In Essays, Innovation

Protesters in Paris have turned the city into a de facto war zone, their rage seemingly unassuaged by President Macron’s promise to reverse a fuel tax increase. 

What do the yellow-vestors want? There’s the rub. Nobody knows, including them.

To call this miscommunications fiasco a comedy of errors wouldn’t do it justice, not only because setting cars on fire isn’t funny, but there are too many communications failures to fit into a single plot.

First, the government didn’t talk through the merits of a tax intended to address a real problem that affects every French citizen, yet would cost its poorest the most. The lie underlying all such “flat taxes” is that they’re regressive, and eat up more of smaller monthly budgets than they do larger ones…the latter of which were accrued in large part thanks to businesses that threw all that carbon into the atmosphere in the first place.

This is also why telling countries of the Global South that they can’t emit pollution, after we of the North got rich doing it, is, well, to put it mildly, bad communications.

Then there’s the failure of communicating the raison d’être of the fuel tax to the French people. Assuming it were legitimately allocated, it would still make fuel more expensive, and people’s rejection of that idea evidences the far broader failure of governments to tell their citizens the truth about climate change…and what it’s going to cost all of us to fix.

There’ve been a number of recent reports declaring that we’re horribly off schedule on reducing emissions so that our grandchildren will be able to live on our planet, or at least do so without being submerged in water up to their knees…so a fuel tax falls among the least unpleasant things we should be doing about the issue.

It’s been time for quite some time to communicate about the challenge in blunt, stark terms that leave no room for interpretation. Had the French done so on this tax, and done it fairly, maybe people would have embraced it, however unhappily.

The protestors are also failing to communicate with one another. Calling them “populists” conveniently overlooks the fact that they have no agenda or agreed upon issues. They aren’t any one thing. 

And there are also a fair share of opportunists mixed in who just want to blow stuff up…there’s great analyses on how movements and mobs emerge after a handful of individuals violate a norm, or break a rule, and thereby open the door, literally, to others who might have otherwise happily watched events unfold on Twitter.

Do they want an overhaul of the tax system? Perhaps a new minimum pension, maybe just free wine for all? Who knows?

This chaos leads to the fourth communications failure: since the protestors can’t articulate what they want, they have no effective means for getting anything in return…other than a night of dancing in the street like it’s the end of the world. 

Setting cars on fire sends a message, for sure, but not one readily translated into anything more than a police action that needs to be resolved. It makes stopping the riot synonymous with solving the problem.

There are legitimate issues and ideas sprinkled across this communications nightmare, but I’m not hopeful that anyone involved will articulate them.

A true populist pushback would rely far more on communicating effectively…addressing an issue or set of them, and articulating changes that could be debated at ballot boxes and corporate annual meetings. A meaningful government position would be far smarter about an issue, or set of issues on which it chose to be far more honest and open. 

At its heart, climate change is and always will be a populist issue. Using the term to define, or even excuse senseless street violence gives it a bad name.

[This essay originally appeared as a podcast at The Brand Populist]
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