Some folks are telling us that promoting our campaign as a mission to end the climate crisis is bad PR. They say things like, “People don’t like the word crisis. It’s negative, it scares them, they throw their arms up in defeat,” etc. And they have data to back it up. Lots and lots of data. Psychological studies packed with sample groups, charts, graphs and testimonials addressing what moves people, what motivates and demotivates human beings, what sends people into constructive action and what sends them running for the hills.
This whole school of thought, completely valid as a school of thought, leaves out one key ingredient – none of what the studies ascribe as the determinants for and against people taking action is actually happening when the action itself is happening. All the studies get their validity not from the real observance of people and the actions they take or don’t take, but from the model in which the studies are conducted. The psychology of what has someone act or not act isn’t there anywhere in the action itself.
There is no psychology happening in the action, no motivation, no will power, no optimism, no attitude, no how-you-were-raised, no any of that. All of that is only happening as a theory in the realm of the observer of the action when that observer is watching the action through a psychological model.
So again, we take no issue with all the studies and theories out there about what gets people to act, only to say that they are just that – theories.
One of the things I found most troubling when I got into the world of climate change was the lack of real straight talk. And not only a lack of it, but a concerted effort to avoid it. One of the best examples was the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris, where the Paris Agreement was reached. Delegate after world leader after business leader after movie star after billionaire went to the stage and spoke of how historic this convening was, how much progress we had made, and how hopeful they were and we should all be. No problem: it was indeed historic in its convening of the countries of the world aligning on climate change as a real issue and presenting pledges to address it.
What I found alarming was the absence of any conversation from the podium that dealt with the hard reality of the gap between where the pledges of the Paris Agreement would take us and where we need to be to end the crisis. Not that the UN wasn’t going to end the crisis; it’s not and it’s not designed for that, which was made very clear to me in my conversations with both the co-chairs of COP21 and COP22.
The UN’s job is to provide an environment of convening and collaboration, and they did that. And that an agreement was reached was remarkable, to be celebrated both in its accomplishment and the contribution it makes toward ending the crisis. However, to not include in the conversation the real “what this agreement won’t provide and where it falls short in the actual business of ending the crisis” left the global audience missing a critical, and possibly the most critical element of the situation – the gap.
So I started asking the powers that be at the Paris Conference, “Why?” Why, for example, when China announced its commitment to peaking emissions by 2030 did no one address that that goal puts us on track to a temperature increase of 4 times the current increase, assuring a catastrophic future. And that’s only if they actually do what they pledge to do.
The responses I was given over and over were: “We don’t want to scare people.” “We want to keep people positive.” “We have to give people hope.” “We want to leave people optimistic.” All of which is just what there is to do if you ascribe to popular theory about people and action. However, it is EXACTLY what you DO NOT want to be doing if you want to actually empower people to act.
If I’m having an operation, I don’t want a surgeon who’s optimistic or hopeful or even unafraid. I want a surgeon who has a clear grasp of the reality of the situation of everything associated with that operation and who is going to take the actions necessary to accomplish a successful operation. And I want the surgeon’s actions to be informed and guided by what is actually happening on the table as the operation is happening and not by a theory about performing surgery.
If you really observe people, you will see that optimism doesn’t move someone to action, any more than pessimism moves them away from it. There is neither in action. This is one of the truly unique aspects of 2020 or Bust: We deal with the situation as it’s happening. Real world. This situation includes the physicality of the situation (sea levels, temperature, carbon, animals, plants, etc.) and it also includes people, i.e. people’s relationship to and actions associated with the situation.
Our mission is not to make people feel good. Our mission is to end the climate crisis, and to end it as a function of empowering people to take action that produces that result. And of course, our mission isn’t to make people feel bad either. Simply that how they feel is how they feel, and then there’s ending the crisis.
If you want to have power in dealing with a situation, you want a raw, stark grasp of what the situation is, absent significance, assessment and judgment. And this is no small feat.
In my thirty-plus years in working with individuals, teams, and corporate and not-for-profit management in designing and accomplishing “breakthrough” projects, one of the most difficult aspects of the work has always been the initial phase of “what’s so.” This is the work of having people get down to the situation as the situation itself, without any of the “noise” that had historically been there shaping what they saw as the situation.
To drill down through all the opinions, all the generalizations, all the blame and credit, all the how-it-should-and-shouldn’t-be’s, all the right and wrong, all the optimism, all the resignation and cynicism, all of it, until there is nothing between the person and what is happening. Then and only then can someone begin to see actions that will address what’s happening in a way that is effective in the situation as it is, rather than how it has been perceived.
This trance of living-in-the-noise is there for everyone, seductive and attractive, in that in the trance, no action other than what is already being taken is called for. The trance is familiar and comfortable but a recipe for disaster if the current situation requires new action. Given that, one can consider that the real crisis might not be the climate, the temperature increase; that’s just the current manifestation. The real crisis might be the trance.
The opportunity to wake from the trance of the noise surrounding the situation of climate change is one of the key offerings of 2020 or Bust. So rather than using language that leaves people in a state of familiar and anesthetized comfort, we use language that will bring to the foreground those conversations critical to have when the mission is to cause something radical, something beyond what is accomplishable in the noise of the trance.
We intentionally chose the word “crisis” for our mission “to end the climate crisis.” Admittedly, there is no “crisis” in what’s actually happening; it’s a characterization. However, when you explore the facts of the situation, the word fits. When your house is on fire, it’s appropriate to deal with it as a crisis. Our house is on fire, and the predictable future is that we won’t wake up in time to put it out.
To language the situation as a crisis doesn’t make us alarmists; it simply makes us the communicators of a reality that might be alarming to the listener. Well, guess what? It’s appropriate to be alarmed in a crisis, maybe even necessary. We can handle it, we can deal with the situation as it is, we’re big people, able to confront reality and rise to the occasion, but not if we don’t have the chance to be fully aware of the occasion and all its implications.
In addition to its appropriateness, we chose “crisis” for its capacity to provoke, to jostle, to pierce into the trance. In the spirit of disrupting the tranquilized obviousness of the noise in which much of the world currently slumbers, we wanted language that would be initially disruptive.
The symbol for crisis in Chinese means “critical moment.” Not negative, not positive, but critical. We are at a critical moment in history, a moment on which the future depends. How we act in this moment will determine what future is there for generations to come.
What is the opportunity that this moment presents for humanity? What is it that could really have people wake up to that opportunity for themselves and for the world? What we have seen in our work is that there is some real connection between something being there for someone as an authentic opportunity and the actions that person takes. What we have seen is that once people get through the noise of climate change (their own and the collective’s) and confront the criticality of the situation, what naturally arises is the question, “What can I do, how can I make a difference?” This speaks to another aspect of our campaign.
Our job is not only to wake people to the gravity of the situation, but to also wake them to their own power and to the opportunity to make a real and tangible impact. When a game doesn’t exist for someone as winnable, there’s little call to play. The work that we have done has ending the crisis be a game that is winnable. We have laid out the parameters – the end game, the short game, the results needed to win and the actions needed to produce those results. In its now being there for people as winnable, there is much more of a calling to act, an opportunity to get into the game, to play, to win.
We bring to the party both elements – the reality of the situation and the opportunity to impact it. The oneness of crisis/opportunity. The critical moment and the chance to be someone who in the full embrace of the moment has the power and opportunity to take action and alter history.
The opportunity is before us. To end the climate crisis. To win the game of the century.