When Words Fail

The Greening of Illustration

Published in Varoom Magazine, August 2007

Oliver Burston 2006
. Client: BBC Focus Magazine, Debut Art

Scientists have given us their verdict: the situation is urgent. Climate change is happening. The C02 and other greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere pose a deadly threat. Experts tell us that we have less than one decade to make a major shift in our consumptions patterns.

Illustration can, and already is, fulfilling an important role in spreading awareness of global warming issues. Thanks to its ability to make ideas visible, illustration can play a part in making change happen. Furthermore illustration provides a means of communicating the complex emotional reactions that are naturally part of dealing with such loaded information as climate change. Illustration can work to communicate an immediate and a holistic representation. We need this ability of visual languages to help spread an awareness of not only the science behind global warming, but the measures that need to be taken to cut our energy consumption.

We have already warmed the climate by 0.8° over the past century, and we are told that anything above 2° will be catastrophic. Despite the danger, there exists a serious disconnect between scientific opinion and public awareness. False pundits in the media have succeeded in confusing us. A MORI poll found that one third of the population knows little or nothing about global warming. An IPM poll found half of people unwilling to change their lifestyle (ref: Lois Rogers, 'Climate Change: Why We Don't Believe It', New Statesman, 23 April 2007.) But would this be the case if the facts were better understood? The media, advertising and communication design have a vital role to play. The greatest danger comes from our own desire not to face facts.

Studies in collective psychology indicate that the greater the threat, the more people are inclined to ignore it. Obviously the subject of climate change is emotionally loaded. Extinction is not a nice subject. We prefer to avoid it, and if we thought about it at all it would make us angry- so denial is perhaps natural. Lois Rogers quotes John Elkington, of the communications firm SustainAbility, who describes a common psychological defense mechanism: 'people enjoy being confused about big issues as it gives them a chance to do nothing.' In an essay entitled Seeing is Believing: Information Visualization and the Debate Over Global Warming, the design writer David Womack observes, 'For an issue such as global warming, which requires millions of people to take action based not on observable phenomenon, but on scientific projections, this lack of certainty might be disastrous. After all, you don't have to believe the scientists that dispute global warming in order to do nothing' you just have to be confused enough to be complacent'.

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Jody Barton for Greenpeace 2007

Even when people start to acknowledge the problem, the systems in place are insufficient to make the changes necessary. We are all heavily embedded in a system that is unsustainable, and it is perpetrated by enormous advertising budgets. Within advertising, illustration can be used as an effective greenwashing tool by companies more eager to appear to be working towards a green agenda rather than actually doing anything about it. When advertising works to make unsustainable consumer choices aspirational, illustrators and designers become implicated in perpetuating systemic problems.

But advertising and the media can also be harnessed to work against the activities that are destroying our environment...

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