Global warming? Global flash-fry, more like. On Tuesday, a like-minded group of around 100 people from across the advertising world got together to talk about the inexorable degradation of the planet and how or whether the industry could actively do anything to stop it.
It all started when the global activist movement Extinction Rebellion publicly called out the advertising industry in an open letter for its contribution to climate change, propping up polluters and driving consumption. In response, industry leaders pledged to address the criticism and a network of particularly active adlanders took it upon themselves to organise a forum. Last week, Extinction Rebellion rocked up in Cannes, where they protested at the Palais and by the Drum Arms (and fair play to the team at The Drum, who took the opportunity to invite the activists to an impromptu panel).
The event, held at London’s Royal Institution, was less authoritative Ted Talk and more tentative, collective first step.
The first half of the afternoon was a context-setting session, led by people from sustainability agency The Comms Lab
and the activism network Purpose Disruptors
. The Comms Lab’s Jonathan Wise – an agency planner turned climate nerd – set the scene, rehashing recent history. Ella Saltmarshe triggered the first of many tears, laying out the reality of what the climate emergency means for our children, nieces, nephews and young friends. And finally Jeremy Mathieu laid out the scale and urgency of the situation… and its very human consequences… with a startling, quotable clarity.
"The more I work in climate change," said Jeremy, laying down the gauntlet, "the less it becomes a science thing, a head-y thing and the more it becomes about character, about courage."
To even have a hope of stopping the average temperature increasing by 1.5 degrees - something we're romping towards with abandon - we have to peak our greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (yep, next year) and reach net zero by 2050. And let's get selfish for a second, the consequences of that go beyond 'boo hoo no more polar bears' - it's a human catastrophe. It's the spread of disease, food insecurity and social breakdown.
"For a long time the narrative has been about saving the planet, polar bears, lovely fluffy creatures. That's part of it. But it's also a human story," said Jeremy, pointing out where previous efforts had failed to really lean into the human consequences. Really, if you can, have Jeremy talk to your organisation or business because never have I seen the extent of the problem and scale of solutions needed laid out so starkly and so movingly - or with such empathy.
The average American house contains 300,000 objects. Did you know that? 38 football fields of CO2 absorbing forest is cut down per minute. The earth is on the verge of an unbearable climate increase of 1.5 degrees. Mental health, physical health, social inequality, all are intrinsically linked to global warming. While I knew change was coming I hadn’t clocked how fast those imminent changes were coming.
After that the attendees split off into groups to process what we’d heard and workshop solutions. I won’t disclose what anyone else said – circle of trust – but I’ll admit that, given the scale of the solutions needed, I pondered pretty loudly whether it was even possible to meaningfully make a dent from within a system predicated on infinite growth and the short-termism of shareholder demands. We learned about existing initiatives to connect skilled creatives with activist groups (check out https://www.goodfornothing.com/
if that's something you would like to help with), tussled over the possibility of agencies collectively agreeing to certain standards and really got crunchy over validity (or not) of CSR projects.
I found it unnervingly emotional. It’s one thing to report on a panel or lecture, it’s another to be invited in to a pine cone-enable sharing circle, you get me? I worry about my own hypocrisy. I feel guilt about my work travel. I want to be able to help. I know I can help a little bit but can I help at the scale that is needed? And speaking to other attendees, the afternoon proved to be a surprising emotional catalyst for many people, raising a lot of questions – professional and personal. But while the compromised situation of commercial creativity might be enough to turn you off completely, don’t discount the impact creative thinking can have. The Guardian’s decision to swap ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency’ for 'climate change’ has had almost an immediate cultural impact. One teenage girl can unleash an international torrent of passion among the young by simply striking from school and those are the kind of ideas the planet needs.
The session ended with a selection of suggestions and the pledge to meet again in July. There was nothing overblown or elaborate but rather a sense of commitment. The group will be meeting regularly to figure out how to put ideas into action. Among the audience were leaders of industry bodies who I know were as emotionally rattled as I was so I'd hope to see this message jump up the agenda too.
In the mean time, if you want to start making immediate steps to reducing your greenhouse emissions, I'd thoroughly recommend checking out AdGreen
which has really concrete, tangible steps that advertising companies can take to reduce the environmental impact of their commercial productions. Purpose Disruptors are planning to hold another summit in July, so if you missed out and want to get involved and experience the brain-shift, follow them here
for more details.