Climate Change: You can’t wake a person who is pretending to sleep.

November 4, 2011 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Hanah Arendt famously wrote of the ‘banality of evil’ in the context of the Holocaust. I wonder if we should now recognise ‘the banality of doom’ in the context of climate change. Or as Economist Paul Krugman put it in a different context, is it possible to be bored and terrified at the same time?

There is yet more bad news about the climate today, which should be of massive global significance, but is unlikely to make any headlines. The simple fact is that the world is ‘not getting it’. We pumped about 564m more tons (512m metric tons) of carbon into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009 – an increase of 6%.

Such dry facts do not set the pulse racing. As John Reilly, the co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change said: “The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing.” Anthony Giddens made the same point when speaking at the RSA last week.  We are, as Iain McGilchrist puts it, ambling towards the abyss.

as Economist Paul Krugman put it in a different context, is it possible to be bored and terrified at the same time?

It is tempting to give up, individually and collectively. Yet there is hope, of sorts. I am reminded of a John Cleese line from the comedy Clockwise where he is desperately late but sees that his mental agony is caused by the fact that he still has an outside chance of being on time: “It’s not the despair. I can handle the despair. It’s the hope!”

So what do we do with that hope?

I mentioned Clive Hamilton’s theory that we need to accept climate change emotionally, through a form of collective grieving, before we can act with any conviction, and rather than feel despair at today’s news I wanted to highlight another perspective that gave me some hope.

Jason Clay is Senior Vice President of Market Transformation at WWF. I watched him give a wonderful talk at the Climate, Mind and Behaviour Conference at the Garrison Institute outside New York in March. If you don’t have time to listen to the talk, at least flick through the slides, or reflect on one of his opening lines: “it is the people who buy and sell that are changing the world.”

Population growth plus climate change means we are running out of planet. As Clay puts it: we need 8,000 years worth of food in the next 40 years. We urgently need to focus, and find the greatest point of leverage.

A simple fact helps to focus the mind: 100 companies produce 25% of all commodities, and 25% of demand leverages 40-50% of production.

Clay’s point is that we need to focus on the supply chain. Rather than target consumers or the primary producers/extractors on either end of the product life cycle, we need to focus on the retailers, brands, manufacturers, traders and processors.

For starters, you need to take deforestation out of the supply chain- that means focussing on Brazil, Indonesia and Russia where 50% of deforestation takes place, and focussing on particular products including beef, soil, palm oil, soya and fish that are some of the worst carbon culprits.

He is not saying it’s easy. The big companies are competitive beasts, struggling to survive against other competitive beasts. Clay’s main take-home point, for me, was that sustainability is a pre-competitive issue. No planet, no competition. And the big companies get that.  But Clay said it takes 8-15 ‘touches’ to get a first meeting with the big companies, and much longer to lock them into to significant changes.

The core challenge is to define the boundaries of competitive and pre-competitive, which is where regulation and carbon markets comes in. And yet, Clay suggests that if you truly factored in environmental costs, prices would triple, which nobody wants.

What does this have to do with behaviour? Clay began his talk with a beautiful Oromo proverb: “You can’t wake a person who is pretending to sleep.” The big companies who are causing the biggest problems are not easy to wake, precisely because they are pretending to sleep i.e. they think they are doing ‘their bit’. The challenge for all of us, I think, is to recognise how we are complicit in their slumber.

 

 

 

Comments

  • Raymond Owens

    The problem of those who slumber whilst we ‘amble towards the abyss’ is well stated.  There are so many elements to correcting this situation – major corporations, governmnts and the ordinary people that we need someone to compose a song and symphony that will cause those elements to sing from the same sheet, that is indeed the big challenge.  If only it was possible to harness the growing groundswell of anger that’s building against greedy capitalism.  It might be the beginning of something that could take hold.  It needs to come from the people before the politicians start to get on board.  I wish I knew how we could start the ball rolling . . . .

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks Raymond.

      I agree that ‘the growing groundswell of anger’ looks like the right place to start, but there are lots of people who feel the environmental cause suffers because it is associated with left-wing radicalism. Campaigning to address climate change often looks suspiciously like anti-capitalism.
      Of course, you can be anti-capitalist in more or less reasonable ways, but we have to be a bit careful. We do need more people to sing from the same song sheet, but we can’t have too many toxic elements singing out of tune…