Category Archives: narrative

How long does it take to go sustainable (part 3)

This is now becoming a recurrent theme.  What does it take to encourage someone to ‘Go sustainable’?  The last time I posted about this I said that it was about a year.   I think that might actually be bit optimistic (i.e more like 2 years), but then that’s because I now have a better idea of what I think needs to happen in that year (or two) based on a conversation with people from the Finance Lab at WWF and the System Innovation work I’m helping Forum with.

What you get if you put 'system change' into Google Images (pt1)

What needs to happen is for a person to undergo a ‘personal transformation’.  And the reason for this is because the ‘system’ needs to be transformed.  (By ‘system’ I mean the current economic and social system which is geared for unsustainable growth.  A new ‘system’ would be a brand new thing that enabled 7 billion of us to live sustainably on the planet.)

This direct link between personal and system transformation makes intuitive sense to me.  The current system is bound by inertia and ‘the way things have always been done’.  It therefore takes a great effort to change this.  As a result, it’s fairly naive to expect people to go against the grain of the prevailing ‘system’ and be motivated to change  unless they themselves have changed.  They will have had to have changed so much that they are not only able to see the limits of the current system and their place within it, but also able to see what changes are required and able to affect those changes.  This requires a dramatic shift in values, identity and motivation.  Noting short of a ‘personal transformation’.

What you get if you put 'system change into Google Images (pt2)

Now, maybe you just need 5% of the population to do this?  Or maybe 10%? or 20%?  What’s the minimum number of people who need to undergo a personal transformation in order to actually change the system?  And who are those people?  To talk the language of ‘Occupy’, does it need to include the ‘1%’?  If so, how the heck do you do that because they’re the ones with the most vested interest in keeping the current system just as it is.  Or is that another one of those pesky ‘assumptions’?!

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Sustainability. The end, but the means?

I’ve been having a few chats recently about the fact that the sustainability debate, in the UK at least, is confined to a minority.  The sort of person who reads The Guardian, watches Channel 4 and knows that there is social value in being a globally-concerned individual.  That’s all well and good, but whilst they might be the heart and soul of the debate and movement (if it could be called a movement), they’re too small in numbers to make any real difference.  The action has to be in the mainstream.  In terms of media, it has to be with The Sun and ITV1.  The question is, how do you make that happen?  How do you get sustainability to become a mainstream issue?

Government regulation aside, there seem to be two options.  Popularise the existing narrative.  Or change the narrative.  The first option is to make ‘being green’ more popular; more attractive; more socially acceptable.  This is entirely possible, but it hasn’t happened yet – there seems no appetite for it so far, but who’s to say that there will be in future?  However, I don’t see Ant and Dec giving a way an electric car on their new gameshow before sticking up their ‘How To Be Green’ wallchart from the centre pages of The Sun any time soon.  But it might happen.

In thinking about the possibility of being an alternative narrative, it seems important to make a distinction between the means and the end.  At the end of the day, we, as a nation (and a species), need to live in a more sustainable way.  This is the desirable ‘end’.  It’s the ‘means’ to achieve that end that I’m interested in.

To use an analogy – and one that helped get us in this mess in the first place –  is that in the 1950s President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods”.  So, the ‘end’ was an thriving economy based on the production of more ‘stuff’.  How do you make that happen?  There seem to be a number of different ‘means’ that could have been used to achieve this.  It was the 1950’s so you could have created a narrative about it being your duty as an American to buy things in the ideological fight against Communism.  Or you could could create a narrative where people would feel more altruistic by encouraging them to buy bigger and better gifts for friends and relatives.  Or you could create a narrative whereby you can achieve greater personal fulfillment and happiness by buying more things.  It seems that the latter was the primary narrative that was chosen as the ‘means’.  It certainly wasn’t a narrative around ‘please buy more because our economy depends on it’.  So, the means were different to the ends.

So, why, when it comes to the issue of sustainability, should it be any different?

Now, it’s likely that it will be a combination of narratives to help achieve the sustainable end that’s required, but looking beyond the current means = end thinking might move things into the mainstream a little bit quicker.

If you know what those alternative narratives are, you might just help save the world.