When people aim for the positive benefits of improving their lifestyle after a heart attack, then they are more likely to change their lifestyle and so not need future surgery, compared to when they try to change to avoid the risk of dying sooner. Dying is too far away and too frightening and aiming for a better life is easier to strive for. This was one of the conclusions from Dean Ornish’s research in the 1990s on behaviour change of heart attack patients. Basically, the carrot is more of a motivator than the stick.
I first became aware of this research while reading around change management a few years ago. I was reminded of it recently and it got me thinking about how we commonly communicate about climate breakdown and why as a global community we aren’t taking more, faster action.
There are 3 steps at the heart of change management (vastly simplifying a complex topic):
- Understand and explain why change is needed and what could happen if we don’t change – the burning platform, the case for change, whatever you want to call it
- Create a vision for the future – what is the new, better place that we’re going to get to and what does it mean for “me”
- The plan for how to get from where we are now to the new, better place
Looking climate breakdown communications related to these 3 steps, it’s heavily focused on step 1: understanding why change is needed. We need to explain the ‘why’ first – what’s the problem, why is it happening and what huge, scary problems does it create. The science is clear and has been for years. We’ve got pretty good at explaining step 1 in clear, understandable terms.
Granted not everyone accepts it. I’m going put the deniers in a box for now and focus on the group that do accept it, because we need that group moving first and fastest (and the deniers need a whole separate post to themselves). So, this group, which is made up of all sorts of people – governments, businesses and individuals, get that we have serious problem and that we need to do something about it.
There’s some communication for this group on step 3: how to do it. Individuals can eat less meat, have fewer children, fly less and take public transport. Businesses can set science based targets, transform their business models from linear to circular and insist on sustainable practices from their suppliers. Governments can set ambitious targets to achieve the UN sustainable development goals and set policies and make investments to meet those targets.
And we see some of all of that happening. But not enough, and not quickly enough.
Which takes us to step 2: the new, better place. There is very little communication or discussion about this new place we’re aiming for. The aim is described as avoidance of terrible things: oceans rising and flooding coastal regions, more extreme weather causing death and destruction, mass extinction of species, food shortages. All that is valid but it’s a stick, and as with changing our lifestyle after a heart attack, we don’t respond well to sticks. So where’s the carrot? Where’s the picture of the future that’s positive, aspirational, tells me what’s in it for me and is better than what I have today? It’s largely missing although here are a few examples:
Costa Rica’s aim for their electricity system is to create “a model based on sustainability, equal access, and national security, together with the exploitation of natural resources in full environmental harmony”.
Ikea aim to be people and planet positive. Their ambition is to “inspire and enable more than 1 billion people to live a better everyday life within the limits of the planet”.
Chipotle’s scarecrow animation from 2013 illustrates their vision for a healthier, more humane way of eating although they did get some criticism for it.
Norway talks about the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a “transformative global roadmap for our national and international efforts aimed at eradicating extreme poverty while protecting planetary boundaries and promoting prosperity, peace and justice”
There’s clearly lots of other factors at play and there’s no single solution to making change happen faster but my question is this: would we be taking bolder, faster actions on climate breakdown if people could imagine the carrot rather than just trying to avoid the stick?