Why don't people want to talk about waste?

Why convincing people to take climate action is so difficult
24 October 2022

Interview with 

Ella Gilbert, British Antarctic Survey


Ice breaking off a large ice shelf.


Given how integral most scientists expect a circular economy based way of thinking to be in everything we do moving forward, the question then becomes: how do we get this message across beyond the people who are already convinced of the fact?

The collaboration of artists and scientists in Weston-super-Mare is one such way of helping to spread the message of reuse to people without provoking the sort of existential dread that can be conjured up when facing up to the vastness of the difficulties we face in relation to the climate. Will Tingle spoke to Ella Gilbert, climatologist and See Monster collaborator, about how starting these conversations in an approachable way might be key to facing up to the predicament we’ve found ourselves in...

Ella - Waste in our economy, at least in the UK and many developed nations, it's out of sight, out of mind. You put your rubbish and your recycling in a wheelie bin and it gets taken away magically, before you've woken up usually, and then it's gone. You don't think about it. And actually we don't necessarily remember or consciously think about all of the sort of environmental impacts of everything that we use, that we throw away, that we make and we buy and all these kinds of things. I think the other point is that it's about the way our society is structured so that waste is dealt with in the way that it's dealt with. Because individuals can only make so big a difference and we can all do our bit to, you know, recycle our household waste. But ultimately it's a societal scale problem and an international problem. Because carbon emissions are a form of waste. We're just disposing of them in the atmosphere and the oceans and polluting our planet using our waste carbon. And it's ultimately a waste management problem. It's just a very, very big one.

Will - As you say, a lot of it comes down to cognitive dissonance. It's the idea of, if it's not there, it's not your problem. And as you said, it's not truly about what the individual can do. It is, in a way. You can reduce your waste individually. But it's more about convincing corporations, organizations that are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions or plastic waste. So is there, do you think, a different way that we can convince larger corporations who are perhaps not interested in the personal aspect of reducing waste?

Ella - I think many of the corporations are interested in personal actions because it gives them a reason to not tackle their own emissions. But personally, I'm of the opinion that individual actions come second to the kind of large-scale actions that need to happen first and foremost, I mean the climate science is extremely clear that the problem is extremely urgent and we have to act really urgently. That requires whole scale shifts in the way we do things. And that cannot be achieved through individual action alone. It has to be from the scale of governments, from corporations, from large organizations. It has to be all at the same time. And this is why it's such a challenge, because it's a huge problem and it's one that requires really concerted action from a whole cross section of society. And actually coordinating that sort of action is really difficult.

Will - We mentioned this with Patrick, but we'd also like to have your take on it. I'm sure you're aware of the sunflower incident that happened. That was a demonstration for the climate, which is more of a shock value type thing if you take it at face value. Whereas this project, See Monster is more of an inclusive type build. Which do you think is more effective in terms of changing the public's mind?

Ella - I think regardless of what you think about specific methods or tactics around climate protests, I think the fact that we are talking about climate change is objectively a good thing. Um, and I think the other thing that's very clear is that we need a variety of different ways of communicating the urgency of communicating what can be done to tackle the problem. Very importantly, and it looks very different to different people. You know, it could be writing a letter to your mp, it could be redesigning an oil and gas platform into an art science exhibition. It could be making a statement that is a publicity stunt. It could be switching your petrol car to an electric bike. You know, all of these things are ways of tackling the climate crisis. They're all extremely different, but they all have value in the sense that we are talking about climate change and we are taking action on climate change. And I think something about See Monster that I've been so excited by is that it's a positive story. It's showing what needs to be done, what can be done. And it tells it in such a positive way that I'm a firm believer in the power of positive storytelling. Because so often when it comes to climate change, we're told these stories that are very doom and gloom. We hear about how things are really awful, the terrible extreme events that are devastating people's lives, how it's gonna get worse. And it's not to take away from those things because, as a climate scientist, I'm very keenly aware of how terrifying and destructive climate change is already and how much worse it's going to get if we don't take action. But we can't expect people to take action unless we showcase what that action will look like, how we get there and what other benefits it has. You know, you could have a much more beautiful world that is more inclusive and accessible and we can rely on renewable technologies and all of those things that we know, that we hear just showing how it can be done and how it is being done has a really profound impact.

Will - So this project would be something that could potentially invoke a circular mindset into people, is that what we could take away from this?

Ella - Having come full circle <laugh>, I think exactly. We want to inspire those conversations about reuse and redesign and how we can use those principles to transform our society.


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