Peter Jackson from BLUE Communications looks at the narrative aspects of the Extinction Rebellion protests outside the International Maritime Organization headquarters in recent days, suggesting this is an interesting example of what happens when shipping doesn’t ‘tell its own story’, despite the fact that it’s urged to do this at pretty much every conference Peter’s been to.
If I had a pound for every time I had heard at a conference a speaker urge shipping to “tell its own story” in response to ever increasing environmental regulation, I might not be a millionaire, but I’d certainly have enough for a few rounds with change afterwards. That’s not to be sniffed at given the cost of a pint in London, Singapore, or Copenhagen these days.
Right now, climate activist group Extinction Rebellion is protesting outside the 74th gathering of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at the headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), demanding slow steaming in order to reduce carbon emissions. The debate on whether this would be an effective means of carbon reduction, the feasibility etc, is probably best left to smarter people than me. However, it’s clear that it’s an easy, simple way to get some carbon savings on the table right now, at a time when some quick wins would be very welcome.
NGO action in shipping is of course nothing new, and has been a major driver of change in the industry. But so far, from what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, it’s either been rather wonkish and technical, and therefore limited in scope (such as action on recycling or Arctic black carbon), or broader reaching and a bit vague. This looks like something new in the sense that it’s not only calling for a specific tactic, but linked into a popular global movement.
Shipping has ended up with a strong public call for a specific tactic and legislation – while the industry as a whole is being literally depicted as shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic (regardless of what you think of Extinction Rebellion, you’ve got to admire the commitment to a visual metaphor, and their ability to gain media share of voice). There’s a story out there that may end up affecting the entire industry profoundly.
What we talk about when we talk about shipping
Is it the right one? Who knows – but right now, it’s the dominant one. The problem is that there are lots of stories, lots of good answers to the mass of challenges shaping shipping’s future, and a whole bunch of nuance. Many of these stories are great, and reflect the dynamism of the industry’s response to environmental challenges, as my colleagues have argued in the past. Yet – to agree with the point made by so many in the industry – shipping is not good at telling its side of it.
When it comes to energy, there’s often healthy debate about the value of different energy sources that’s widespread throughout our media and public spaces.
Wouldn’t it be great if, rather than public advocacy for a only single course of action, we could see a discourse emerging that sees the industry weighing up, understanding and debating the strengths of all the solutions out there – wind, biofuels, voyage optimisation, batteries, hydrogen – the list goes on – that can help the industry meet its 2050 targets? A discussion in which industry has a voice, rather than being seen as foot-draggers. A discussion that helps find better answers, and accelerates implementation across the board – and one that can be told the wider world that often views shipping as an industry of apathy and intolerance of change.
This protest shows that if industry continues to do and say very little other than trotting out the occasional line on being the most efficient form of transport, its voice will be drowned out, and this discussion will never materialise. If you are content with being portrayed as a deckchair-shuffler, that’s fine. If not, the first and most important point is obviously to do something other than shuffle metaphorical deckchairs. The second is to tell people that you’re doing it, and make the story a good one.
#ExtinctionRebelion rearranging deckchairs on the titanic this morning to tell @IMOHQ to declare a climate and ecological emergency and cut shipping speeds (photo credit: @dallotseguro) pic.twitter.com/qaL8IX9akK
— Extinction Rebellion (@ExtinctionR) May 13, 2019