Throwing pebbles to make change

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Is it aim or timing that makes for the biggest impact?

By David Salt

“What do we want!”

“We want action on climate change!”

“When do we want it it!”

“We want it now!!”

And what are you going to do make it happen? Sign a petition? Throw a few bucks at some climate action group? Maybe even march in a protest rally (if you’re not off on holiday and the weather is pleasant).

At the end of the day, most of us wishing for action on climate change (and more broadly, sustainability) will happily talk about it and vote for a political representative that promises they will deliver on it (but seemingly never do). And that’s pretty much it. We’re all busy, and most of us in Australia do pretty well by global standards so why rock the boat too much.

And yet the status quo is increasingly letting us down, and climate change is becoming more real and present every year (and particularly every summer and particularly this summer). We want change, we need change; but the pathway that might deliver it is never clear and the status quo is stubbornly resistant.

Breaking the status quo

Crises often break a status quo but are normally very messy coming with mass destruction and suffering. In any case, individual citizens rarely have the capacity or opportunity to ‘engineer’ a crisis.

But citizens in many parts of the world (including Australia) do have the power to speak out and be heard. And sometimes a message resonates and is amplified. And sometimes, what starts as a single pebble of discontent being thrown against the edifice of orthodoxy, goes on to change the world. #Me Too and the Arab Spring are two examples where a few voices raised against inequality led to a massive shift in social norms and order.

Sudden shifts in the social order are sometimes referred to as tipping points, and they are one of the characteristics of complex systems. That is, a hallmark of complexity is that small changes (pebbles) can sometimes produce unexpectedly large and enduring shifts in the structure and function of the broader system.

Tipping points

Back in 2000, the pop psych author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-selling book titled The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in which he suggested it was possible to create a tipping point if you could identify and harness the three groups of people (connectors, mavens and salesmen) that enable social trends to take off. “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts,” explained Gladwell. (Connectors are people who know lots of people, mavens are helpful information specialists and salesman are persuaders.)

Gladwell is a gifted writer and he did a lot to popularise the notion of tipping points but the idea that you can create your own tipping point seems a bit ridiculous to me. Indeed, some of Gladwell’s detractors suggest that if it was possible to do easily then marketeers and politicians would be creating tipping points all the time. The reason they don’t is because complex systems are unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Yes, tipping points exist but they usually only recognised after we’ve crossed one. Yes, highly connected people (Gladwells’ ‘connectors’ and ‘mavens’) can play important role is precipitating a tipping point, but their part in making it happen is usually serendipitous and unplanned. (And, I would note, there are potentially millions more of these people around now with the rise of social media like Twitter and YouTube – neither of which existed when ‘The Tipping Point’ came out).

It’s all in the timing

My belief on tipping points is that there are times when they are more easily triggered (like when the whole community is sick of the status quo and is demanding change) and times when they are less likely (such as when strong economic growth means most in the community are enjoying a degree of prosperity and stability). You throw a pebble in one time and it might foment a revolution. In another, it raises barely a ripple.

So what might this mean to someone wanting to throw pebbles to cause change? I think it means that both your aim and timing is important. You want your message/concern/demand to be acknowledged by people who will make a difference (this relates to the aim of your throw) but you also want to make sure the timing of your throw is in a period that, should you hit your target, the message will be acted upon.

But here’s the thing. While it might be obvious after the event (eg, #Me Too and the Arab Spring) that ‘change’ was in the wind, nobody spotted it beforehand; and nobody predicted where the first seed would take off from.

If you want change then start throwing pebbles at the status quo. Sign those petitions, march in those protests, support those groups advocating for change. But don’t kid yourself you’re achieved anything with a single pebble. What it takes is many pebbles thrown at many targets over a sustained period. And if others in the community start throwing pebbles too then you never know, that tipping point might be closer than you think.

And in this summer of extremes and at the end of four of the hottest years on record during which Australia has witnessed unprecedented mass coral bleaching and mass river death, the time might be right.

Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’

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Would a crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet make a difference?

By David Salt

How do we break the current gridlock on sustainability? What would it take to get our political leaders to commit to meaningful long-term change?

If we could break the hold of vested interests by full public funding of elections it’d be a great start. Blunting tribalism by mobilising public opinion and ending short-termism through longer parliamentary terms might also help. Such solutions (very sensibly proposed by Peter) are easy to argue but diabolically difficult to implement.

Or are they? Maybe what we need is a good crisis, a catalyst to dissolve all those pesky impediments standing in the way of real policy reform; a call to arms to the broader population that we need to get serious about sustainability.

A ‘good’ crisis

A student of mine recently opined that to break the gridlock on climate change we needed a new ‘Pearl Harbour’ moment. He was referring to the day Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese Imperial Forces during the Second World War, thrusting the US into that global conflagration. Over 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbour but the event transformed the nation overnight into a war machine that would go on to become the world’s leading superpower.

We need another transformative moment for the environment, something that would lead to deep and enduring engagement with the challenge of sustainability. So what might it take?

Several years ago I covered an environmental futures conference in Canberra where the mood was decidedly glum (It was titled ‘Can Homo sapiens survive?’ and included luminaries such as Frank Fenner and Stephen Boyden). The general consensus was that prospects for the future of our planet were not looking good. Many said we needed a wakeup call. One scientist commented that he felt nothing short of a massive crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet would be enough.

Is there anything in the history of environmental science (and policy) that gives us hope that a shock might make a difference to our seeming deep indifference to declining environmental health?

Some point to the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the mid 1980s, a phenomenon caused by stratospheric ozone depletion caused by human created gases (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs). The existence of a massive and growing hole in our upper atmosphere came as a complete shock – some even claimed it was an existential threat to human life on Earth.

And, as an international community, we did something about it. We agreed via the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out ozone depleting substances and it seems our actions are reducing concentrations of ozone depleting substances in the atmosphere, and the hole is shrinking. Though, when it comes to big environmental challenges, this success seems more the exception than the rule.

Another crack

Another ‘crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet’ (if we use that as a metaphor for an environmental wakeup call) appeared in Australia in 2016. This time in the form of a mass bleaching event of the Great Barrier Reef. Unprecedented in size and intensity, this bleaching event led to the death of up to a third of the reef; and it was followed up by a similar sized event in 2017.

The cause was crystal clear: climate change and overheating. The scientific consensus on what we need to do about it is overwhelming: reduce carbon emissions and, specifically, stop burning coal. And what was the political response at the national level? The response was one of denial and withdrawal from any engagement with the topic of climate change (though millions of dollars was thrown at a Great Barrier Reef restoration fund to give the impression the government was doing something, but that’s a topic for another day).

Of course, there are crises and crises. Each is unique in terms of magnitude, longevity, frequency and impact. And each has a different legacy; some good, some bad and some of no consequence.

So how big does a crisis need to be to create meaningful change? Some observers reckon that Australia’s Millennial Drought, reckoned to be Australia’s worst drought since European settlement, enabled some progress in water reform but that it might have been better had it lasted just that bit longer for the reform to have had real enduring bite. (Not that any suffering farmer would agree that a historic drought might have achieved more had it been longer).

It’s hard to conceive that the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 could have been any worse, and yet it failed to achieve any meaningful action on climate change policy at all.

What we need is a Goldilocks’ crisis: not so small that it fails to break the policy gridlock; but not so large that it brings down the whole system and it can’t rebuild.

The flip side of crisis

Complex systems science has a bit to say about disturbance and crisis, and their capacity to produce change. Whether a disturbance will cause deep and long lasting change to a system depends a lot on the system’s resilience at the time of disturbance. A disturbance in one circumstance (say the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the event that precipitated World War I) might change the world whereas in another situation, no-one might notice. This is something to discuss in future blogs.

No-one actually wishes for a crisis. Drought, fire and flooding rain bring destruction, death, suffering and uncertainty. But, as any politician will tell you, the flip side of a crisis is that it’s also a window of opportunity to change things (“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel).

And today’s status quo is propelling us towards an increasingly uncertain and impoverished future. We need deep change. A Goldilocks crisis now might be better than a mama or papa of a crisis later.