A climate of change

You've just installed energy- saving lightbulbs, only to hear that if one of them breaks you might have to evacuate the room to avoid toxic mercury. You've been sponsoring a patch of rainforest but now reports say the jungle is healing itself. You've been recycling your newspapers and glass bottles for years, but you've also bagged cheap flights for those lovely little city breaks. Guilty? Ashamed? Confused?

Welcome to the world of green fatigue.

The term was coined by British researchers to describe the confusion around environmental issues that they fear will drive us back to our 4x4s. Sticking our heads in the ever-warming sand is the newest way to deal with the often conflicting information that assails us about what's happening to our environment.

It's not that we don't believe climate change is happening. Surveys show that a majority of us now accept that our world is warming, with as many as nine out of ten people interviewed for an Ipsos Mori poll convinced that our climate, irrespective of the cause, is changing. It's just that we haven't got a clue what to do about it.

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And what do we do when we don't know what to do? Nothing. That's the danger, at least.

"People say they feel resentful that the government is putting all the responsibility on them to change their behaviour," says Phil Downing, head of environmental research at Ipsos Mori and co-author of Tipping Point, the report which first highlighted the term "green fatigue".

"Consumers then point their fingers straight back, saying it should be government leading the way. Everyone is pointing the finger at someone else."

According to Downing, this year will be an important one in which to gauge the response to green issues, since 2007 was remarkable in its own right. It was the year that most of us accepted the climate was changing; but also when we started to show the first signs of rebellion against constantly being told that we're getting it wrong, not doing or, more importantly, paying, enough to protect our environment.

So if you were thinking that all we need to concern ourselves with are rising global temperatures, dependency upon finite fossil fuels, irreversible damage to the ecosystem and, of course, how to kick the habit of leaving the TV on stand-by, think again. An additional problem is how, once we've accepted that climate change is real, we work out what exactly it is that we're supposed to do about it.

When it comes to the environment, the personal is political. As politicians and activists struggle to thrash out a global agreement on climate change, still without any accordance on what emission cuts need to be made, many of us are left with the choice of whether to hang around waiting for a miracle that will allow us just to continue as normal, or to get on and make changes in how we live, to do something, anything, no matter how small.

Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, believes that green fatigue emanates not from the fact that people aren't willing to make changes, but because they don't want to feel they alone are responsible for tackling what is a global issue: "When the government says you should be changing your lightbulbs, turning off your taps, not using your car so much, that's getting into territories where the reason people behave in that way is because the policy framework in the past has made that behaviour the social norm."

For Neil Bancroft, a landscape architect and freelance gardener, the norm in his life is environmental awareness. He's not a campaigner, he doesn't eschew all foreign travel and, as far as I can see, he isn't wearing a hair shirt. He is, however, clued up about basic green issues and committed to doing whatever he can to limit his impact on the environment. "It's five years since I started recycling glass," he says. "I've always tried to recycle as much paper as I can and I've been composting since I've had a garden."

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Tucked in the corner of the kitchen of Bancroft's Glasgow tenement flat, which he shares with his partner, is a collection of bins and crates. There's one for compostable waste – potato peelings, leftovers and used teabags among other things – one for glass, one for cans, and finally, a bin for the rubbish that can't be recycled.

"Once you've got an awareness of environmental issues, you can't just turn it off," Bancroft says. "We use energy-saving light bulbs. I try to minimise waste. The heating is on only when we need it. We just got new windows because we were losing so much heat that way."

But doesn't he ever get confused by what to do? "When the issues are presented in a conflicting way, or one kind of environmental awareness is put down in favour of another, it doesn't help," he says. "It shouldn't be a case of one thing's good, one thing's bad, because that doesn't create anything positive, it just creates an argument."

Asked how he copes with ever-shifting solutions, Bancroft is clear. "I just turn off the radio or stop reading that article," he says. "If I wasn't so conscious of environmental issues I would definitely be fatigued."

Green MEP Caroline Lucas, recently named by the Guardian as one of the 50 people most likely to save the planet (alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and German Chancellor Angela Merkel), seems anything but tired. A relentless opponent of cheap flights and a voice of serious concern when it comes to nuclear energy, Lucas rejects the notion of green fatigue and opts for the term "green confusion" instead.

"There are so many mixed messages coming from the government, I think people are genuinely confused," Lucas says. "But in terms of whether there is goodwill among the public to act on green issues I think there's a lot of evidence that suggests people do want to act." Lucas cites the short-lived Westminster initiative giving grants to those keen to install energy-efficient technology at home, such as wind turbines or solar panels.

An unpredicted success, grants were snapped up within seconds of becoming available, causing frustration and irritation to those who missed out. The government response? Scrap the scheme.

It was a short-sighted reaction that for Lucas exemplifies all that is wrong with the government approach to green issues. And they're not the only ones in her sights. "The Green movement needs to paint a much more vibrant and exciting picture of what a sustainable society could look like," she says. "Too much of the message has been about giving things up, about not being able to do things that you want to do. People need to know that some of the changes that we're talking about needing to make in order to tackle climate change are very positive ones.

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"For example, supporting local food production means that there's more money in the local economy. It means that you're more likely to know where your food comes from. It means that your local farmers are more likely to be employed."

Clare Harris, editor of Edinburgh-based ethical magazine New Consumer, echoes Lucas' concern about the need for a new approach to fend off the onset of green fatigue. "There needs to be a shift in terms of how ethical and green issues are treated," Harris says. "Those in the sector can sense that people are bored of being told what to do. It's almost as if we now need to shift towards enabling people to do things and to make things less prescriptive.

"Green issues should be a part of everyday life and not a guilt add-on."

Conflicting information and a vacuum of political leadership on environmental issues are enough to make even the greenest among us lose a little bit of faith, but if you're looking for a pep talk, you could do a lot worse than grab the nearest teenager for a dose of youthful zeal.

Recent research shows that among young people green issues rank much higher in terms of their priorities than among their older, if not wiser, counterparts. A Future Foundation survey of 16 to 19-year-olds found that more than one in eight supports a ban on travelling by air for leisure purposes, while almost ten per cent claim they would be prepared to take part in guerrilla activities organised by environmental campaign groups.

Eighteen-year-old Gillian Slider isn't pulling on her balaclava just yet, but she's clear about the need for action. The first Highland Youth Convener for the Highland Council and convener of the Scottish Youth Parliament's 12-strong Transport, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, Slider understands the challenge of environmental action. "It's the old thing of, well no one else is going to do it so why should I?" she says. "But it is everyone's responsibility and there are easy ways to do something about it."

Slider believes we should all be doing our bit, but does she think we're are getting a bit fed up of being told off all the time? "Definitely," she says. "People are constantly told to recycle and reuse plastic bags and I think it's getting to the stage where not doing it is almost like rebellion." Spoken like a true teenager, but there's a subtlety to Slider's argument. "I sort of understand why some people say that they don't do anything, but they're taking the easy way out," she says. "There are more advantages to recycling and to turning off that light, and turning off your computer, than just rebelling against it.

"I'd rather be the person who can say, well at least we tried, than the one who says I told you so."

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The enthusiasm of youth is one thing, but support for environmental concerns has recently emerged from some rather more surprising quarters. Green campaigners such as George Monbiot have turned their ire towards big business, which they say baffles consumers with "greenwash", disguising unenvironmentally friendly tactics as dearly held green concern. But both Friends of the Earth's Duncan McLaren and New Consumer's Clare Harris recognise a growing awareness in business, which reflects environmental impact.

MEP Lucas agrees. "I'm usually pretty cynical about business," she says with typical candour. "But through the Prince of Wales' Business Trust, businesses have been more or less begging government to put in place a policy framework that will guarantee them some certainty so that they know where to invest."

Researcher Phil Downing is sensing a similar change. "Business is shifting," he says. "It's no longer seen as dragging its heels and intransigent, but instead is coming up with lots more consumer propositions.

"Rather than green groups on one side and the corporate lobby on the other, what you've got is everyone lining up saying 'let's do something about climate change'."

With this kind of consensus, and despite the indecision and complexity that dogs green issues, the impending sense of fatigue seems less easy to justify. And that's just as well, because time is running out.

"The gap in time terms is very, very short," says McLaren. "The consensus position is that we have somewhere between seven and 15 years to turn this around.

"In political terms we can stop talking about 'not in my term of office'. It is this government and the next one and that's it. And it's our generation making choices that will impact on what happens to our generation, not our children and their children, but us."

Talking to Neil Bancroft as he sits in his kitchen, he's extolling the joys of Freecycle – giving away items that you no longer have a use for and reducing waste in the process (see feature, page 14).

"I'm optimistic because I think there's a groundswell of support moving towards environmental issues," he says. "And once you've become aware, you can't turn it off."

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