In delaying climate change action, we are making the biggest dice roll in recent memory, argues Jae Mather.
There are three stages people go through in responding to the climate crisis: ignorance, action and desperation. We’re still in a place where a large portion of the population is in the ignorance stage.
Moving into an action stage for some people takes half a second; for others it’s years. And then there’s a desperation stage where people think, “There’s nothing I can do when it comes to this big issue, because it’s so huge.”
Because of a large portion of the population is still in varying degrees of ignorance, they think that changing a lightbulb or putting out their plastic for recycling is going to solve the problem. They don’t really know much about it, don’t necessarily believe there is a problem or think that there are people in government or business that are sorting everything out. For the people who know a little bit, but who are still in ignorance mode, they often think they’re doing their bit.
This can be looked at as a form of slacktivism, where people think retweeting or clicking ‘like’ on something is a sufficient enough action to have done their bit. The reality is that our bit that we have to do is so gigantic that we need action on a much larger scale. Slacktivism does have its merits, though, because some of the people who ‘like’ or retweet things actually end up doing much more about it.
What we need to be doing in reality is looking at a complete transition from a linear economy into a circular, closed-loop one where there is no waste because the end products from one piece of the cycle become the beginning products for another. This is a return back to natural systems.
We’re all brought up being taught that our job as a citizen is to buy, eat, consume and then die, and that is wrong.
That fundamental shift is going to be such a tremendous thing for not only business and governance, but also for civil society. This is the biggest piece of behavioural change engineering that our civilisation will have ever experienced.
That’s why when people try to crack the door open to understand it, they see that fundamentally, things are going to have to radically shift so much for us to actually have a prosperous, safe, sustainable world, they flock right through the action stage and into desperation instead. Then they often get stuck thinking, “There’s nothing I can do, it’s too big, it’s too tremendous, I’m just me.”
It’s very important for people to be informed and to understand the gravity of the situation. A famous Navajo proverb says, “You cannot see the future with tears in your eyes.” That is based around the concept that you’ve got to understand the reality where you are, but if you stay in desperation, you can’t do anything.
You have to understand the reality where we are to get on with the business of living: the shift in the way our living works, behaves and acts.
A large portion of the green world is learning from the two different approaches to sustainable communication. One, sell the threats; two, sell the opportunities. And more and more people, especially from the marketing and communications world, are saying it’s all about opportunities.
I’ve seen it shift quite quickly and radically over the last 10 years towards that opportunity focus, but my view is that there are certain cultures in the world that are more adept at things when they’re on their knees. That’s when we become creative.
Changing a lightbulb still matters because what it’s vitally important for, much more so than the energy you save, is to see something that can be done differently. It’s important to say, “I plugged this in instead of the old thing. It does the same job, produces just as much light, uses 80% less energy and lasts 10 times as long.” That is the message.
We need to get people to think that we have many unquestioned ‘normal’ behaviours that are inefficient. And that applies everywhere. The reality is our grandparents had a Sunday roast; they didn’t have a roast seven days a week like we do. Why has this become normal over a fairly short period of time?
Today, the average household spends 10-12% of its income on food. This is incredibly low. In medieval times, and for many people today in the developing world, it is 60-70%. We’ve become so used to the concept that food is cheap that we waste it, often without much thought.
Procurement and purchasing are the core of how we can make a difference. You can say, “I’m not going to buy x, y and z because I don’t need them.” That’s the most important thing. It’s not reduce, reuse, recycle; its refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. Refuse is the starting point.
The marketing world has played upon the weakness in the human psychology which is that we are an addictive species. We get addicted to ideas and concepts. We are addicted to oil. We are addicted to consumption. We are addicted to immediacy. That’s why Facebook and Twitter have taken off so much – because our species is hard-wired for immediate gratification.
We get that gratification when someone retweets your tweet, which is hilarious when you think about it. What has it actually accomplished? Some of it is brilliant and vital, and does a lot; a lot of it does absolutely nothing.
Someone once said to me, “Twitter is amazing. Look what it did in the Arab spring.” Yes, but they tweeted and went outside and did something. In the West, we tweet and then we tweet again. We don’t do things. That’s the fundamental disconnect.
Our entire economy has to be redesigned for it to function. It’s holding everything as it is. That’s fine, if it was giving us what we want. But we don’t want the world that’s coming, so it’s time to become unreasonable with these belief systems and management structures.
It’s time to lift our eyes up and staring off into the horizon to see that gigantic cliff that is rushing towards us. We need to think, “Wait a minute. Where are the brakes? How can I turn off this road? How can I actually stop? How can I change things so that we actually have a world that is worthwhile?”
Nothing is inevitable. Our species is capable of amazing things. I want to be completely surprised at how quickly we evolve, and I know we can. So ultimately, this is the biggest dice roll in recent memory. And the threat is us.
What do we owe all of our ancestors that came through so much to get us all here? And what do we owe our children? Do we owe them a world of absolute and utter hellish desperation because of our ignorance and stupidity?
Currently it looks like we are going to be the hated generation in the future because of what we didn’t do. We need more people to say, “Enough is enough.”
As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.”
Jae Mather is the director of sustainability at HW Fisher & Company and the Carbon Free Group.