Stories of local everyday actions: Enhancing a key area of environmental communication

by Ed Atkins & Ian Townsend from "Individual actions add up: Finding inspiration in everyday citizen actions to address inequalities in post pandemic climate and nature emergency responses"

Awareness of the climate and ecological crises has increased, with new patterns of behaviour emerging across the globe and ever-louder calls for even more action.

Bristol is widely seen as a leader in this change. 86% of Bristolians are concerned about climate change, and levels are high across different ages, ethnicities and the city’s 34 wards. For many of us, the pandemic has changed  our relationships with nature, and many Bristol residents are now willing to see radical change.

Across the city, hundreds of thousands of Bristolians are making changes to their lives to benefit the planet and our future. You can see some examples of ordinary people in the city taking steps to reduce their climate impact on the Council’s Climate Heroes website, while the recent Bristol 17 initiative highlights real local leaders in environmental, social and economic action.

However, when many think of being more environmentally friendly,  they focus on major, challenging and/or expensive shifts – buying an electric car, installing solar panels, or opting not to fly for summer holidays.

Innumerable actions are being taken every day across Bristol which currently go unrecorded – and uncelebrated. The citizens taking them are everyday environmental heroes. But environmental messaging has tended to prioritise the actions of a narrower group. Many will struggle to afford the high up-front costs of solar panels or an electric vehicle, where the financial benefits accrue over long periods. Nor does everybody own their home where they can install panels or charge their electric car.

Uncelebrated actions like growing food in a back garden, allotment or window box, or sharing and reusing tools or toys, offer a rich yet so far largely unexplored portrait of Bristol’s broad-based environmentalism – which is characterised by diversity, both in the communities those taking action are part of, and in the breadth of actions being taken.

In our Brigstow Institute Ideas Exchange project, we worked with city and academic partners to explore how stories of Bristolians’ everyday environmental actions, and their communication through a range of channels, could contribute even further. Be it by demonstrating that many are already taking action, encouraging others to do the same, and foregrounding that action in wider systemic or policy shift that contributes to the city’s environmental aspirations and wider change.

What we did

We are grateful for the support of Eastside Community Trust, dedicated to opening up spaces for community interaction and connection in diverse inner east Bristol, in gathering testimonies from three local people – all women, one of Somalian heritage – exploring their actions taken, their motivations, and how they see this linking with wider environmental action in the city and beyond.

This highlighted the different pathways to pro-environmental behaviours. For some, actions are conscious, requiring major investments in time and/or money..

But for others, actions may be indirectly positive for the environment – a by-product, rather than the primary motivation. It might be about what is available or the easiest or least expensive option. For example, thousands of Bristolians catch the bus to work – not driven by reducing emissions, but because it’s easier and or cheaper than owning a car. Or it might be motivation by a love of one’s local area rather than broader environmental concerns.

We also reviewed the myriad routes available to communicate these pro-environmental actions to the wider public and communities. These included: street billboards; plaques, awards, and medals; online profiles; creative and artistic routes; traditional print and broadcast media; podcasts and films; workshops and assemblies; and additional innovative routes such as People Libraries.

We brought these testimonies and channels to a round-table of Bristol researchers, policymakers, community representatives, and artists. We listened to their views on the role of these stories, whose voices should be being foregrounded in Bristol’s environmental communication, and what might be the best routes for this.

What we found

Participants agreed that stories can celebrate the everyday but significant actions Bristolians are taking. They can be things people do that are relatively low cost and effort, or the indirectly pro-environmental, such as sharing food and eating together. Even though they are everyday they should be celebrated along with more dramatic changes and those who might seem to be environmental heroes.

They also agreed that more work is needed in broadening messaging to those who have been previously overlooked. The Black and Green Ambassadors initiative is doing exactly this for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Surveys also consistently show that climate concern remains high even in wards in Bristol with higher deprivation levels and across ethnic groups. This should also recognise that the level of resources people have to make changes is likely to vary considerably from area to area and individual to individual.

Key to addressing these issues is tailored presentations showing people with faces and from communities and backgrounds that they recognise, taking actions that they might regard as easy or at least manageable, and stories of climate and nature action where they can see themselves as actors.

This allows for a locally-focused approach. Bristol’s wards are characterised by different histories, demographics and needs. Messages need to be rooted in the experiences and words of people from those communities and neighbourhoods.  What might inspire change in one neighbourhood may not in another. Some may respond to a vision of the promised utopia that climate and nature action might bring – pedestrianised streets and thriving green spaces.

But utopia is likely to be different for others. Net zero, nature-rich futures may appeal more if they make tomorrow seem surprisingly similar to today, or with transformations that address other challenges, such as creating new jobs. As individual changes need to be linked with broader systemic and policy shifts, it is important to understand how such links might differ.

In presenting the stories and experiences of those from the community where a message is broadcast and shown, future efforts can allow for people to see themselves and their neighbours as key actors in  a broader and inclusive economic and societal transition.

As climate and ecological concerns increase, more work must be done to understand the particular changes that people might see as possible – and how such possibilities might differ across communities and neighbourhoods. We need to expand a focus on ‘heroes’ to include other forms of action and to localise messaging to Bristol’s diverse communities and circumstances.

Ed Atkins is a Lecturer at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. His research explores how environmental and energy policy must be equitable and inclusive.

Ian Townsend is an independent Sustainable Cities consultant and was chief executive of Bristol Green Capital Partnership, the city’s environmental sustainability membership organisation, from 2016 to 2019.