could clear their shelves of them like a product recall, and switch off a huge flow of plastic pollution.  Walking down the aisles of one local supermarket yesterday I noticed that many drinks now seem to be available in cans as well as in plastic bottles, and multipacks of those cans seem to be wrapped in cardboard.  So maybe the drinks industry has anticipated something like this?

The same product (top and middle) in plastic bottles and in cans

Britain also has more or less universal supply of excellent tap water, and thanks in no small part to campaigns, there are lots of stylish metal water bottles now available for those who may need to carry water around with them.  For the consumer, it would be an easy option, compared say, to avoiding plastic film wrapping on food, although as Andy Clarke, the ex-boss of ASDA told The Guardian last October, that packaging will have to go too.

“Regardless of how much is invested in Britain’s recycling infrastructure, virtually all plastic packaging will reach landfill or the bottom of the ocean sooner or later. Once there, it will remain on the earth for centuries.

“It is vital that the UK packaging industry and supermarkets work together to turn off the tap.”               Andy Clarke

Clarke is right.  ‘Recycling’ can’t resolve the plastics crisis, for reasons of ‘leakage’ into the environment and the effects of ‘downcycling’, such as turning PET from bottles into polyester fleeces or carpets which then in turn break up to create microplastics.  It can only be useful in the context of an active phase-out.  As scientist Roland Geyer has said, ‘in the long run, recycling reduces waste generation only if it reduces primary material production; otherwise, it merely delays it’. 

We need to get rid of plastic as a major use material.  Clearing the shelves of plastic bottles is a good place to start, and this ‘waste crisis’ is an opportunity too good to waste.

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Identity Factors and Values in Britain: A Survey

What defines us?  What makes up our ‘identity’?

As part of its large (3594 person) 2014 British Values Survey, CDSM (Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing) asked two ‘my identity’ questions, with 31 ‘facts’ offered as options important in forming identity.  The results are published for the first time in this post.

In one question Cultural Dynamics asked people to pick as many of the 31 ‘facts’ as they liked, and in the other, to select the three they found ‘most important’ (including a ‘none of these’ option).  Some charts of the results are presented below, and images of the full data sets can be downloaded here.

The 31 ‘fact’ options were:

My nationality (English, Welsh, etc); Being British; My county or city (Yorkshire, London, etc); My local area; Being a parent; Being European; My social class; Being the sex I am; My skin colour; My religion; My tastes; My occupation; My standard of living, possessions; My family history; My age, stage of life; My intelligence; My creative abilities; My emotions and feelings; My imagination and fantasy; My practical abilities; My political convictions; My educational achievements; My interests; My principles and values; My circle of friends; My income; My body, face, hair; The way I dress; The way I speak; My ethnic origins; None of these.

The survey also collected information to segment the results by Motivational Values (the three Maslow Groups of Settler, Prospector and Pioneer, and the 12 Values Modes within them), and by sex, age and class (Socio Economic Group).

Chris Rose, chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk   download this post as a pdf here

Above: 31 ‘identity’ factors used in its values-segmented 2014 survey by CDSM (www.cultdyn.co.uk).  [This graphic was not part of the survey!]

It hardly needs saying but the more important ‘identity factors’ play a big role in intuitive responses to attempts to communicate with audiences, providing reflexive ‘Track One’ answers to questions such as “is this about me?” or “does this person understand me and my life?”

Some Findings Which Might Interest Campaigners and the ‘Political Classes’

Taking the samples as a whole, the five most frequently chosen ‘facts’ when invited to ‘Choose all the facts you feel are important in your identity – who you feel you are’ were ‘my interests’ (1), ‘my principles and values’ (2), ‘my intelligence’ (3), ‘my nationality’ (meaning English, Welsh, Scottish) (4), and ‘My emotions and feelings (5).

The five most frequent when asked to ‘Choose the THREE facts that are MOST important to you’, were: ‘my principles and values’ (1), ‘being a parent’ (2), ‘my intelligence’ (3), ‘Being British (4), and ‘my emotions and feelings’ (5).

In some cases there are quite marked differences in the choices in relation to values, age, sex, or class (later), which may be relevant to audience targeting.  In other cases there are no such differences, meaning that these are potential options to reach ‘across divides’.

Overall, the two ways of asking people to chose between the options gave similar results (above).  The 13 most frequent choices are the same in both cases, although the order is slightly different.  (In most of this blog I focus on the ‘top three’ results as that question forces people to think about their response a bit more and so gives greater discrimination eg across values.  But in some cases users don’t need or want maximum discrimination but to see even weak effects.  Readers can find the full data here).

A number of options touched on factors frequently debated in the news and social media on identity grounds but many of these do not appear in the more frequent choices.

For example, despite the huge amount of media discussion about sexual identity, politics, and feminism, ‘being the sex I am’ came in (top three question format) at rank 21 (in 3.6% of the choices), ‘my political convictions’ ranked 25th (2.7%), and ‘my ethnic origins’ and ‘my skin colour’ were both included in less than 2% of the ‘top three’ selections.  (See table below).

I don’t know if this is encouraging or discouraging to campaigners and policy wonks who spend an awful lot of their professional or activist time (much on ‘Track Two’) on issues of gender or diversity but at least in terms of self-identity, this suggests that as a whole, the British do not often define themselves in these ways.  Nor do they often define themselves by ‘social class’, ranked 30th at 1.4%: one for Jeremy Corbyn to ponder on perhaps?

Bottom of the list came ‘being European’.  This survey was conducted in October/November 2014, after January 2013 when David Cameron announced there would be a referendum on EU membership but before the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was passed and before he announced the June 2016 referendum date, in February 2016.  It is possible that the massive subsequent pre-occupation with ‘Brexit’ may have raised the priority for ‘being European’ but it is very unlikely that it has changed the low rating for the importance of ‘political convictions’, which was also seen in previous versions of this survey.  People who spend a lot of time ‘in politics’ or watching politics and ‘issues’ (like me), tend to massively over-estimate the public interest in what they are doing or consider important.

In Britain quite a lot of people vote but very few put ‘my political convictions’ in the top three of their identity factors.  ‘Very political’ people are very different from most of the British population.

Values and Identity

Readers familiar with the Values Modes model will know that because it creates groups from how people think, by measuring hundreds of attitudes and beliefs, values groups are in effect already an identity mapping exercise, in that they show sets of correlated convictions about how the world ‘really is’.  So for example, people in a particular Maslow Group (Settler, Prospector or Pioneer), or within in a Values Mode, will soon detect whether or not other people are ‘like them’, and in situations where they can exercise free choice, often end up socialising with people in similar groups.

Here’s the 2014/5 British Values Map.  Settler is top right, Prospector left, Pioneer lower right.

This shows the 100 ‘Attributes’ which statistically most separate the different values groups.  Each can be plotted as a single ‘map’ but here they are shown (the dots) at their points of maximum ‘espousal’,  the point on the map where they are ‘strongest’.  Behind this map is a 1000×1000 grid of survey responses, in effect like combining the results of a thousand separate surveys.

Links to explanations of the Values Modes system and more of my posts on values can be found here, and at CDSM’s website (including an alphabetical description of the Attributes).   See also my book What Makes People Tick, The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers.

Understanding motivational values, which along with framing and heuristics are major drivers of everyday behaviour on ‘Track One’, gives a much greater insight into social dynamics in which identity plays a part, including politics and events like ‘Brexit’.  (See analysis of how that came about here and the insights of before and after referendum values and voting surveys here).

This ‘identity’ survey overtly asks people to think about their identity and offered 31 options, some of which are also used in other identity surveys, allowing for some comparison.

Here’s the overall response table with values skews shown to the right.

The coloured boxes indicate significant positive or negative associations at 95%, 97.5% or 99% levels. Warm colours indicate positive association, in other words that Maslow Group (Pioneer, Prospector or Settler) ‘over indexed’ on selecting that option, compared to the population average response.  So for instance Pioneers indexed 127 on ‘my principles’ and values (option ranked 1), 27% more than the population average, and although a lot of Settlers and Prospectors also ‘ticked that box’, Prospectors were 16% less likely to do this than as if ‘by chance’ (index 84), and Settlers (88) were 12% less likely.  In contrast, there is no significant difference in values terms in the case of ‘my emotions and feelings’ (ranked 5).  The ‘index’ takes into account the different sizes of the three Maslow Groups in the population (this survey found 34.5% Pioneers nationally, 36.9% Prospectors and 28.6% Settlers), as well as the response to the option.

Eight options (below) showed no values difference in responses at the Maslow Group level.  Of these ‘my emotions and feelings’ and ‘my circle of friends’ are popular responses, so if you started a conversation or created a proposition assuming these were important to identity on either of these bases, in Britain it would be very unlikely to trigger any values-inspired rejection.

Most of the responses are differentiated by values, and the coloured ‘skews’ are a  quick way of identifying these.  However looking at the skews alone can mislead us into overlooking the fact that substantial numbers of people from ‘under indexed’ or ‘average’ Groups also chose that option.  Here are the raw numbers of respondents from the 10 options most selected as in my ‘top three’.

This shows that the highest frequency of ‘my principles and values’ is down to support from all three Groups but with disproportionate support from the Pioneers.  What is meant by ‘my principles and values’ will be very different for each group, although with some things in common between pairs of groups.  Any conversation about ‘principles and values’ across Groups could start to diverge almost immediately.

The second most popular choice was ‘being a parent’ and this is also the most evenly matched between the Groups, although it shows as ‘skewed’ to Settler as it is chosen by a disproportionately large number of Settlers.  ‘Being a parent’ is more founded in common experiences than ‘principles and values’, and so offering a lot more potential ‘common ground’ and scope for agreement.  (Eventually it also would start to diverge, for example on the nature and objectives of ‘good parenting’ and the ‘right’ structure of ‘families’).    This is why I often advise communicators in Britain, that good starting point for communications deliberately or by default aimed at a mixture of values groups (eg “the public”), stands a better chance of ‘getting a hearing’ if it framed as about children or parents/families (cf for instance just ‘nature’ – see this example of the effect).

Testing by CDSM has not shown any difference in intelligence based for instance on IQ, between values groups.  There are differences in educational level, and although this is a hotly contested topic, it is very likely that this is in part due to social advantages (eg the influence of richer parents), and the effect of the educational process in enabling values-transitions, especially from Prospector to Pioneer (achieving esteem and self esteem).

So when Pioneers over-index on ‘my intelligence’ as an identity factor it is probably not because they are more intelligent but because they value ideas (for instance more than things) and have an unmet need to explore new ideas and connections.  From this, they may conclude that ‘intelligence’ is important.  It has to be said that one of the more annoying tendencies of Pioneers is to attribute their convictions to having made ‘the right’ (meaning clever) choices, and to have a lot of ‘facts’ and arguments available (as they spend time collecting them) to back these up.  This is why the other Maslow Groups often refer to them as ‘smug’.

By the same token, although ‘my interests’ was chosen by a lot of people from all three Groups, the Pioneers over-indexed, and they do tend to have more different ‘interests’ and greater active curiosity.  Similar reasons lead Pioneers to score ‘my creative abilities’ highly (whether or not other people think them very creative, it’s often important to them).

Two stand-out Settler over-indexes are on ‘my nationality and ‘being British’.  This topic became hugely discussed as a result of the ‘Brexit vote’, and at its simplest, the Settler emphasis on national identity is driven by an unmet need for safety, security and belonging.  See for example the discussion on perceived threats to cultural identity from immigration, in The Values Story of the Brexit Split (Part 1) [see slides 44-60 including on the authoritarian response to cultural change].

Brexit split the values map across the middle along a pre-exiting fault-line over ‘Europe’:

(above: attitude to EU, 2015; below, the Leave vote)

Identity was not the only factor but it was an important one.  It is interesting that nationality rather than geography and ‘place’ produces the higher results, across all values groups.  The option “my county or city, eg Yorkshire … London etc”  came in 17th when people were asked to pick the three most important factors (included by 4.2%), and ranked 19th when participants could select a many of the ‘facts’ as they wished (19.1%).   Likewise ‘my local area’ ranked 20th (at 3.6%) when people picked their ‘top three’ identity factors, and 16th (22%) in the unrestricted choice.

Writer and editor David Goodhart attracted a lot of ‘Brexit’ comment in 2017 when he proposed in his book The Road to Somewhere that the British now divide into ‘tribes’ of people based on affinity (or lack of it) to place or local cultural continuity: the ‘Anywhere’s’ (liberal, about 25%), ‘Somewheres’ (the reverse and ‘about half’ the population) with a strong connection to place, and ‘Inbetweeners’ (those ‘in between’ – about 25%).  This CDSM survey specifically asks about ‘my local county or city’ and ‘my local area’ and neither produce any sort of result suggesting this is a defining identity factor for 50% of the population.

Geographic determinism is a popular option for political pundits in Britain and the US, perhaps because they are two of the few countries with a first-past-the-post electoral system based on geographic constituencies.  There was much reference to ‘Northern Towns’, ‘forgotten’ seaside towns and ‘Metropolitian Elites’ and ‘Rustbelts’ in media explanations of the EU Referendum result but the ‘locational’ explanations may owe more to half-remembered school geography books fished from journalistic Pensieves, than any analysis which stands up to scrutiny.

Values analysis produces a better explanation but the social geography of values is far too fine-grained to produce such convenient handles as Anywheres v. Somewheres.  It is likely for example, that Settler (and Golden Dreamer and Happy Follower Prospector) attachment to people-and-places-I-know,  is real but subsumed in some of the identity response captured in ‘my circle of friends’ and ‘my emotions and feelings’ but that’s not just about geography and where you are ‘from’.  Nor, in our mobile and online-connected world, are any of the values groups now confined to making social connections through face to face contact within ‘their local area’.

The different choices of three most important identity factors made within the main values groups may be of use to anyone thinking about how to engage these groups (above).   ‘My principles and values’ is a great place to start but requires a lot more insight than ‘being a parent’, while ‘Being British’ is a stronger factor for Settlers and Prospectors than Pioneers.

‘My body, face, hair’ creeps in at 10 for Prospectors: about appearance and looking good.  ‘My age, stage of life’ appears at 10 for Settlers, largely due to the cohort effect (it is a more frequent choice for older people and Britain’s current Settler population skew older).

Differences by Values Mode

The full table of twelve Values Modes against 31 options is too big to reproduce here (you can download it here) but below is a table of the ten most popular choices, extracted from the ‘pick three’ responses (showing only the indexes or skews).

In this table I have transposed the Values Modes into their ‘transition order’, from RT (Roots) to TX (Transcender).   CDSM research suggests that individuals ‘transition’ from one Values Mode to the next, if they do, along this sequence:

The names given to each Values Mode by CDSM are shown below, together with a schematic version of the ‘Values Map’, also showing the priority need of each of the ‘outside edge’ Values Modes:

values map

This table shows that three of the four Settler Values Modes (VMs) over index on ‘being a parent’, and three of the four Pioneer VMs on ‘my principles and values’.  The ‘outside edge’ VMs (see schematic map) are typically those with strongest values identities, and these VMs tend to define and dominate values dynamics (eg change or resistance to it).  The TX Transcender VM is frequently wildly over-represented amongst leaders of organisations, particularly those concerned with ‘issues’.  (You can take the values questionnaire and find your own Maslow Group and Values Mode from the CDSM website survey tool here).

TXs over-index on ‘my principles and values’, ‘my intelligence’, ‘my interests’ and ‘my creative abilities’ as identity factors, and strongly under index on ‘being British’ and ‘my nationality’, and slightly less so on ‘being a parent’.  On the other side of the Values Map, the ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Certainty First’ Settlers show almost the exact opposite skews.  This is the ‘Power v Universalism’ axis discussed in several previous blogs including on ‘Brexit’.

A key ‘swing’ group is the NP Now People Prospectors, who can act as a bridge for the spread of new attitudes and behaviours from Pioneers (taking them from the TX) and popularising them with other Prospectors.  It is notable that the identity factor ‘being British’ shows over indexes in all Settler and the first two (GD and HF) Prospector VMs but is then under strongly indexed in NP and TP (the similar Tomorrow People). This is the values inflexion across the middle of the values map, which was present in the EU/Brexit divide.  But it’s not the case for ‘my nationality’, being English, Welsh or Scottish, on which only the Settler VMs are over indexed.  I don’t have a good explanation for why this is.

It may be that the clarity of national identity – a binary in/out, presence or absence quality – acts as a simplifier, giving symbolic certainty which is satisfying to Settlers, whereas ‘my local area’ or ‘my county’ or town/city is harder to see in this way because everyday experience shows it to be more complex and less definitive.  I also wonder if ‘British-ness’ exists in juxtaposition to an outside influence (eg supposedly, as in the Boris Johnson caricatures, the EU).  But to investigate this would require qualitative research.

Like the Pioneers, the NPs also over index on ‘my intelligence’.

For more on the differences between individual VMs, follow the links on the home page at www.campaignstrategy.org

Sex Differences

Above: the overall results in rank order with indexes showing the significant male/female differences.  About two thirds show sex differences.

Identity factors chosen by significantly more males:

The strongest over-index is on ‘my political convictions’.  Although this is a tiny group, it is a very male-dominated choice.  The next strongest skew is on ‘my county or city’.  I can’t help wondering if this might have something to do with affinity to sports clubs.

Identity factors chosen by significantly more females:

The biggest difference is on ‘my body, face hair’ (89 points), followed by ‘being a parent’.   The latter is most relevant in ‘targeting’ terms as this is a much more popular choice.  Together the top three probably illustrate the political or campaign significance of female dominated blogs, websites and media channels covering ‘classic’ “women’s issues”.

‘My principles and values’ is close to gender neutral, and probably is so amongst Pioneers.

Identity factors chosen equally by females and males:

Age and Identity Choices

In this case I have used the ‘chose as many as you like’ question and shown only those with clear age effects.

Those identity factors more important to older people:

The clearest age effect is ‘being a parent’, which also looks like an experience-related effect.  In other words’ it’s caused by the real-life experience of having children and being a parent.  It is also cited more frequently as people age.

Nationality, being British and ‘my local area’ all show similar age-related increases in frequency, only part of which can be down to the Settler-older correlation.

‘My political convictions’ and ‘My principles and values’ would be interesting to explore with qualitative research.  CDSM has made many studies of political affinity and voting in the UK, and shown strong values effects which tend to be quite consistent or slowly changing with respect to Labour and the Conservatives and Settlers and Pioneers but much more labile in relation to Prospectors (typically swing voters).  The values profile of UKIP, the Greens and the LibDems is much narrower and more static.  It seems this is not the same as ‘political convictions’ as an identity factor.

Those identity factors more important to younger people:

Fewer identity factors are skewed to the young.   As with ‘being a parent’ it is tempting to see some of these as lifestyle pre-occupations.  For example the salience of ‘my occupation’ falls of a bit of a cliff at 34 just as ‘being a parent’ takes off.

Finally, ‘age and lifestage’ as an identity factor, in relation to age:

This shows a different pattern over-indexing at each end of the spectrum, perhaps because the effects of age when very young and when increasingly old, become things that ‘middle aged’ people rarely have to think about.

For other posts with analysis on age and values in Britain see here and here.

Class and Identity

Lastly, we can look at the relationship between ‘identity’ factor choices and ‘class’, which in Britain is conventionally measured by Socio-Economic Group, itself defined by occupation.

The table above shows results from the ‘pick your top three’ question along with skews of significance by Social Class.  (AB is ‘professional’, C1 ‘clerical/ supervisory’, C2 ‘skilled manual’, DE ‘unskilled’, ‘unemployed’ and ‘retired’; student here is coded as C1).

There are differences in the British population across values groups and SEG, although they are not strong or consistent enough to treat one as a substitute for the other:

(more recent survey data)

As discussed in Brexit Values Story Part 1 and Brexit Values Story Part 2.1, the broad correlation between approving or not of Europe and voting for Brexit or not, with class and values, is consistent between CDSM values surveys and others such as Lord Ashcroft’s survey.  This is obvious in the case of identity factors such as ‘Britishness’ and ‘nationality’ and probably hidden within the responses to ‘my principles and values’.

The over indexes on ‘my intelligence’ and ‘my interests’ amongst ABs are at least partly due to the auto-correlation with Pioneers and ABs.  The over indexes amongst ABs on ‘my standard of living, possessions’ and ‘my occupation’ are at least partly due to these also over-indexing with Prospectors (ie ‘successful’ people), who also over index on ‘my educational achievements’.

Acknowledgement: thanks to Les Higgins and Pat Dade of CDSM (pat@cultdyn.co.uk) for permission to use these data


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Communications and Strategy Challenges Of The Plastics Issue

Any campaigns taking on the plastic crisis face some significant communications and strategy challenges.  These include getting rid of the L-word, the visual ‘less is more’ problem (debris> microplastic), the communications legacy effect and potential motivational dead-ends of beach clean-ups, and the inability of increased ‘recycling’ to deliver a solution.

Advocates also need to persuade politicians to take an entirely new approach to plastic based on a production phase-out, temporary essential use exemptions, imposing responsibility ‘bonds’ or similar measures on allowed uses, and substitution rather than continued reliance on ‘recycling’.

Campaigners, scientists and politicians need first to signal that plastic is an inherently dangerous substance.  The plastics industry can be expected to fight, and starts with the advantage that it has already colonized ‘recycling’ and many ‘community’ activities, most notably on beach-cleans.

(Long blog: download as a pdf here)

Recap: this post follows four others which explored the rapidly breaking ‘issue’ of plastic pollution.  If you’ve looked at them, skip this bit.  If not, here’s a summary:

The first (September 27, 2017), A Beautiful if Evil Strategy, looked at the plastics industry strategy for avoiding controls on production, by framing plastic as litter and not ‘pollution’, and co-opting litter-picks, beach cleans and the goodwill they rely on.  It described the classic ‘Iron Eyes Cody’, Crying Indian advertising campaign as ‘the greatest communications dis-service ever done to nature’ and noted:  ‘The pure genius of this highly emotive campaign was that it bought a social licence for mass production of disposable packaging, by championing action to clean up the pollution it led to’.

It pointed out that ‘the exact same strategy still sustains the plastics industry’ and is today being used by groups like http://www.plasticseurope.org/ through projects such as https://www.marinelittersolutions.com/.  So successful is this misdirection and deception that scientists, politicians and many NGOs routinely use the “litter” frame without a second thought, even though the discovery of microplastic fragmentation means plastic pollution is quite unlike litter, and we are eating plastic pollution.

The second (November 16, 2017) Do Some Good and Shop Before Black Friday, delved further into microplastic, how its eaten by plankton and flows out of washing machines before draining into the sea, now that most of our clothes are made of synthetic plastic fibres (eg nylon, polyester, acrylic), which continually shed microfibres.  Visible plastic containers or fragments big enough to pick up are only a small part of the problem, meaning that beaches or anywhere else can’t really be “cleaned” without removing plastic microparticles and even nano-particles.

It featured the Guppy Friend fibre-trapping wash bag and other ‘end of pipe’ fixes which won’t cure the whole problem but may, like the catalytic converter for vehicles, help spur awareness as well as reducing emissions.  It proposed that Frans Timmermans and the European Commission could require manufacturers to put filters on all washing machines.

The third blog (December 7, 2017) offered a concept:  A Two-Track Tool for Issues Development and Campaign Design, which is applicable to any issue not just plastic.  It argues that Kahneman’s ‘System 1’ (unconscious intuitive) and ‘System 2’ (conscious, analytical) thinking are not simply choices for individuals (often involving instant substitution of System 1 to avoid the mentally arduous System 2) but our societies have developed whole social domains (eg science, economics, ‘disciplines’) specialised around System 2.  This leaves the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘general public’ to get on with ‘normal life’, very much relying on System 1, which means decision making based not on analysis but things like framing, heuristics and motivational values.  The consequences for issue development, campaigns and any attempt to ‘mainstream’ a concern, are substantial.

The fourth (December 11, 2017) Why We Suddenly Have a Plastics Crisis, traced the history of ‘the plastics issue’ in Track One and Two terms, from its fleeting appearance on Track One in 1970 (Thor Heyerdahl), through its long immersion in the research world of Track Two, until with Charles Moore’s ‘discovered’ microplastic pollution in the vast Pacific garbage patch in a Track One way, around 2000.  It shows that it was not a lack of knowledge of its hazards that kept plastic pollution from being recognized as a crisis but the effects of communications psychology, and the consequences of plastic being framed as ‘normal’, ‘beneficial’ and ‘essential’, even by scientists concerned to raise the alarm.

Subsequent pressure for action has come as much from scientists as NGOs or politicians, as they have completed analysis of the plastic pollution threat, from the most micro to macro levels.  Now at least in the UK, it’s on Track One.  Newspapers like the Daily Mail and TV programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2, are taking Track Two research evidence into the mainstream.

It argues that for Track Two policy-makers, in terms of ‘risk’, plastic pollution poses a ‘Pandora’s Box’ type problem, similar to Persistent Organic Pollutants, and in order to tackle the crisis, we must ‘rethink’ plastic:

‘if scientists governments, the UN, EU and campaign groups working against plastic pollution want to make rapid and effective progress, they have to stop using the ‘litter’ frame for plastic, and start thinking of it as inherently dangerous stuff, and acting and communicating accordingly.

Perhaps more challenging, the reality is that ‘recycling’ and conventional waste strategies are not only incapable of taking plastic out of circulation to the point where plastic pollution actually declines and stops, but they, like ‘litter’ framed beach cleans, have been heavily co-opted by the plastics industry, whose simple objective is to maintain the flow of plastic production’.

This blog picks up that thread and makes suggestions for strategies for dealing with the plastic pollution crisis.

 Communications and Strategy Challenges Of The Plastics Issue

Marine styrofoam from a fish box on the strandline.  Plastic pollution about to go off and spawn more pollution.

Dumping the L-Word

What’s the difference between Litter and Pollution?  Essentially that pollution is bad stuff, and litter is just untidiness.  It’s embedded in the litter frame, the set of mental rules that constitutes’ the frame’, that litter can be easily remedied by clearing it up.  This has long attracted politicians, for a number of reasons.

Mrs Thatcher arrives for her infamous litter-pick photo opp of March 1988.  Litter was collected from St James’s Park in London (man left) and then redistributed for Mrs Thatcher to be seen to pick up.  Thatcher was good at dodging calls to control pollution.  Litter was ok as it was a question of personal, not industrial-corporate responsibility.  A Guardian journalist reported: “This is not,” she insisted, “the fault of the government. It is the fault of the people who knowingly and thoughtlessly throw it down.” That tells you a lot about why the plastics industry likes dealing with ‘litter’.  

Categories matter, including whether or not something is a pollutant, and thus a ‘bad thing’.  During his 2000 campaign, G W Bush pledged to control emissions of carbon dioxide as a pollutant, alongside others such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides.   Once elected President, Bush reversed this commitment in March 2001.  Officials said it had been a ‘mistake’.

‘A White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Mr. Bush had made his decision in consultation with his cabinet.

”The president is following through on his commitment to a multipollutant strategy that will significantly reduce pollutants,” Mr. McClellan said. ”CO2 should not have been included as a pollutant during the campaign. It was a mistake.”’

(New York Times, 14 March 2001).

In the US, acknowledging that CO2 was a pollutant had important legal implications as it potentially led to an obligation to control it under clean air legislation.  Two weeks later, Bush walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.  He’d been fixed by the oil, coal and gas industries.  The rest is history: American foot-dragging over CO2 pollution has undoubtedly consigned the world to far worse climate change.

We are now at a similar point with plastic, although campaigners should not get hung up on a legalistic route for bringing about change.

Legal specifics aside, the more important point is that pollution is bad.  There is no good amount of pollution, only less is better, and none is best.  The word has many derivations including cultural and moral defilement as well as over-flowing into a wrong place but it’s never a good thing.

Seeing as CO2 is invisible, the “litter strategy” was not available as a diversion for the fossil fuel lobby but for the users of oil making plastic, it is, and every time scientists, NGOs, politicians or advocates of less-plastic-in-the-environment use the ‘L-word’, they are helping sustain the problem, not cure it.   As George Lakoff has pointed out, you cannot argue with a frame from inside it: doing so only makes it stronger.   So when plastic escaped being framed as pollution in the popular mind, it had long-lasting consequences.

How the ‘litter’ frame works:

When plastic (on the beach) is framed as ‘litter’, it is a question of personal responsibility, not corporate, or political, consumer or retail or even social responsibility.  To drop is bad, to pick up is good.  Down is bad, up is good (as it so often is in frames, heaven hell etc).  The problem action is elegantly reversible into the solution.  It’s binary, either/or, tangible, visualisable, bounded, human-scale, resolvable and discrete: all factors which make it an appealing causal story.  Applied to the story of a beach clean, the challenge is overcome, beauty is restored, good people prevail, the problem is solved, the arc of the story is completed.  

Any frame functions by its rules.  It’s a mental metaphor, usually triggered by or triggering an image.  What does not fit gets filtered out or ignored because it is not ‘relevant’: it cannot fit.  There’s no point in raising it.  Arguing with the frame merely strengthens it as we mentally refer to the rules and confirm them.  

Seeing plastic-on-the-beach now triggers the long-established clean-up litter frame.  This is why plastic-on-the-beach works so well for the plastics industry which does not want anyone to talk about questions such as sources, need, how much, consequences, risks or social benefit.  And why continuing to use plastic on the beach as the primary visual in environmental campaigns about plastic, is perhaps not always the best idea. 


Right and wrong from the world of litter

How the ‘pollution’ frame works:

In the pollution frame, it escapes.  It over-flows.  The source producer is responsible.  There’s usually a victim: it hs a bad effect for the surroundings and those in them.  The responsibility is bigger than individual.  It is by definition, not easily recovered and put back so emission has to be controlled.  No amount of it is good.

Clip art and official warning sign of pollution. 

If you need political and corporate action, you face a big difficulty if responsibility for the pollutant in question is framed as personal and individual.  As Mrs Thatcher pointed out decades ago, companies and government literally do not fit in the litter frame and so are out of sight, and out of mind.  And as an earlier blog established, in the case of plastics, this is no accident.

Anyone who wants to bring the plastics pollution crisis under control needs to avoid framing it as about ‘litter’ for this reason.  Although perhaps inconvenient, it’s the quickest and easiest first step that the relevant policy communities can take, and they should do everything they can to make sure that pollution rather than ‘litter’ appears in the title and texts of any government or corporate policies ostensibly intended to tackle the plastic crisis..

Some examples of advocates trying to cut plastic pollution while at the same time calling it ‘litter’:

EU science and policy and technical reports on marine plastic

The European Union routinely frames the plastics problem as ‘litter’ rather than as plastic pollution. So do many governments, and so of course does the plastics industry.


EU policy report (left), EU funded project with aquaria (right) and ‘Marine Litter Solutions’, a plastics industry greenwash ‘NGO’ with 69 plastics industry members

 Above: some of the signatories to the Marine Litter Solutions ‘declaration’.  A who’s who of those producing the plastic problem.

 EU policy on marine plastic pollution is currently framed as about about ‘litter’.  For example:

‘The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) sets the framework for Member States to achieve by 2020 Good Environmental Status (GES) for their marine waters, considering 11 descriptors. One of these descriptors (descriptor 10) focuses on marine litter, stating that GES is achieved only when “properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment”.’

(My emphasis)

This illustrates the considerable success of the plastics industry in hijacking ‘the issue’ and rendering it as about individual responsibility (for littering) rather than control of corporate pollution.

The EU clearly understands the issues of microplastic and plastic beneath the waves that you can’t see.  It even produces this ingenious if slightly weird graphic:

But note the child: visually it still says ‘litter’ and personal responsibility, not the need to control plastic pollution at source, even though the accompanying text states:.

Cleaning up the oceans is one option, it is however not the most efficient method against marine litter. You could compare it to scouring the sand in the desert and this is simply something that no country could afford. The solution is to tackle the problem at its source.

Nor does it stop there.  One of the most active and respected research groups is the International Marine Litter Research Unit at Plymouth University, led by Professor Richard Thompson who first coined the term ‘microplastic’ in 2004.  Thompson was one of the authors of this compendious 564 page report ‘Marine Anthropogenic Litter’,  produced in 2015.

Even some NGOs conducting vigorous campaigns against plastic pollution are also still using the ‘litter’ frame:

Surfers Against Sewage

Some scientists and others familiar with ‘the issue’ on Track Two may feel that it simply does not matter because the term is just a ‘technicality’ and what matters are ‘the facts’ but it does matter because on Track One, in public and political communication, reference to plastic as ‘litter’ neutralises the impact of plastic pollution.

It’s also true that some may use the terms interchangeably and some researchers have framed papers as about ‘pollution’ for instance [examples] but that only strengthens the case for avoiding the L-word.

In my view the long-established custom and practice of framing policy and even research in ‘marine litter’ terms undoubtedly delayed recognition of plastic pollution as a crisis.

Going going but never actually gone

Less Can Be Worse

In communications terms there’s another more counter-intuitive reason why the ‘litter’ frame is problematic and no longer matches the plastic problem.  That’s because with items of litter, more = worse, and that can be confirmed visually.  On the other hand, with microplastic caused by fragmentation, unless you are using a microscope, the visual signal is the opposite.

As described in an earlier blog, a single coke bottle can fragment to produce 17,000 1mm microplastic particles.  So if you find half a coke bottle, and 8,500 microparticles have got free, that’s worse than a whole coke bottle. Once you take fragmentation into account, a beach with ‘less litter’ may not be one with less plastic pollution: less can be more.

Moreover litter as items large enough to hold (macroplastic in Track Two jargon) is tangible, and microplastic is effectively intangible.  This makes plastic pollution more like any widespread and spreading threat which multiplies.

Plastic pollution sorely needs reframing, and to do that, the key question is what other bad things work like this, things, which get more dangerous as they become less visible. ?

A plague perhaps, or a biological weapon formed of a dangerous virus or bacterium: safe when trapped in a sealed container, more threatening when it escapes, especially if it can go on multiplying.   Or a fragmentation weapon, or a lump of radioactive waste, or toxic chemicals, or a sheet of asbestos which can break up into hazardous dust.

This is the unfortunate reality of plastic. It’s inherently dangerous stuff, and it takes us into the politics of the invisible.

The lynchpin requirement to stimulating effective change on plastics is simple: to recognize that it’s inherently dangerous and send unambiguous signals to that effect. Without that, the psychological impetus and political space necessary to restrict use, change behaviour, tighten those material ‘loops’ and rapidly develop alternatives, will simply not be there.

Signifying Risk and Hazard

If someone walked into your kitchen with a jar of white powder, you’d expect to be ‘told’ if it was hazardous.  Or perhaps to be able to see that from the label.  And if it was ‘really dangerous’, we wouldn’t expect it to be in our kitchens at all, nor indeed in our homes or shops: anthrax or asbestos for example.  Yet asbestos was once treated as harmless enough to be used around the home, and we were taught about its many benefits, alongside plastic.

Likewise, when I was growing up, tobacco smoking was accepted as normal, and it was considered polite to provide ashtrays even in houses where nobody smoked.  Right up to the 1990s if you were very polite, you might even keep cigarettes just to offer to visitors.  As recently as 2006 cigarette smoking was still legal in UK workplaces (see ‘smoke and mirrors’ in Campaign Strategy Newsletter 26 on campaign strategies which changed attitudes and the law).  Now smoking is so thoroughly desocialised that it is being restricted outdoors, and every time we comply with one of these measures, we reinforce the idea that smoking is hazardous.

If products or substances are dangerous, we expect to have our attention drawn to that by a symbol, usually in an orange box.  These have become so familiar that they are part of our visual language.  Such symbols and restrictions now need to be applied to plastic.  The good news is that in Track Two world there’s a whole industry of designers and cognitive psychologists ready to nudge us into changing behaviours (and hence attitudes, opinions and potentially politics: see VBCOP), if only they are given the brief to do so.

The bad news is that like the tobacco industry, the plastics industry will move heaven and earth to stop this from happening.   After generations in which their business has boomed without control, they now see the first signs of sunset on the horizon, and they will not go without fighting tooth and nail, every inch of the way, not least by lavish use of money.

But let’s imagine that somewhere the first company or government starts putting warnings on plastic (if they have already done so, please let me know).  Our comms designers face an interesting problem: given that plastic poses so many different types of risk and hazard, which ones should we depict on a warning label?

Here’s one for starters:

It has the advantage of familiarity, for instance found on DIY and gardening products which should not be let out.

What about plastic’s inbuilt ability to fragment, and break down into micro-particles/ fibres, which is a multidimensional risk-magnifier in itself?  In some ways this makes it a danger because it is very small.  Hazardous dusts fall into this category and have their own symbols.

I looked up fragmentation as a hazard and found it also has a symbol to itself – an orange hexagon – although usually associated with explosive force.  Perhaps this could be adapted something like this:

Plastic applications also differ in their propensity to end up in the environment.  For example many plastic car parts are now supposed to be recovered when a car is scrapped and presumably (I have not checked) are therefore at a low risk of ending up dumped, or in the Track Two jargon, ‘as leakage’.  At the other extreme, packaging for on-the-go foods are highly likely to ‘escape’, or become ‘feral’ plastic.  In the technical world of hazardous gases like CFCs these escapees are called ‘fugitive’ emissions.  All examples of framing (as in a fugitive from the law, etc).  So it could make sense to label plastic things to recognize particularly high probability of escape (escape risk if you like), and this might please users of lower-risk-of-escaping plastic applications.

Volatile substances are escape-prone and have their own sign, although it doesn’t quite do justice to plastic:

Plastic also poses a problem because it’s very long lived in the environment, in some cases with a half-life of centuries or longer (it’s even arguable that the ‘half life’ concept isn’t fully applicable to plastic).  Perhaps it needs labelling like radioactive waste for similar reasons ?

Does plastic merit a new version of this ?

But then cycling in food webs as it does, plastic also behaves like a biohazard, which has its own established sign:

Given that plastic poses a multiplicity of risks and hazards including transport of toxic chemicals, I suppose you could settle for the simple ‘harmful’ catch-alls:

So where might these be applied?  Plastic packaging and clothing see two obvious starting points but they should be on all plastic.  So at the moment, clothing labels look a bit like this:

But maybe need to look a bit more like this:

And Coke labels maybe need to look more like this:

And so we could go on. Plastic Free Zones, Low Plastic Communities, Plastic Free Products: they all send a signal that plastic is a problem and, that something can be done about it. Visual language, risk avoidance behaviour, flagging of responsibility, and social proof are all Track One communication dynamics.

Commercial or social initiatives to give up, ban or restrict plastic, or to offer alternatives, also send important signals.  For instance the recent UK decisions by the café ‘Pret a Manger’ to offer glasses of filtered water rather than water in plastic bottles, and the decision by pub chain Wetherspoons to stop using plastic straws:

Report from The Independent

Such moves are a target category with high leverage (supply chain) and high visibility, as well as being high-touch in Track One life, which makes them great intermediate campaign targets.  On this issue ‘plastic-free’ lifestyle blogs are also hugely important gearing, and a test-bed for proof-of-possibility for substitution.  I’ll write more about that another time.

Can We Win By ‘Fighting On the Beaches’?

A reality facing campaign designers is that plastic on the beach is already established as the iconic visual.  The beach is emotional Ground Zero for most communications aimed at curbing plastic pollution.  Here’s what I got when I put ‘plastic pollution’ into a Google image search.

Beach plastic is where public motivation has long met public opportunity to take a chunk out of the problem.   It’s what gets us going but where to?   Getting the context or battleground right or wrong can often make the difference between campaign success or failure.  The beach has been a great location for showing there’s a problem with plastic and for public engagement but can it now meet the needs of campaigns to end plastic pollution?

Call of the Beach  

‘Beach-combing’, walking the strandline is an ancient activity, going back at least to the Stone Age.  Today from Mumbai to Hong Kong, from Australia to the US, people voluntarily take to their beaches to try and combat plastic pollution.  Let me be clear: I’m all in favour of beach-cleans, and I do them too.

There’s something awfully satisfying about cleaning the plastic from a beach, particularly a beautiful one.  Restoring natural glory knocks emotional spots off a tidy-up of plastic behind a supermarket car-park.  It also produces pleasing, visually definitive results, as with this beach-clean in Utila, Honduras:

Beach clean in Utila (Honduras) by Ecodive.  Problem solved?

A beach of plastic bottles is the defining visual poster-child of the issue.   A plastic-covered beach counterposed with a ‘pristine’ beach provides a dramatic visual polarity.  That makes it the first choice for news media imagery, and a choice emulated by millions of us on social media.

So as click-bait visual language and starting from where concern-is-at, a good plastic-littered beach is hard for campaigners to resist, and for the public, the relative presence or absence of beach plastic has become a critical visual indicator of the ‘health’ of the seas, and a social barometer of how we are doing on ‘plastics problem’.

Photo: Greenpeace

In 2016 a team of academic researchers analysed a decade of UK beach-cleans and wrote:

The aesthetic impact of anthropogenic litter has implications for tourism and human well-being. For example, 85% of 1000 residents and tourists said they would not visit a beach with an excess of two litter items per metre … [and] ,,, beach choice was more strongly determined by clean, litter-free sand and seawater than by safety [plus]  the restorative psychological benefits ordinarily experienced by people visiting the coast were undermined by the presence of litter.

In other words we prefer clean beaches, and they make us feel better.

So sensitive are we to the visual signal, that any ‘fiddling’ with the beach plastic barometer is worth remarking on.  Recently I was talking to a fisherman about plastic and he raised the “unfairly blamed” point with me.  A piece in Fishing News, he said, had pointed out that when the BBC visited Cornish plastics campaigners to report the amount of fishing industry waste (about 15% of UK beach-clean items), they first piled it all up to make a ‘better pitcure’.  Conversely, Jo Ruxton, formerly a producer on the BBC’s Blue Planet, and now an anti-marine-plastics campaigner, told the Daily Telegraph: “I’ve known film crews spend two hours clearing up beaches before they can take shots of turtles.”

[David Attenborough’s programmes have been increasingly criticized for giving an unrealistically positive view of the state of nature, including by me but to his credit, Attenborough used the latest, Blue Planet II, to make a strong call for action on plastic].

Beach Clean Ups – Do They Really Make a Difference?

Now we know about microplastic, does a beach with little or no visible plastic give a misleading picture ?  And might the act of beach-cleaning even function as a sink for public concern, and create a ‘dead-end’ stopping public concern from reaching the places where it really could help cut-off the problem at source?

At first sight, the maths suggest it is not even scratching at the surface of the problem.

The largest and best documented beach clean network is International Coastal Clean Up co-ordinated by the US-based Oceans Conservancy.  Starting in the US State of Oregon in 1984, it went nationwide by 1988 and now includes over 90 countries.  In 2015 800,000 volunteers recovered 14m items weighing 8m kg, almost entirely plastic.  It’s a lot to pick up, weighing as the Conservancy says, ‘More Than 100 Boeing 737s’.

8m kg is 8,000 tonnes.  By comparison, a 2015 study in Science estimated that in one year (2010) about 8m tonnes of plastic entered the seas from coastal communities (ie including via rivers) and that is increasing.  So even the heroic efforts of nearly a million volunteers only accounted for about 0.1% of all the plastic estimated to be entering the ocean.  Even if we added in other (maybe imaginary) clean-ups and increased the Conservancy figure tenfold, we’d still only be recapturing about 1% of the plastic getting free into the sea.

Oceans Conservancy’s home page features a striking image of a woman collecting beach plastic with the words:  ‘ending the flow of trash at the source’, which is the right idea as a mission but exactly what beach clean ups do not do because plastic is not made on the beach and 80% of the plastic in the sea, does not come from disposal at sea.

Is this the source of plastic pollution?

To be fair, if you drill down several levels the Conservancy does offer some educational information on behaviours, such as a ‘6 week trash free challenge’ including in week two: ‘Use as few single-use beverage bottles and cups as possible’ but it does not seem to propose anything intended to ensure corporations make less plastic.

The Conservancy argues that the data on types of ‘trash’ collected during beach-cleans enables others to ‘divert solid waste’ before it reaches the sea, or recycle it, for example a scheme to recycle flip-flops in a Kenyan Marine Park.

The Conservancy’s 2016 ‘data release’ on ‘International Coastal Cleanup’ does mention microplastic turning up in seafood and wildlife but regards it as a matter for ‘further study’.  In short, the proposition of this global network is to do something good in itself, which is removing plastic from our beaches but it seems to be the same framing activities, described in A Beautiful If Evil Strategy:  one liable to reduce demand for effective regulatory action by drawing well-intentioned citizen consumers into litter picking rather than change campaigns.

Sponsored by Coca Cola

Alarmingly to some, the Conservancy’s lead sponsor for its beach cleans is Coca Cola, while Dow Chemical appears as a ‘Healthy Bay partner’, while Keep America Beautiful (see earlier blog) is an ‘Outreach Partner’.

Actions attached to a beach-clean – Surfers Against Sewage

In the UK, the Marine Conservation Society is a contributor to International Coastal Clean Up.  It’s known for the Beachwatch survey/beach clean run since 1993.  In 2016 its volunteers picked up nearly 270,000 pieces of beach litter, mostly plastic, and encouragingly, have found a 22% reduction in plastic carrier bags since charges on them were introduced in 2011.

MCS does not seem to weigh its plastic but another UK organisation running beach cleans does, the more campaign-oriented Surfers Against Sewage or SAS.

In 2017 SAS reported: ‘the Big Spring Clean saw us remove over 55 tonnes of marine plastic pollution and litter from 475 beaches across the UK’ and SAS netted another 35 tonnes in the Autumn clean-up, making a total haul of 90t.  Some 10,000–27,000 tonnes of ‘mismanaged’ plastics are estimated to be discharged from land in the UK, so in relation to say 18,000 tonnes, 90 tonnes represents around 0.5%.

Recapturing 0.1% – 0.5% of the plastic getting into the sea is not a lot but the activity is obviously worthwhile in many ways.  For one thing, marine plastic tends to be concentrated near the coast.  A study modelling the potential of floating ‘plastic collectors’ to trap microplastic found that if placed near coasts they could remove 31% of microplastics, versus 1% if they were all in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage patch’.

Fortunately for collecting, it also turns out that many beaches act as traps for plastic. Consultancy Eunomia points out that the average global concentration of sea-surface plastic is less than 1kg/km2 , and the highest concentration is in the North Pacific Gyre at 18kg/km2 but on beaches  it is five times greater at 2,000kg/km2 .  Eunomina says ‘there is a ‘flux’ of litter between beaches and the sea. By removing beach litter, we are therefore cleaning the oceans’.

Above: from Plastics in the Marine Environment by Eunomia

So keep cleaning your beaches: it’s more effective to pick it up there, than to try catching it at sea.  Just do it frequently enough to get to the plastic before it’s washed back out to sea, or before UV from sunlight makes the plastic brittle, and before wind, waves, pebbles and small life-forms break it up into microplastic.  Eunomia also worked out that if beaches were cleaned on a daily basis rather than just twice a year, about eight times more plastic would be recovered.

Of course it is very hard to pick up very small bits of plastic. On some beaches over 80% of all the pieces of plastic found between the high and low water marks are now ‘invisible’ microplastics.

This also leaves the problem that beach-cleans and beach-plastic dominate the engagement visuals of the plastics issue.  Showing beach cleans solving a problem does not show beach cleans solving the problem and cannot do so but perhaps it is also possible to adapt beach-cleans to give them greater leverage.

Enhancing Beach Cleans

Beach-cleans offer a good opportunity to show and involve people in the reality of microplastic, including on the beach itself.   There is potential ‘citizen science’ projects such as this one in Florida and this at St Kilda in Australia:

Community members investigating microplastics with Environment Protection Authority Victoria

Hands-on activity to sieve and reveal microplastic on the spot would be the best way to bring home the reality of fragmentation and microplastic, and if conditions do not allow, then ‘one we made earlier’ type displays could be used.

A big weakness of beaches as a context for plastic campaigns is the absence of corporations and politicians.  Unlike the urban environment, beaches tend to be brand free zones.  One approach to bridge this gap between beach plastic and responsible decision-makers is to celebrate clean-ups, and then ask the participants to demand political action, such as via the petitions run by Surfers Against Sewage.  But even this does not actually put corporates or politicians ‘in the picture’ on the beach.  Indeed plastic-makers and users probably hope that by becoming corporate sponsors, they may shelter behind projects like beach-cleans and evade campaigns such as Greenpeace’s push against Coca Cola.

A beach brand audit can bring plastic-using brands to the beach by attaching them to individual bits of pollution.  In the Philippines Greenpeace identified plastic from Nestlé, Unilever and Proctor and Gamble as amongst the worst offenders.  A step on from that could be a RTS or Return-to-Sender action; taking the plastic back to the users or producers.

Such enhancements could help retain the satisfaction of ‘cleaning the beach’ while embedding awareness that it’s not a complete solution.  The ideal outcome is that the beach gets cleaner but participants, having ‘done their bit’, are motivated and enabled to press for upstream action.

A Massive Expansion of Beach Cleans?

It’s possible that growing awareness of the plastics crisis will stimulate calls to increase beach-cleans.  Eunomia estimates that as beach cleans cover only 1.9% of the world’s coastline, at any one time the actual amount of recoverable plastic on beaches could be around 1.4 million tonnes.  Expanding beach cleaning 50-100 fold could therefore harvest more of the plastic washing onto and off beaches but would also require significant resources.

If campaigners set about pressing governments to fund a massive increase in these mainly voluntary activities, there is a chance that they might succeed.  The MacArthur Foundation notes that even in the EU, cleaning coasts and beaches of plastic could cost up to EUR 630 million per year, as pollution grows.  So it could appeal to politicians as a great way to encourage volunteering, boost civic minded participation, be seen to do something ‘big’, and possibly divert the unemployed or low-paid into useful activity.  Some charities might love the idea as it could create a new profile and cash flow for them.

But unless beach-cleans are enhanced as campaign platforms as discussed above, just scaling them up could actually prevent effective action by reinforcing a perception of the problem and solution to plastic pollution in terms of ‘beach+litter+cleanup’.  Something similar happened in the past with ‘clean ups’ of beached oil spills and oiled wildlife.

One way to avoid a reinforcement of the status quo would be to make the polluters pay. Why should the taxpayers or volunteers pay to clean up plastic pollution just because the ‘leaky’ plastics system is a profitable business model for chemicals companies?

The MacArthur Foundation has pointed out that on conservative estimate,  ‘costs of the negative externalities of plastics in the oceans’ total least USD 13 billion each year.   In other words, the impact of plastic pollution is costing us at least US$13bn per annum but the plastics industry is not paying.

Governments could use tax or other measures to extract at least these sums from the plastics industry, and then to use some of that to recover plastic from our beaches.  Alternatively, one could take the ‘community service’ penalty approach and make the plastics industry executives get out and pick up the plastic themselves.  Campaigns to demand this might at least force corporations into the open.

Of course none of this makes much sense so long as the ‘Niagara Falls’ scale flow of plastic into the environment continues unabated.

In the end campaigns to tackle the plastics crisis cannot be won just ‘fighting on the beaches’.  Campaigners have inherited a legacy activity conceived to manage a local impact, not resolve the underlying causes.  It’s a problem management activity not a problem solving strategy, and can only partly be transitioned into a battle winning campaign tool.   Effort needs to migrate upstream, into homes, shops, schools, workplaces, legislatures, investment, design and industry.

The Limitations of Recycling

Perhaps the biggest communications challenge facing architects of new plastics campaigns, is ‘recycling’, an activity which has become almost synonymous with ‘being green’.  Our customary ‘Track One’ conceptualisation of the ‘plastics issue’ includes plastic waste (often on the beach), and recycling.    Unfortunately, in the case of plastics, this simple WYSIATI, (what-you-see-is-all-there-is), is an illusion.

What we imagine, because of what we ‘see’.  Not what happens.  Leastways, hardly ever.

That it is good to recycle, has become a social norm and so it has become conventional wisdom that if we recycled plastic, then coupled with recovering it from the environment, as in beach-cleans, we could ‘solve the problem’.  Unfortunately when experts have looked into this, it seems that whereas recycling may indeed achieve great things on say, aluminium, that’s not the case with plastic.  It can’t solve the plastics crisis.

This poses a communications challenge but it’s unavoidable, as it’s part of the reason why we need to stop using plastic.  Yes the current recycling system can be ‘tightened up’ but that only makes sense as a transitional mitigation during a phase out.  Substitution of non-plastic alternatives, needs to loom large in campaigns, communications and government strategies.

Re-appraising how we communicate about recycling within a plastic phase out framework is going to take some working out.  The naieve version of ‘recycling the solution’ is well embedded.

Above: the first US plastics recycling facility was opened in 1972.  The magical green box takes plastic away to be ‘recycled’.  It helps us feel good by doing good but it too often it is an exercise in deception.  From industry site Plastics Make It Possible

‘Track Two’ type analysis shows that the plastics recycling ‘system’ is not ‘fit for purpose’ when it comes to delivering a solution to the plastics crisis.  It’s not just like a bucket with a hole in it, it’s more hole than bucket, in fact about 90% hole.

In 2009 as part of the Royal Society study Our Plastic Age  two plastics industry consultants described a great many recycling processes that could in theory make a difference to overall waste and pollution, but no examples of it actually reducing producion of new plastic.  (The industry provides countless examples of pilots and prototypes that are very ‘closed loop’ but the forest of examples disguises the fact that hardly any plastic is actually in anything like a closed loop system: a case of not seeing the wood for the trees).

In 2014 ‘Stemming the Tide’, a report by consultants McKinsey’s for Oceans Conservancy,  identified a series of ‘drivers’ of ‘leakage’ into the environment offering scope for relatively rapid reduction (mostly incineration).

McKinseys wrote:

Analysis suggests that recycling alone is not a solution, as about 80 percent of the plasticwaste stream is too low in value to incentivize extraction, and almost 30 percent cannot be distinguished at a polymer level without additional investment in optical sorting equipment.

Writing in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2015 under the title Common Misconceptions about Recycling, Roland Geyer noted:

in the long run, recycling reduces waste generation only if it reduces primary material production; otherwise, it merely delays it’. 

In other words, recycling plastic may not lead to a reduction in the production of new and extra plastic, and even the best imagined improvements won’t resolve the pollution crisis.

In 2016 the Ellen MacArthur Foundation study The New Plastics Economy, detailed a huge range of steps required if plastics were to be made and used on much more ‘circular economy’ basis.  It noted:

32% of plastics escape the collection system globally. Plastic packaging is particularly prone to leakage due to its small size, high rate of  dispersion and low residual value

and although ‘a critical first step in addressing leakage [a euphemism for pollution] would
be to urgently improve after-use infrastructure in high-leakage countries’:

‘this measure in isolation is likely not sufficient …  even under the very best current scenarios for improving infrastructure, such measures would stabilise, not eliminate, leakage into the ocean.

The expected reduction of global leakage (45% by 2025 in a best-case scenario) would be neutralised by the annual growth of plastics production of currently around 5%. As a consequence of such stabilised leakage, the cumulative total volume of plastics in the ocean would continue to rise quickly’.

Meaning that even with a huge effort to improve the performance of the many steps in the ‘recovery’, collection, recycling and ‘waste management’ systems, plastic pollution would increase, unless production is curtailed.

In 2017 Jenna Jambeck and others published  Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made  in Science Advances.  They estimated that so far, less than a tenth of all the plastic ever made, has been recycled, and wrote:

 ‘Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal. It reduces future plastic waste generation only if it displaces primary plastic production; however, because of its counterfactual nature, this displacement is extremely difficult to establish’. 

From Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3: e1700782 19 July 2017.  Solid lines data on plastic to date (2015). Dotted lines: projections.  This gives an idea of the problem being created if we continue ‘Business as Usual’.

The authors calculated that half of all plastic ever made, had been produced in the preceding 13 years and over 40% of the non-fibre plastics had been used in packaging, with a very short life before becoming waste.

From Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.  Of the 4900Mt discarded (environment or landfill) some 600Mt are fibres.  Of the 600Mt recycled, only 10% have been recycled more than once.

Geyer et al estimate that worldwide, 18% of non-fibre plastic was recycled in 2014 with higher rates in Europe (30%) and China (24%) than the US (9%).  Very little fibre plastic is recycled.  They concluded:

‘The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material … without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet’.

More New Plastic 

The plastics industry is fond of talking about recycling and the need for more of it. Plastics Europe says 7.5m tonnes were recycled in Europe in 2014.  What we don’t hear much about, is how much difference plastic recycling is actually making in terms of ‘closing the loop’ or avoiding the need for creation of ‘new plastic’ or taking it out of circulation.

Plastics Europe says 59mt of plastic were produced in Europe in 2014.  It does not say what percentage came from ‘recyclate’ or recycled plastic but even at the most optimistic, it won’t be more than 7.5mt or about 13%.  In reality it might be nearer 1.3%.

The most likely reason for this is a combination of economics – only when the oil or gas price rises high enough does the industry turn to ‘recyclate’ –  the massive fuss and bother involved with using recycled as opposed to virgin materials, and fears of users (such as Coca Cola) that recycled material may be hard to make as nice and shiny as virgin plastic.

When Recycling Really Means Relocation

For decades ‘plastic recycling’ in many developed countries has often really meant plastic waste export.   A 2014 report for the International Solid Waste Association found the EU was exporting ‘almost half of the plastics collected for recycling … corresponding to 12% of the entire post-consumer plastic waste arisings’.   87% of this ended up in China.   Unless the European plastic industry is at the same time buying in plastic waste from outside Europe, it seems certain that it is using very little of the plastic sent for recycling by Europeans.

So might China hoover up all the world’s recyclable plastic instead of using fossil fuels to make more?  Probably not.  Hearing their plastic has been “sent for recycling”, consumers might imagine it was recycled.  But no.  It turns out that most of the plastic ‘recyclate’ is too dirty to be used.  Since 2013 China has adopted a ‘Green Wall’ policy, restricting what it accepts as waste imports.   China recently shocked European and especially UK plastic waste exporters by announcing vastly tighter quality rules.  These outlaw shipments of 24 classes of recyclate, including some plastic, with more than 0.3% contamination.

Isabel Hilton: : “the rest of the world finally has to face up to its own problem”

Isabel Hilton editor of China Dialogue told the BBC World Service ‘World Update’ on 5th December 2017 that “only ten percent” of the plastic waste ‘sent for recycling’ in China “is actually recyclable”, and  “the rest tends to get dumped in China, it finds its way into rivers, and eventually into the sea, and that has prompted the Chinese authorities to impose a ban on several varieties of plastic”.  Asked what this meant for countries exporting plastic waste to China, Hilton replied: “the rest of the world finally has to face up to its own problem”.

Whether this does indeed stimulate greater and better domestic recycling, product redesign and substitution or simply a search for another place to dump plastic collected for ‘recycling’, remains to be seen.  It also presumably means that some of the marine plastic pollution ‘from China’ is actually plastic pollution from Europe, the US and other developed countries.

Incineration is actually what happens to most plastic collected for ‘recycling’ in the European countries with higher rates of ‘recovery’.


‘Energy recovery’ means incineration. The highest rate of plastics recycling is in Germany but that was under 40%. From: Our Plastic Age, Royal Society 2009.

Plastic’s Downcycling Problem

Massive incineration happens even when ‘recovery’ is high,  because the plastics industry does not much want to use ’recycled’ plastic to make new versions of the original item.  One reason for this is ‘downcycling’, as illustrated by these examples from Cambridge University Engineering Department.  They are some years old (2006) but the basics are unchanged.

In-house scrap means inside the plastics production factory.  Once it’s outside in the supply chain, most plastic is difficult to recycle and especially, to make back into the same product.  PET, often used to make plastic bottles, is the easiest plastic to recycle but even that mainly gets made into lower-grade products like polyester carpets or wood-substitute ‘plastic lumber’.  These in turn are very rarely recycled (they are dumped),  while both carpets and polyester fleeces made from PET, continually shed microfibres while in use.  This, as Geyer says, is only delaying pollution, not preventing it.

In this example only 5% of PET from sources like bottles, stand any chance of going around a ‘closed loop’ and re-emerging as another plastic bottle.  For most of the dozens of other types of plastic, the position is worse.

The Impractical Complexity of Plastic

Psychologically, we probably equate ‘recycling’ with re-use, as we imagine that a used plastic bottle becomes a new plastic bottle.  If we see a plastic bottle return-vending machine accepting old plastic bottles and rewarding us with a returned deposit, our childlike understanding of whatever goes on inside that box, is probably that it’s ‘solving the problem’.   Likewise if we hear about the ‘Circular Economy’ we may simply picture a much bigger version of much the same thing.

Sadly, plastic is a category of substances not a single substance, so it’s massive headache for recyclers. Although there is a whole industrial ecosystem of recycling engineers, product innovators and NGOs trying to make it work, the problems are formidable: a case-study of non-sustainability

A 2016 EU report Sustainable supply of raw materials: Optimal recycling by Business Innovation Observatory pointed out that packaging involves 250 different kinds of plastic, so:

during recycling, different kinds of plastics tend to get blended together as it is difficult to separate them in the recycling process. Processes which try to separate polymers generally involve first melting the plastic and then separating the polymers through a chemical process. However, the output is not as high quality as virgin material, which limits its use and decreases the demand for recycled plastic. A large part of the packaging plastic instead goes to landfills or for incineration’.

This provides a huge incentive for plastics producers to make new plastic from virgin materials, which currently means to oil, coal or gas.  When those are cheap, that incentive is greater and recycling companies may go out of business.  This has happened with falling oil prices in the UK and gas from fracking in the US.

Fibre Problems

‘Downcycling’ has long been recognized as an economic problem in seeking a more ‘circular economy’ but  the realisation that plastic microfibres from textiles are a massive source of microplastic pollution, makes converting container plastic to plastic fibres, or re-circulating fibrous plastic, look like a very bad idea. The recycling policy community do not seem to have caught up with this.

In November 2017, the industry-linked ‘environmental non profit’ GreenBlue published a report Making Fiber-to-Fiber Recycling a Reality for Polyester Textiles arguing that new forms of chemical rather than mechanical recycling could enable recycled PET to create feedstock for any desired grade of PET, and laying out a vision for a large PET-based textile economy.  PET fibre is ‘polyester’ and according to GreenBlue represents 55% of all textile fibres produced.

GreenBlue’s enthusiastic endorsement of inter-company exchange of PET (involving apparel manufacturing, contract textile mills, carpet manufacturing and contract offce furniture manufacturing) forsees ‘watersheds’ of regionally linked enterprises, in a gigantic upscaling of the famous rent and take-back model of Atlanta-based company Interface.  It may make sense in terms of avoiding landfill and energy use but do we really want to be carpeting any country in vast areas of plastic which sheds microplastic fibres?

Geoff Wooster from Dow Chemical is a member board of GreenBlue and authored a 2016 article,  You’ve been thinking about plastics all wrong, in Business Insider.   The mission of such ‘sustainable business’ groups looks similar to environmental sustainability but for companies like Dow it is essentially to keep their business sustainable.  Jeff’s article may be all his own work but it certainly reads like it was written by a PR, and in a style familiar since the 1970s.  It starts:

‘Plastics are an indispensable part of our lives today, and recent advances in material science have delivered truly amazing products from dissolving heart stents to lifesaving air bags to smart packaging that both protects our food and warns us when it’s about to be “past its prime.”’

It hits the good old Settler ‘Security Driven’ hot buttons of saving life and limb in order to smuggle in an overall message that plastic is ‘indispensable’ which is simply untrue.

We don’t need plastic as ‘lumber’: we could use wood.  We don’t need plastic for bags, we could use paper, or cloth, or string.  We don’t need bubble-wrap, we could use cardboard.  We don’t need polyester: we could use cotton, wool or other naturally derived fibres.  We don’t need plastic straws, we could use straws made of … what’s the word ?

Recycling Has Been Colonized by the Plastics Industry

Recycling is a case of ‘do what we say, not what we do’: you the consumer ‘recycle’, we the plastics industry make more new plastic.

Like decrying litter, emphasising the importance of ‘recycling’ is a brilliant way to distract the public from the fact that plastics production is in effect pollution production, as except for indefinite dry storage (like radwaste), or incineration (with its own pollution issues), or pyrolysis or chemical-recycling (to make more raw materials for plastic), there is no way to get rid of the stuff.

As Michael Warhurst from Chemtrust has said, recirculating an inherently hazardous and substance is not ‘green’, it’s a risk.

Scientists and advocates should recognize what’s going on: the plastics recycling business is significantly co-opted by the plastics industry, as well as being a public waste service.  For the plastics industry, on the one hand it supplies feedstock when convenient (rarely), and credibility, respectability and a shield against campaigns and regulation that threaten to downsize plastic production and use on the other (frequently).


If one truth emerges about the plastics industry from the history of this issue, it is that it cannot be trusted.  It promotes plastic recycling for example, and uses 90% virgin materials but it does not explain this to the public.

By colonizing the response to plastic pollution the plastics industry has put itself in a strong position to influence that response so that it does not threaten its core business.  It has even convinced well-intentioned but naieve scientists trying to stop plastic pollution, that they should talk about benefits of plastic.

By sponsoring and becoming part of the global beach clean community, the plastics industry saps the energy from what should be anti-pollution campaigns.

It cynically co-opts goodwill and takes on the clothes of voluntarism to play on the side of citizens looking for a solution.  https://www.marinelittersolutions.com shows you schoolchildren looking for ‘litter’, not plastics executives.

By participating in and funding ‘research’ into how to make plastics ‘more sustainable’, it buys itself more time.   If groups like GreenBlue are serious about their mission for ‘sustainable use of materials in society’ they should not be developing new markets for plastic.

And it still tries to normalise the idea that reliance on plastic is inevitable and desirable.  It tries to rob alternatives of attention, credibility and resourcing (preventing a renewables moment).

Conclusions and A New Political Ask

The world is swamped in plastic.  It’s time governments followed the call of the director of UN Environment and “declared war” on plastic.  We need a phase-out, and quickly.

The plastics industry estimates that global production will double by 2035 and quadruple by 2050.  According to The Guardian, ‘a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021 … equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second’.

NGOs, scientists and other advocates of action on the plastics crisis need to call it as it is: pollution, not the L-word.  And scientific experts on plastics pollution need to understand the basics of communication psychology if they are not to repeat the mistakes of the scientific community on climate change.

Environmentalists need to grasp the nettle and say that more ‘recycling’ simply cannot solve the plastics crisis.  It can only make a contribution within a context of a phase out of plastic, meaning a rapid year on year reduction in production.

In 2016 consultancy Eunomia have put together this infographic summarising recent knowledge about marine plastic pollution.  Four fifths of it comes from land and 94% of the plastic going into the ocean ends up on the sea floor. ‘There is now on average an estimated 70kg of plastic in each square kilometre of sea bed’.

We now need political leaders to accept that the risk posed by plastic is different from the long-recognized public nuisance caused by discarded packaging, and even the choking and strangling of endangered wildlife.

The fragmentation of plastic into micro- and nano-pollution, it’s extreme persistence, ubiquity, its ability to release, concentrate and transport toxic chemicals damaging to health, all make plastic both a real and present danger, and a threat to future generations.

So policy needs to change: plastic needs to be rapidly phased out.  It needs to be labelled, to raise awareness of the different types of risks it poses, and to aid appropriate recovery.

Policy makers should emulate the Montreal Protocol and the case of CFCs and treat plastic as a crisis substance.   The Montreal Protocol started from the assumption that ozone destroying chemicals had to be banned, and for practical purposes, it established lists of “essential uses” which could continue while substitutes were developed.  The same approach should be adopted with plastic, which means we can keep blood bags and other medical applications, while rapidly getting shot of things like bubble wrap, blister packs, and plastic cups, bags and bottles.

Setting phase out dates also sends an unmistakable signal which stimulates redesign, reformulation, substitution and changes in investment decisions.

Given the untrustworthy nature of the industry, policy-makers should also find ways to lock in responsibility and liability.  For example, with versions of Germany’s ‘Green Dot’ scheme, or financial bonds only redeemable once plastic is proven to be recovered from use.   We are used to thinking of plastic as cheap and something that can be bought.  Maybe given its inherently hazardous nature, it should only be rented ?

All this is quite a big ask and in return, politicians are likely to ask advocates to help ‘educate’ the public and build ‘awareness’.

A lot of ‘Track Two’ work has already been done on technical  feasibility but campaigners, communicators and funders of programmes would be making a big mistake if they responded by now trying to explain to the public all the possible steps which might make a real difference.

That would be trying to immerse the public in ‘Track Two’ detail in order to make something happen on Track One, and it is one of the cardinal errors made by climate scientists when they found themselves at the forefront of public communication, and assumed that effective political action depended on first explaining the problem, starting with how the climate system works.

The principal task of campaigns should first be to associate plastic with pollution, and get it treated as an inherently dangerous substance, as without that, not a lot is going to change.







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