No Pressure, Just Plain Stupidity: UK climate film scores ‘own goal’ for campaigners

Still from No Pressure film: We do live in The Age of Stupid!

Shock therapy is known to work, when handled carefully. We can sometimes shock people out of apathy or indifference, for sure — but the same shock, if overdone, can also numb people or turn them off completely.

That’s certainly the case with a new climate advocacy video film called No Pressure, released on 1 October 2010 by the by the climate mitigation campaign named 10:10.

Written by Richard Curtis and Franny Armstrong (who made the acclaimed 2009 climate documentary, The Age of Stupid) and directed by Dougal Wilson, the film is a tragi-comic attempt to ridicule those who don’t share the same level of concern on global climate change as the climate activists do.

The four-minute film consists of a series of short scenes in which groups of people are asked if they are interested in participating in the 10:10 project to reduce carbon emissions. Those failing to show sufficient enthusiasm for the cause, including two schoolchildren, are gruesomely executed by being blown to pieces.

Well, see for yourself. Caution: this video contains violent scenes that can be offensive to most sensible people:

The normally balanced UK’s Guardian newspaper, which got the online exclusive, introduced the video on 30 September 2010 calling it “attention grabbing” and “pretty edgy.” There were a few others who found artistic or creative merit in the film, which has got high production values — no basement production, this.

But where it fails miserably is in winning any new friends for the climate cause, or at lease to influence people to change their high carbon lifestyles.

Amdrew Revkin

As Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times, wrote on 1 October: “If the goal had been to convince people that environmental campaigners have lost their minds and to provide red meat (literally) to shock radio hosts and pundits fighting curbs on greenhouse gases, it worked like a charm.”

He isn’t alone. Bill McKibben, author, educator and environmentalist — who founded the serious climate group 350.org — wrote on the same day: “The climate skeptics can crow. It’s the kind of stupidity that hurts our side, reinforcing in people’s minds a series of preconceived notions, not the least of which is that we’re out-of-control and out of touch — not to mention off the wall, and also with completely misplaced sense of humor.”

His group, 350.org, issued a statement that emphatically said they had nothing to do with this misplaced British climate extremism. McKibben added, more reflectively: “What makes it so depressing is that it’s the precise opposite of what the people organizing around the world for October 10 are all about. In the first place, they’re as responsible as it’s possible to be: They’ll spend the day putting up windmills and solar panels, laying out bike paths and digging community gardens. And in the second place, they’re doing it because they realize kids are already dying from climate change, and that many many more are at risk as the century winds on. Killing people is, literally, the last thing we want.”

Bill McKibben

Now contrast such concern with the initial reaction from British film maker Franny Armstrong, who wrote a half-hearted, almost defiant apology on the 10:10 UK website, saying: “With climate change becoming increasingly threatening, and decreasingly talked about in the media, we wanted to find a way to bring this critical issue back into the headlines whilst making people laugh. We were therefore delighted when Britain’s leading comedy writer, Richard Curtis – writer of Blackadder, Four Weddings, Notting Hill and many others – agreed to write a short film for the 10:10 campaign. Many people found the resulting film extremely funny, but unfortunately some didn’t and we sincerely apologise to anybody we have offended.”

Adding gross insult to injury, Armstrong signed off saying: “As a result of these concerns we’ve taken it off our website. We won’t be making any attempt to censor or remove other versions currently in circulation on the internet.”

Both the 10:10 UK campaign and its sponsors Sony have been more unequivocal in their apologies in the days that followed. But that’s too little, too late. Enough damage done — climate activists and campaigners worldwide will take months, if not years, to live down this one.

And nothing really goes away on the web — this video will be lurking somewhere for a long time. YouTube currently carries the video in several places, with the warning: “This video or group may contain content that is inappropriate for some users, as flagged by YouTube’s user community.”

Andrew Revkins has posted comments from those who condemned as well as those who found some merit in the offensive climate video. Some of these comments take a dispassionate view, which is to be welcomed.

This incident teaches all of us engaged in environmental communication some important lessons. Environmentalists have over-stated their case before, and every time, that did them (and their causes) far more harm than good. Crying wolf, and ridiculing the non-believers, are never good tactics in winning friends or influencing people.

As Bill McKibben noted: “There’s no question that crap like this (video) will cast a shadow, for a time, over our efforts and everyone else who’s working on global warming. We’re hard at work, as always, but we’re doing it today with a sunk and sad feeling.”

One more thing: even in this age of globalised media, humour doesn’t travel well across cultures and borders. As mainstream corporate media companies have often found out, British humour sometimes doesn’t even cross the Atlantic very well — let alone to other parts of the world. Perhaps this is a key point that this all-British team of film makers and campaigners simply missed.

The world is a bit bigger — and more diverse — than your little island, Ms. Armstrong. By failing to grasp that, and with your crude display of insensitivity, you have really proved the premise of your good climate film.

We do live in the Age of Stupid.

PS: Marc Roberts says it all in this cartoon:

Et tu, Armstrong?

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