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Can A Passion for Climate Change Become a Sustainable Business Model?

| Wednesday December 17th, 2008 | 0 Comments

In this age of sustainability, environmental-focused initiatives themselves also need to be sustainable, not only as a potentially scalable business model to feed ongoing efforts, but as a source of compelling content that can spark — and maintain — awareness in the important issues our environment faces. That awareness is critical for cultivating a motivated population that can drive those initiatives forward, spurring viral activity and momentum to ensure widespread penetration — and adoption.
Leo Murray, the creative genius behind Wake Up, Freak Out, has achieved that essential part of the equation by developing an engaging film about climate change designed to educate viewers about the significance of this problem and promote action. Although the film is over 11 minutes long, Leo used his animation prowess to draw the viewer in with an entertaining storyline that visually depicts the issue and how it affects all of us throughout the world.

Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip from Leo Murray on Vimeo
I had an opportunity to delve deeper into Leo’s vision for the film and plans for the future in a one-on-one chat, and while he isn’t in it for a payout, the monetization possibilities and product extension opportunities prove that green business is good business.


Name: Leo Murray
Title: Director
Organisation: Wake Up, Freak Out – Then Get a Grip
Website: www.wakeupfreakout.org
Contact: leo@wakeupfreakout.org
Why did you decide to start WakeUpFreakOut.org? Tell us a little more about the project.
I only really became truly active on climate change after I discovered that there is almost certainly a finite, and shrinking window of opportunity in which to do something about it. This concept of runaway warming and a point of no return seems to me to lead to obvious, logical conclusions about the imperative to act immediately. It is interesting to me that not everybody responds to this news in the same way! But I was absorbing all of this very dry material from the world of climate science and thinking, this is all need-to-know information – but it’s extremely inaccessible and complex. Everybody in the world needs to see and understand the nature of the situation we are in, and the challenge we face to get out of it.
I have always believed in the power of screen media to influence people, and if you want to propagate a message in today’s media-saturated world, you have got to get at people through their screens. Americans spend an average of 5 months out of each year staring at screens. So I set out to take this key information and do everything in my power to present it in the most accessible format possible – a short animation.
The film you’ve developed is very compelling. What has been the response so far? Do you think it is opening people’s eyes to the issue of climate change?
The film has been getting a really encouraging response from a lot of different quarters – it just passed 50,000 views last night. At any given moment there are on average 4 or 5 people watching it online, which is a great feeling. Every day I get emails from people who have seen it, and have questions, or comments, or offers of help. I’ve sent over 200 DVDs to climate campaigners all over the world who want to use it in talks, workshops and discussions. Judging from the kinds of things people write to me, it’s definitely working.
Although you’re not a scientist, would you call yourself an environmentalist? What other eco-intiatives are you involved in? Why is climate change of the greatest importance to you?
I’m afraid I am an environmentalist, although I don’t think the term quite covers what drives the climate activists of today. We’re not talking about coral reefs and polar bears any more (although they’ll be first up against the wall): we’re talking about changes that will impact on every single other issue of morality or social justice.
I believe that social and political change on the scale necessary remains achievable. But the timeframe is unbelievably urgent, and the scale of the challenge so vast and epic, that I campaign at the sharp end of radical climate activism, with groups and networks like Plane Stupid and Climate Camp. I think peaceful, direct action is rational, reasonable, responsible and necessary in the face of this issue; indeed, it is the only truly proportionate thing an individual can do in response to the very real threat of the end of the world as we know it.
What do you hope to accomplish with the site and the film? What have you achieved so far?
I hope to wake up and freak out as many people as possible! But not so much that they’re unable to get a grip after watching it. What I want people to understand is that if they are ever going to do anything about global warming, then they had better do it now, as later will be too late.
The film is going to be screened on cable television in New Zealand and St. Louis, in the US. Climate activists in non-English countries have got in touch and translated the film into, so far, French, German, Spanish, Turkish, Hungarian, Italian, Dutch, Chinese and Arabic. Some of these versions have actually been dubbed into these languages, while others are subtitles. They should all be available on the website by the start of 2009. It’s also been included in a number of curriculum resource packs in the UK and elsewhere for geography, science and citizenship courses at high school level and above.
The film has attracted praise from many high profile figures in environmental science and politics. Susan George called it, “nothing short of brilliant. Pictures worth a million words of mine.”, and Gus Speth said, “you have done a wonderful thing with your video. From my personal perspective you have captured in a short, accessible form what I tried to convey in my book.” Greg Craven, the YouTube phenomenon with his short vlogs on the imperative to act on climate change, emailed me saying “I have seen no other video which is as well-done as yours.” plus a load of other embarrassingly enthusiastic praise.
But best of all was NASA scientist James Hansen’s response when I met him and gave him a DVD copy: “This is the film with the little stick people right? I’ve seen it. It’s very good. The science is right.”
So, I know it is inspiring people to take action, because they tell me so every day.
How extensively did you research the film? What were some of the most powerful and surprising things that you uncovered in your studies?
I read over 100 different peer reviewed studies, NGO and Government reports, and books about climate change, and probably the same again in press articles and blogs. I think the most shocking thing I have learned is how staggeringly irresponsible the policy approach to climate change has been so far. We are basing our climate policy on middle-of-the-range impact projections instead of worst-case scenarios, which in any other field of risk management would get you the sack. Basically everything is at stake here, and we are gambling our ability to avoid disaster on some very poor odds.
Even the UK’s 80% emissions cuts by 2050 target, presently one of the most stringent in the world, will, if met, expressly achieve an atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases that will give us a 50/50 chance of avoiding a 2C rise. Yes, you read that right; even if we actually meet our 2050 target (which looks extremely unlikely given all the new runways and so on the British Government is planning) we will have achieved a flip-of-the-coin chance of avoiding catastrophe. It’s an insane way to manage a risk that is almost incalculably serious in its potential consequences.
Do you have any partnerships planned with environmental organisations? Have you been approached by those championing the climate change effort?
Peter Vogelsanger in Switzerland has taken on the mammoth task of coordinating foreign language translations and recordings of the film. I’ve never met him, but he’s ploughed a lot of time and his own money into making this happen because he’s so concerned about the issue, and believes in the film as a tool for opening people’s eyes to it. Peter is just one example of a large number of different people, none of whom I’ve met, all over the world who have chosen to champion the film as part of their climate change effort.
Greenpeace UK, International, and Canada have all featured the film on their websites, and WWF UK, onehundredmonths.org, 350.org have put it in their newsletters, as well as countless smaller grassroots climate initiatives, from Transition Towns to Rising Tide, and local Friends of the Earth groups too.
Mostly, the film has been spread on the internet and in self-organised screenings by environmental activists who are grateful to have this complex message packaged up in such a concise and engaging bundle. So it’s been great to have a sort of ready-made army of promoters working to get the film seen by as many people as possible. It helps that I decided to go totally non-profit with it, I think.
Based on your immersion in this topic, what do you think is the one thing people can do on an individual basis to positively impact climate change?
Don’t focus your energy on reducing your own carbon footprint. A few responsible people reducing their emissions to zero is not going to save us – we need social change, on a massive, unprecedented scale. The single most important thing you can do is spread the word.
The film is over 11 minutes long and well worth the full view, but if you had to communicate the issue of climate change in one sentence, what would it be? As an animator, what is the one visual or graphic element you would use that you think would have the most impact?

“Unless you take immediate personal responsibility for stopping it, climate change is going to ruin everything, for everyone, forever.”

Sorry if that’s a bit full on, but it’s true. The film has a lot of imagery that I hope will stick in people’s minds, but the Earth crossing the tipping point to runaway warming at the top of the hill is definitely its defining visual and conceptual moment. I often get a curious urge to cheer as it finally tips over the peak and begins to roll away…
Will you be applying this same model to any other environmental topics? Are there other eco-films in your future? What would be the focus of your next feature?
I animated the title sequence for a forthcoming feature drama-documentary about catastrophic climate change, The Age of Stupid, which stars Oscar nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite. It’s a really amazing film which I think is going to make a huge difference to public awareness of this issue. Wake Up, Freak Out is going to be included on the DVD extras.
If I can possibly find funding for it, I’d very much like to make a sequel to my film that focuses on the solutions to climate change, rather than just alerting people to the problems. There’s also the possibility of landing an animation director role on a children’s film about climate change and deforestation, although this is not at all certain yet.
Do you envision these films as a business model? Are you seeking to monetize your efforts? Or is it just a hobby at the moment?
Honestly, I don’t think I could monetize Wake Up, Freak Out in good conscience. I made it using the wonderful opportunity one gets when at college to make a film that doesn’t have to make money. As it is a campaigning film, I don’t want to put any barriers in the way of it being seen by as many people as possible. It’s probably not quite right to call it a hobby either however – more of a compulsion! But that doesn’t preclude business resulting from it.
What are your long-term goals and aspirations? What is your background and ‘day job?’
I’m a freelance animator who is desperately trying to avoid a career in advertising at the moment. I used to want to be signed to a London production studio as an animation director, but since leaving my first degree and going into work, I’ve learned that nine out of ten jobs in the UK industry are commercials. What sort of environmentalist would I be if I made adverts for cheap flights, or 4x4s? But then again, what sort of director would I be if routinely turned down jobs just because I didn’t like the products?
If I can contrive a way to a) make money, b) make animation and c) fight climate change – then I will be a very happy and contented man. Whatever that may be, I’m definitely looking for alternative ways to monetize it.
Where would you recommend people go for more information about climate change? What did you find were the best sources of credible information?
Realclimate.org is by far the best source of reliable information on climate science on the web. I strongly recommend a new report from UK eco-think-tank PIRC, Climate Safety , that outlines the science and policy developments since the IPCC‘s most recent report in a very accessible way.
Honestly though, the important stuff now is not the science; the uncertainty remaining is in the range of really pretty awful to absolutely terrifyingly apocalyptic. Whether we need 60% cuts by 2050 or 120% cuts by 2020, the immediate action we need to take is the same; get the hell out of carbon as quickly as possible. The big questions we have to ask ourselves now are about how – and that’s not science. That’s politics, and culture, and morality. We have enough science. Now we just need to be courageous enough to act on what we have learned.
How have you taken advantage of social media in promoting your efforts? Do you think it will spark the social change you are seeking?
Hundreds of different people have been using Facebook to promote my film, which is really gratifying. I should have done more to promote the film on YouTube I suppose, but I hate the version that is up there. It’s very poor quality so I never want people to watch that one! I’ve not done much promoting it on MySpace or Twitter or anything yet either, although for a long time StumbleUpon was the top referrer to my website so somebody out there must have liked it!
My film alone is really only the starting point for a discussion that needs to begin now. If it can do that, I will consider it a success. How people will respond to the information it conveys is another question. But I live in hope!
How would you advise other passionate ecopreneurs to promote their cause?
It’s all about screen media. As noted above, people in developed nations spend half their waking life staring at their screens so there’s no better route into their consciousness than through that little square. I reckon mobile-friendly content is the future as well but my film’s got a bit too much detail for that, and is way too long, which is probably why it hasn’t gone properly viral yet. Hoping for a million hits by the end of 2009 though!

A sustainable future…

The sheer volume and attention that Leo has been able to garner demonstrates the ability of an environmental program to trigger mainstream consciousness. It also highlights the viability of advancing sustainable business practices across verticals by extending the reach beyond just the shareholders to the stakeholders. The key is education and an outward commitment to the public that the environmentally and socially responsible changes you make internally [will] benefit them — and future generations — externally. And by investing in that education, the return is not only a sustainable profit center, but a sustainable planet.


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