To create a sustainable future, society has to change, this includes all of us. Our governments cannot be trusted to deliver sustainability. We can do this through dialogue, not rebellion. We must become positively active in developing the psychological growth we need to engage with each other in a meaningful dialogue which builds collective hope. We can build hope, not in our governments, but in ourselves.
In 2008, towards the end of his forty-year career as an environmental scientist and U.S. government advisor, James Gustave Speth wrote his book “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability”. In this book, he wrote of his disappointment that the science of climate breakdown, and the scientists behind it, had failed in its attempts to effect change. Despite the science, he thought governments, corporations and the people of the world remained unconvinced of the urgent need for action to save the world from environmental catastrophe, as we neared the so called ‘tipping point’. Nonetheless, Speth remained optimistic and hopeful. He believed that attitudes were changing, governments beginning to listen, and more importantly, act.
Ten years on, we have seen Donald Trump and his administration take the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement, placing a renewed emphasis on fossil fuels, and empower climate change denial. He’s not alone, here in the UK, just weeks since the stark warning by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that we have just twelve years to prevent temperature rising beyond 1.5% by becoming Carbon Zero, Cuadrilla has started fracking in Lancashire. These actions demonstrate Britain’s and the USA’s commitment to continuing the search for fossil fuels. Also, Philip Hammond (UK Chancellor) has published the UK Governments Autumn Budget, which included £30 Billion for pot-holes, made no mention of climate at all, not one single word. In addition, research by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has shown that humans are responsible for the loss of 60% of animal populations since 1970, supporting the theory that we are living through the sixth Mass Extinction event. Unlike the previous five, this extinction is purely as a result of human actions. In Brazil, the fourth largest democracy in the world and home to the largest ecosystem on earth, the people have just elected Jair Bolsonaro to be President. He has famously stated that he is in favour of following Trump’s America out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and has appointed as his foreign minister, a man who believes that climate change is a plot by “Cultural Marxists” (The Guardian: November 15, 2018), resulting in growing fears amongst environmentalists over more of the Amazon being destroyed in favour of agriculture.
So, if our governments are unable to deliver sustainability, what do we do? There has been a wave of activity and growing resistance from various environmental groups, including the creation of a new activist group called Extinction Rebellion. This group is calling for mass civil disobedience as a means of enacting their “Declaration of Rebellion” unless the Government enacts legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels. Certainly, activism will play a part in making noise and raising awareness, but will civil disobedience inspire the behavioural changes we need across society, from government, industry and the wider population? Research, carried out by Jochen Kleres and Åsa Wettergren in 2017, has found that anger, whilst often initiating action, can result in conflict and the decline of activist movements. This may account for the reason that traditional forms of protest activism fail to create the desired changes. Kleres and Wettergren state that hope drives action, and in turn action builds hope. Hope and action mutually reinforce each other.
If we present no hope, no possible solution or alternative, many of us will just give up before we even start. Hopelessness, pessimism and helplessness have been found to be linked to inactivity. In 2012, Maria Ojala found that young people without a ‘good story’ on climate change can become trapped in a discourse of threat and gloom. Hope, however, increases positivity and the trust in one’s own ability to make a difference. With hope, and a shared goal for people, corporations and governments, change will be inevitable and each of us can lead society towards sustainability. The solution has to be the people.
So it is clear that we, the people, have three choices as we face a crisis of sustainability; hopelessness leading to inaction, anger leading to conflict and decline or hope and action reinforcing each other. Clearly, we need hope. How do we create hope across a society with a multitude of different views and opinions? The truth is we need to create space for dialogue where all sides have an opportunity to be heard rather than resorting to conflict, which strengthens resolve and often results in a deadlock. Dialogue is different from debate, focusing more on listening and suspending judgement rather than shouting and arguing with an opponent. After all, we cannot create effective change through division. We need to use the energy of difference to stimulate and create change. Rather than focusing on what divides us, we need to focus on what could unfold in the space between us as we come together. Dialogue is where this space is created. Dialogue builds hope.
What is preventing us from achieving sustainability through dialogue? It’s our psychology. As a society, we are psychologically immature and lack the development. We are too caught up defending our egos to have the psychological space for meaningful dialogue. This is why we quickly descend into debate, argument and conflict. Psychological growth will enable dialogue to be conducted in a meaningful way, creating space for collaboration and a common purpose. In our society, we must focus our attention on developing people so that we collectively achieve the psychological growth required to make the transition to a more sustainable future. We already have the means and the technology to become sustainable, we could do this tomorrow. It is our psychology which is stopping us.
Gary King is one of the founding directors of Create Seven, a not-for-profit co-operative developing and enabling leaders to co-create a more sustainable society.
Outdoor Learning and Development Psychologist
24th November 2018