Ten tips vs. the big picture

There’s a really interesting and useful discussion going on over at Worldchanging.com in the comments for the article on Earth day. Alex Steffen proposes that “ten tips” are not enough (in fact Alex seems to claim that, in some cases, it can actually be counter productive). Be sure to work through the comments at the bottom – very, very interesting and informative. (Although, be mindful of avoiding the troll – Hans Noeldner – in the last comment – well – either a troll or someone with a misunderstood sense of humour.)

Then check out the Environmental Defense Fight Global Warming campaign site – particularly the What You Can Do page. It seems to me that this is heading in the right direction based on Alex’s missive. It links the small actions to the bigger picture systemic change that is required. It still perhaps falls short. What else can they/we do?

Editor note: This started off as the tiny post above, but the following rambling thoughts just jumped out, making a much longer post than I intended. Sorry ’bout that. I’m also pimping a bit about WWF – mainly ‘coz I know the information and resources we have a available better than other NGOs and organisations working in the field. So my apologies about that too…

Many sides to the argument

I’d like to examine Alex’s post, and the resulting comments, in a bit more detail. I am personally trapped between the two main arguments. On the one hand I agree with Alex:

Most of the harm we cause in the world is done far from our sight, created through the workings of vast systems whose workings are often intentionally hidden from us, and over which we have very little influence as single individuals. Alone, we are essentially powerless to change anything that matters. We can’t shop our way to sustainability.

I believe we are bombarded with messages encouraging us to take the “small steps” precisely because those steps are a threat to no one. They don’t depress sales of fashionable crap we don’t need. They don’t bring people into the streets or sweep corrupt politicians from office. They certainly don’t threaten the powerful, entrenched interests who are growing fantastically rich off keeping us locked into the systems that make our lives such a burden on the planet and impoverish our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

And later, in the comments:

I guess one essential point boils down to this question, for me: Are we sure that small steps will, in fact, get people to engage with larger systemic problems? Or do these small steps become a substitute for larger, more meaningful actions?

Much hinges on the answer to that question. I personally believe that most of the time we do the small steps and say, “Well, I recycled that bottle: I’ve done my part.” I don’t believe that most of us (if any of us) recycle that bottle and stop to have a long think about industrial models and non-renewable resources, and what part we might play in changing the system. I just don’t believe that’s the way people’s brains work.

Yet, Daniel Haran, also in the comments, presents the another perspective with a real example (emphasis mine):

[Four activists in Daniel’s city] proposed an elaborate program of recycling, composting and a landfill for the remaining inerts. The city scoffed at the idea, claiming people would never put that much effort into segregating its garbage, that it would cost too much, etc. The city was convinced to do a pilot program selling subsidised backyard composters. They were overwhelmed by demand. I dragged my father to a parking lot where they were selling these units for $20, and we bought two. He is still using them nearly 10 year later.

As does Tavita (emphasis mine):

So, for instance, my house only uses florescent lights, compacts and T-8s with electronic ballasts, (it’s an small investment I’ve made to help the planet) then I walked into my son’s school and the place was filled with old style florescents and incandescent bulbs and they were leaving the air conditioning on at night. I talked to the principal about it, the PTO, and I got elected to the school board, soon I’ve gotten the whole school converted to energy efficient lights, the curriculm has more resource conservation material in it, the school is turning their air conditioning off at night, and the school has committed to develop a zero net engery [sic] use plan (this will take some time since solar and wind is expensive, but we are headed that way). I credit the ten step plans I have read that had links to information on florescents technology, being conscious about air conditiong use, solar, etc., for getting me started on this track. Imagine this multipled with those ten step folks noticings what’s going on in their schools, and ten step folks noticing what’s going in their businesses.

Followed with more from Daniel (again, emphasis mine):

Yesterday I was reminiscing with a friend about the time when we used to sell compact fluorescent light bulbs for $15 each through a health food ordering co-op. Now you can buy a package of 4 for far less. When I set foot in a big box store and noticed half the bulb displays were for compacts, I knew that battle was won. Critical Mass, Tipping Point – call it what you will, it’s now much cheaper than incandescents. Without those early adopters, I don’t think compacts would be as commonplace today. A lot of people said it was symbolic, that it wasn’t nearly enough compared to the significance of the real problems we already knew we faced then. Now it’s one of the CMI’s cheapest wedges.

One theme in my thinking is that rates of change are sometimes more important than absolute numbers. The market was growing, and prices were dropping predictably with economies of scale. Organics growing at 20% a year, solar and wind at 30%. They started from small absolute numbers, but the cumulative impact is or will be massive.

I think these few examples demonstrate that the “small changes” approach can escalate into bigger picture action, but as Alex suggests, such successes seem few and far between – are they the best way forward?

Our challenge

We are currently grappling with this exact issue in planning for the extension of our Futuremakers campaign. Our thinking essentially has been that we employ simple steps, with appropriate linkage to the “big issues”, that most anyone can do so that a couple of things happen.

  1. People can see how their individual actions are amplified – that is, that 1,000 people, or two million people doing one thing can change a market. It’s also about building a person’s confidence in making change, and providing positive re-inforcement of the values of collective action.
  2. As people do more small things, they come to realise that bigger change (that is – through linking the small steps to the bigger picture and providing the tools and information for people to learn about the issues) is required and is possible, and they are more open to becoming “activists” (for want of a better word) – contacting politicians, promoting sustainability with friends, family and work colleagues, amplifying the message of sustainability.
  3. By showing, visually, how individual actions are amplified collectively we hope to rekindle confidence in collective action as a means of social change.

We are very aware of the pitfalls of this approach – but we are unsure of what other options will work – we’re certainly giving it a lot of thought.

We believe it’s about meeting people where they’re at – making it real, linking the bigger issues to personal behaviour – and providing them with the information they need to start taking steps forward towards sustainability. Hopefully, as this process advances, the steps will come faster, and cover more ground, than those before.

A personal example. When I talked to my uncle at Christmas, he was unaware that Green Power was available at the flick of a switch, so-to-speak. His understanding was that he had to install solar panels, or a wind turbine, to go green. The cool/scary thing is I think he was actually considering and interested in doing that, when in fact the solution was far simpler.

As our action (linked above) states:

If all Australians switched to clean, renewable energy (Green Power) today, Australia’s total greenhouse pollution would be cut by 30%. That’s the equivalent of 13 million cars, three million more than we have on our roads now.

Is that not the systemic change we are seeking? Market changing choices – like the organics, solar and wind rates that Danial mentions. That’s probably our most frequently used tip, and has been for a while.

Even the tips meet resistance

Yet people still resist this seemingly simple choice for many reasons. The biggest barriers reported back to us are:

  1. A lot of people simply don’t know that Green Power is available to them, nor the impact that would have. They know that climate change is real but simply aren’t aware of the options.
  2. Energy company Green Power options are confusing. It is often difficult to work out how much more it will cost, and many providers attempt to lock you into long-term (2+ year) contracts.
  3. Perception that it’s too expensive.

As a public we are consistently misinformed by media and government. We are constantly told that we don’t have enough Green Power to support the population if they all switched tomorrow. This is (technically) true, but there is enough to support current demand and rapid growth in the market would spur rapid investment – it won’t happen in such a flood that demand could not be met.

We’re also told that it’s significantly more expensive. This is simply untrue – it is usually very little extra to switch, and efficiency measures such as changing to compact fluro light globes (which have improved significantly in the past 12 months and are now much cheaper) can reduce consumption by such a degree that it is net cost is equivalent to their current bills.

We are also told that living sustainably will drastically damage our economy. This is also untrue – and WWF will be co-launching a report very soon that demonstrates just that.

The (elusive) answer to that question

So where does that leave us? We need to employ methods that meet people where they’re at – they know that climate change is an important issue that needs urgent attention, but don’t know where to begin. “Ten tips” is one starting point, but is most effective when linked to the bigger issues, along with letting people know about the larger systemic changes that are required.

We need to broaden the awareness of these issues in mainstream publications – newspaper and magazine articles, TV etc. – and “ten tips” are what they are asking for. So we take that opportunity as a means to engage someone who may not know where to begin.

As Alex rightly points out – the question is “Are we sure that small steps will, in fact, get people to engage with larger systemic problems?”. Are the “ten tips” genuine openings into the public sphere to inform and elevate debate? Or are they simply a method to relieve guilt and thus become ends in themselves (which, I think we all agree, is not enough)?

What other ways can we do this? It is one thing to say, as Alex does, that we need to present a vision for the future. But how does presenting that vision equate to action. If it all seems too big and too hard and no-one knows where to begin, how does this help?

At WWF we produce report after report outlining how to protect our environment. The Clean Energy Future reports we have published, promoted and advocated for show how we can meet a 50-60% reduction in CO2 emissions through the restructuring of our energy industry.

Most people (myself included) don’t really know how to make that happen, nor have the connections or the knowledge or the confidence to advocate for such change when we’re bombarded with messages that say it’s not possible – economically or socially.

So how do we turn that vision, as outlined in reports such as these, into a mainstream movement when many, many people are not yet engaged? That, in short, is our challenge. Ten tips are part of our toolset. What other options do we have?