Accentuate The Positive? Climate Change Campaigners’ Dilemma

To scare, or not to scare, that’s the question climate crisis campaigners face. Should fear be utilized in the design and copywriting of campaigns?

Academic researcher Erik Swyngedouw writes that “presentation of climate change and its associated policies is sustained by decidedly populist gestures. But is he right?

Scrolling the Facebook pages of the UN, The World Health Organization, who are at the forefront of the climate crisis battle, you see much more blue sky than grey. You see a lot of pastel colored infographics, full of helpful information. You see reassuring scenes from underdeveloped countries, where teams are doing great work. And there’s the popular American Smithsonian’s positive stories of what’s working in conservation.

“ the greatest tragedy is the absence of a sense of the tragedy.” Clive Hamilton, The Guardian

Graphic Apocalyptic visuals are left to the “extremists”, like Greenpeace activists, and conspiracy theory fans. You can find frightening images only in small blogs, zines, and in tabloids, like The Daily Mail.

(It used to be about divine wrath. Now it’s about capitalism and consumerism.)

CLIMATE-crisis poster
Photo: Emmett FitzGerald

A surge in Apocalyptical communications came about in 1999, and in 2012, using false past prophesies as an excuse to churn out irrelevant content to fill blank pages [the blank page – indeed a scary vision!]

In-mainstream but off-topic warning was made recently [May 2017] by Elon Musk’s solar energy company: Tesla humorously referenced to the foreseen Apocalypse – warning about Zombies, rather than natural ecologic disasters. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way to sell off-grid energy source to American “preppers”, without seriously warning everyone else about a scientifically probable ecologic disaster.

tesla zombie alret
Tesla Zombie-Apocalypse marketing message

Millennialism caused the first breakout of Apocalypticism and subsequent media revolution, that roused the rise of the Eastern Christian Church.

A complete set of visual representations was created, as illustration to the Book of John – the fourth and last book of The New Testaments. The most popular and celebrated Apocalyptic visuals in Europe were painted by the Netherlandish painter Hieronymoush Bosch

The Last Judgement, by Hieronymus Bosch

In the Italian Renaissance, aesthetics were refined to the max.
Michelangelo painted this scene in a much less frightening way.

The Last Judgement, by Michelangelo


Graphic Apocalyptic visuals appeared in religious manuscripts, for the benefit of the illiterate and “unwashed”.

l’Apocalypse. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, NAL 2290, fol. 160r.

At present, Apocalyptic “wastelands” mainly appear on blockbuster sci-fi movies, like Mad Max. Wall-E, too, inhabits a wasteland (though we people of the earth have found a better nicer place in space where we lead lovely lives. A more practical solution than Heaven, I guess).

WALL-E working in Wasteland
mad max apocalypse.png
Mad Max: Fury Road

Leonardo diCaprio and Martin Scorsese, in collaboration with the UN, NASA and many other organizations tried to raise awareness to the climate crisis with Before The Flood. It did not have an emotional effect, or much effect on the public, in general. The Hollywood duo that told riveting stories like the Wall st. Wolf, and The Aviator, did not get it right with this documentary.

What kind of a movie plot will make people “believe” in climate change? Since facts don’t seem to help.

Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron said recently:

How worried are you about climate change?
“…I’m not worried about me. I’ve had a good run in this life. I still go to forests and get to see the beach. It’s troubling in what I think for my children. It’s terrifying. It doesn’t seem that there’s a big reverting factor. It doesn’t seem like anybody really gives a damn…”

Do you think we’ll be able to reverse the effects of climate change? Or at least survive as a species?
“Look, what is at stake is not the world. The world’s going to be fine. Nature is going to be fine. Maybe another version of nature that is unimaginable for us, but still. There would be, still, pockets of populations that will scatter around the world. What is at stake is the culture as we know it.”


I think Cuaron’s conception is interesting and important for creatives who want to make more effective campaigns: what happens if we lose culture as we know it?


Do we need to fear about fear itself?

In trying to imagine a mainstream media campaign, that will have a ‘big reverting factor’, perhaps fear is a better trigger.

How can you instill fear in a way that would be entertaining, and viral – but in a good way? And not in a sci-fi dystopian but in a concrete, current context? I think this is a question campaigners need to get answers for very soon. And I wonder if soon we’ll see some less informative / positive materials, and more subtly terrifying stories and visuals in climate change campaigns. Fear is used by populist dictators, yes. But fear is an important asset to humanity and its sustainability, too.

“As Warren Beatty, perhaps the best student of the human condition in Hollywood, once told me, people will forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel…” Frank Luntz

Some creative inspiration for climate alarmists, from Art History

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Albrecht Dürer [from the “Apocalypse” series, The Met]hb_19-73-209


Guernica, by Pablo Picassoguernica


Europe After the Rain, by Max Ernsteurope-after-rain

Collective Suicide by David Alfaro Siqueiros [MoMA]w1siziisije1mtewmijdlfsiccisimnvbnzlcnqilcitcmvzaxplidiwmdb4mjawmfx1mdazzsjdxq


Post main feature image: The Flood, by Gustave Doré



1 – Very interesting video on Aeon: Why do we crave the awful futures of apocalyptic fiction? by Adam D’Arpino & Kellen Quinn

2 – Isaac Newton, The scientific realism champion (!) claimed the world is going to end in 2060. We have 43 more years from now until then, to wonder about Newton’s prophecy.

3 – More apocalypse masterpieces on Flavorwire

4 – Is a ‘Mad Max’ apocalypse possible?  Neil deGrasse Tyson answer this question

5 – Longread article: Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial, by Peter M. Sandman


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