No change, no future: Finding your impact
“It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.
Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”
Those are the opening words of The Uninhabitable Earth, an article (and now book) penned by journalist David Wallace Wells.
Conventional climate change journalism, he argues, is far too optimistic about the future. Bad things are going to happen. They are baked in. The decisions we make from here are not about averting climate change but surviving it.
Despite the research telling us that immediate, drastic action is needed to prevent the destabilisation of the blue planet, our inability and reluctance to imagine the doomsday effects of global warming begets lethal procrastination. The same can be said, albeit to a lesser degree, of other agenda on the sustainability to-do-list.
Our inertia is not informational, but motivational. How, we must ask, do we get people to take up their posts as protagonists in what will be the greatest human drama of all time?
Start at the top
One way to provoke action around environmental and social initiatives is to have ultimate decision makers who can best imagine the consequences of inaction.
Tanya dos Santos, global head of sustainability for the Investec Group, echoed that sentiment during the final episode of the Investec Future Impact podcast series which focused on how to catalyse change:
“He grew up in abject poverty, so he understood what it was like having no access to clean water or power. He lived it. For me, that was one of the first moments where leadership really connected with an issue of sustainability.”
She was referring to the then Investec Chairman (now CEO), Fani Titi, who chaired the social and ethics committee at the time. His support contributed to a greater awakening that changed personal and professional attitudes towards sustainability issues. Change followed.
Don't baffle with science
If we want people to change their behaviours, we need to give them a relatable reason for doing so.
Telling someone to eat less meat because bovine flatulence produces between 250 to 500 litres of methane gas per day which is 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere but has a half-life of only 9.1 years compared to 100 years for CO2 which means that reducing methane emissions will have a more immediate impact on global warming (and breathe) is unlikely to change their behaviour.
Drought for a farmer. Property damage for an insurer. Immigration for a government. But perhaps the most universal and emotive connection to such issues is through our children – we can imagine their suffering.
Everyone has their own story about how they connect with issues of climate and inequality. I try very hard to figure out what that is rather than arguing on the science.
"There hasn’t been enough focus on trying to tell the climate story to young people so they can become agents of change, creating the taboos that will move the needle when it comes to adult behaviour. After all, who wants to be seen as a lousy parent?”
That was Christopher Lloyd, a children’s non-fiction author and founder of What On Earth Publishing. He makes an excellent point. behaviours are largely governed by a set of moral taboos. If our children are clued up and begin to ask questions like:
· Isn’t your big car bad for the environment?
· Don’t cows cause global warming?
· Why don’t you fix that instead of buying a new one?
· Shouldn’t we travel local rather than fly overseas?
· Do you know what your carbon footprint is? I know mine
Then it’s only a matter of time before new taboos form and our behaviours change. As susceptible as we are to the judgement of children, we are also motivated by measurable progress, especially when it’s tied to a meaningful goal.
Whether it’s a faster 5km time, learning to say new things in a different language, or watching your investments grow, we love the feeling of progress.
“People are curious. They want to know what their impact is, and what they can do about it. What really stood out for me is that our team, through their research, have themselves become more eco-conscious,” said Farran Campbell, product manager at Ecowalla, a carbon footprint calculator.
If we know what our respective carbon footprints are, and how they change depending on our behaviour, that awareness will help in the formation of new eco-friendly habits around what we eat, how we travel and how we consume power.
Collectively, aware and motivated individuals can effect meaningful change. But they need the support of industry given the magnitude of the environmental and social challenges.
Give people the skills
The more people we have trained in the ways of sustainability, the more our economy, country and planet will move towards being sustainable. Fumani Mthembi, managing director of Knowledge Pele, a research development and advisory firm, is pursuing that goal:
“Our research leads to innovations that support the development of human capital. As an example, we built a commercial scale hydroponic farm which we are rolling out across the country, making it possible to live and work in a township or a village or a peri-urban community.”
If livelihoods can be tied to infrastructure that furthers social and environmental agendas, then communities will rally around those initiatives and look for ways to build upon them – mostly, carrots work better than sticks when striving for change.
Control what you can
We are often overwhelmed by issues at work or at home. How then, do we avoid paralysis in the face of something as daunting and complex as global warming? By staying focused on the things we can change.
“The most important thing to do is to walk the talk. Start with the small things like bringing your own water bottle so you don’t consume single-use plastic. Figure out your spheres of influence. It doesn't have to be environmental, it could be volunteering in your community. That for me is the most important,” concluded dos Santos.
David Wallace Wells wouldn’t want this piece to end on an optimistic note lest it leave us feeling comfortable with the deadly status quo and ambivalent to change.
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