There isn’t a culture of change … yet
I live an ‘average’ suburban life in the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. A typical week for me involves taking my children to and from school, caring for my youngest who isn’t at school yet, working, activism, a group exercise class, running with my running group, a ballet class I’ve recently taken up, housework, errands, shopping, lunch with my Mum, messages and phone calls with friends, and driving my children around to various after school activities and social events. Outside of the times in which some of the above connected directly with my climate activism, do you know how many people that I come across on a weekly basis mentioned COP28 to me during the nearly two weeks it was held?
Zero, zilch, nada.
There’s every chance that I’m the exception rather than the norm, but I don’t think so. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC’s) Convention of the Parties (COP) is just not on the average person’s radar, and for this reason, national ‘leaders’ (and I use that term loosely) have no ‘mandate’ to come home having agreed to what the science is telling us is necessary to avoid catastrophic warming. In fact, at this point - whilst no doubt it would be welcomed by many activists, scientists, and environmentalists – doing so would likely be political suicide.
Why don’t we have a culture of change?
Yes, there’s also every chance that people are frightened into inaction. A sort of paralysing cognitive dissonance where they understand that the situation is desperate, but they continue to do the very things that are harming the planet. This is why the growth of the extractive, polluting economy continues to exceed the pace of recruitment into viable alternatives to this way of life and subsequently virtually every ecological metric continues to get worse.
Perhaps people care, they just don’t want to be a ‘downer’ and talk about it at group fitness or school pick up. Maybe, but when people were concerned about COVID-19 my experience was that they didn’t avoid the topic, rather they were discussing it. It was the topic on everyone’s lips. We watched daily press conferences and looked at the updates, we reached out to each other to make sure everyone was okay, and we pushed the political ‘leaders’ to do more when the death toll was rising.
I suspect the truth is much more straightforward: people are social creatures and prefer to side with the status quo. Most people would rather “fit in” than “stand out”. For now, the social norm is essentially to pretend that life doesn’t have to change dramatically, a few fixes here and there (solar panels, electric vehicles etc) is all that is needed, and we can continue to consume the living world without harming the living world.
Where we are and where we need to be
This dominant culture of growth and consumerism we find ourselves in is not simply a reflection of human nature. We are not the greedy, self-centred species we are made out to be, and there are many cultures in history and in existence today that prove this. Today’s dominant culture has been cruelly crafted over centuries, off the back of murder, violence, theft, displacement, enclosure, essentially various forms of hegemony, although mostly held together today via cultural hegemony. This is where, through media, education, and other institutions such as entertainment and governance, the working class adopts the ideologies of the ruling class and starts to care about things that don’t actually benefit them, such as economic growth and productivity. I would argue that jobs, the national debt and “progress” should be included here.
The hour is late and there is a lot of damage that can’t be avoided anymore, but there’s so much we can still save. Doing so will require a huge shift in the dominant culture we see today. Encouragingly, research shows that when asked, people overwhelmingly support policies that prioritise people and the planet, in favour of “the economy”. This tells us that if we had a media that was honest about how urgent our ecological crises are as well as genuinely democratic processes and forms of decision-making, we would make better decisions than those that are being made now.
Rupert Read, of the Climate Majority Project says:
"The first stage of transformation is when most people realise we cannot go on like this. The second stage of transformation is when most people realise that most people already realise we cannot go on like this."
The large gulf between what the research shows us, and where we actually find ourselves with regard to action on our ecological crises, suggests we are somewhere between the two.
Unfortunately, our democracies have been subverted by corporate and financial interests and it’s going to take a huge movement to hand them back to the people. While by no means easy, thankfully this task is not as insurmountable as it may seem. Research shows that a “social tipping point” can be reached when a committed minority reaches 25% of the population. When we reach this critical threshold, the percentage of the population behind a cause very quickly becomes 72-100% and what was once politically impossible (in this case, doing what is needed to keep the planet habitable) becomes politically inevitable. Social change is therefore non-linear and it can often seem as though a movement is failing when it is actually on the verge of success.
What can we do?
If you are (understandably) feeling underwhelmed by the predictable but completely inadequate outcomes from COP28, the best thing to counter these feelings is action. An excellent place to put your energy is towards initiatives that will move us closer to a social tipping point of people seeking to live back within the planetary boundaries (of which we are exceeding six of nine, climate change being only one). Do not feel as though you need to persuade your climate change-denying uncle of the need to adopt a whole new economic paradigm over the dinner table this holiday period. Change doesn’t, and has never, happened in this way.
We will grow our sphere of influence by growing concentric circles (reaching the people politically closest to us, and those people reaching the people politically closest to them and so on) of people committed to doing what it takes to keep the planet habitable until we reach that critical mass of 25% of the population. Any actions that get us closer to this point are worthwhile actions. But it won’t happen by hoping that others will do the hard yards. There are no leave passes for this, the most important issue humanity has ever faced. There is something every one of us can do. And do it we must. The alternative is simply unthinkable.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.