I read a horror story this weekend. But the monster wasn’t some creepy clown or secret white supremacist looking to shape change into the body of a young black man.
The monster was us.
The horror story in question wasn’t something Steven King or Jordan Peele had written. It was by Bill McKibben, a leading voice in the environmental movement and it was a book of his called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun To Play Itself Out?
In sober yet terrifying terms, he lays out why human beings are slowly causing their own extinction, driven by out-of-date economic models that have driven massive inequality and the destruction of the planet that has long been our haven.
The issue of why we have failed to take action on the climate crisis is one that has fascinated me as a marketer and a storyteller. Why has an idea with so much scientific consensus behind it failed to be adopted as quickly as other social issues—for instance, the issue of plastic pollution, where humanity has begun to shift from awareness of the problem to action so quickly?
I’ve narrowed it down to two barriers: The Agency and the Urgency.
1.The Agency: Unlike other bad things in life — Neo-nazis, terrorists, dictators—we cannot point the finger at external forces that are the cause.
We are the cause. It is our daily actions, as consumers and employees and investors that have caused this situation to occur.
It is this uncomfortable realization that can sometimes paralyze us with indecision.
It dawned on me that the same jobs that allow us to put food on our family’s table may also be destroying the planet for our sons and daughters. In our desire to give them a better life, we may be inadvertently dooming them to one which is filled with despair and crisis.
When the movie An Inconvenient Truth came out, the gulf between the size of the problem and our own agency—the ability to do something about the problem—was gigantic. When confronted with the looming disaster of the climate crisis, what were we challenged to do? Change a lightbulb.
But today things are different. As consumers, we have a myriad of choices of things we can to mitigate our own contribution to the problem. We can retrofit our homes to be powered by solar or choose to use a renewable energy provider. We can eschew fossil fuels in our transport, choosing to drive electric cars or use public transport more often. We can fly less and carbon offset more. We can make decisions on what we eat, based on how it was grown, and where it came from. We can choose to buy fewer clothes and ensure that we use them for far longer. The list of places where we have the agency to act is massive and growing longer every day. None of us is perfect, but we can all make a start somewhere.
But it’s not just as consumers that we can make a difference.
As employees, we can take control of the corporations that we are part of and repurpose them so they are fit for the needs of our world today. We can all make sustainability part of our job, and indeed unlock a world of abundance that should be the new bar for what we strive to achieve.
As investors, we can choose to invest our pension plans only in companies that meet our moral standards, as well as our financial goals. We can choose to divest our investment portfolios of fossil fuels, and invest in green energy — the data suggests that this last quarter ESG investments outperformed the market consistently and significantly.
And it is telling on this Earth Day, that not only did oil drop to a negative price, at the same time all-electric car company Tesla has had 10 days of share price increases, making it now the second most valuable car company after Toyota. This unlikely confluence shows us a sign of what the future could look like one where we leave the “stranded assets” of oil and gas in the ground and chose to bet instead on renewable energy as a better operating system for our planet.
As consumers, employees and investors, we’ve never had more opportunity to have our lives align with our values. We can throw out the out-dated economic models of the past and explore new ones like Oxford economist Kate Raworth’s Doughnut model (that has now been embraced by the city of Amsterdam) that balance the needs of people with the needs of planet, and focuses on helping society thrive, not follow the mirage of growth.
2. The Urgency: The second problem besides agency, is that despite the myriad warnings of scientists, there has never been a sense of urgency in our reaction. The climate crisis has always been seen as too abstract, too slow-moving a disaster to warrant our attention. We didn’t have the moral imagination to comprehend a planetary-size extinction event of that magnitude.
This crisis has given us a short sharp shock of what it would be like to experience something that is beyond our control to manage as a species.
COVID-19 is the equivalent of a movie trailer for the full-length disaster movie that is the climate crisis.
The disruption we are experiencing right now because of the virus is an infinitesimal fraction of the chaos that will ensue if we don’t take swift, evasive action to solve the climate crisis.
The beautiful silver lining of this moment is that it has shown us that we humans have an unbelievable capacity to act to help each other. From the frontline responders and essential workers, to the simple acts of kindness that we are now displaying towards our friends and neighbors, we are seeing what we are capable of when we put others interests ahead of our own.
And the unprecedented mass movement to stay at home shows us that we as a species have the capacity to restrain ourselves when we see the greater good it can unleash.
This quote sums it up for me:
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” (Robert Swan OBE).
We now have the agency and the urgency. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day tomorrow, I hope one of the positive outcomes of this moment is that it triggers us to take evasive action with the speed and scale that the climate crisis deserves.
If not, history will remember us as the generation who were given the clearest warning possible but chose to ignore it.
The difference is you. The difference is us. Which side of history will you chose to be on?