Nobody ever said Sustainability was going to be easy…
Last week, I heard someone cite the old “the carbon footprint was invented by BP to put the blame on the consumer” meme. This drives me mad as its purpose is to shift the blame back away from yourself and squarely on ‘big business’. While I have no love for the fossil fuel industry, especially those who suppressed their own highly prescient climate science, nobody from Big Oil ever forced me to buy a large car, eat steak or take long haul flights (guilty m’lud). Those choices were mine and mine alone.
The human brain is very good at self-preservation. It is all too easy to persuade ourselves that, while others must change, we are an exception. In extreme cases, bad actors get involved to stoke resentment, like the reaction to new rules restricting nitrogen pollution in the Netherlands which have fuelled the deeply racist great replacement conspiracy theory. Here in the UK, relatively minor traffic restrictions to stop rat-running through residential neighbourhoods have also attracted the tinfoil hat brigade – along with many who should know better hinting at darker forces at play. Sometimes a bollard is just a bollard.
I’ve long said that Sustainability is about change and change is about psychology. And it is a proven scientific fact that people feel pain proportionally more than they feel gain – if I take £10 off one person and give it to someone else, the first person will be much, much angrier than the second is appreciative.
This anger is caused by loss of agency and one solution is to give people agency to decide their own change. In my home city, we are in the middle of ‘low traffic neighbourhood’ wars. Interestingly there are many streets near me which were blocked to through traffic in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and which are accepted as part of the furniture. Someone shared contemporaneous press clippings showing these arose from a parents’ road safety campaign. And of course the Netherlands’ wonderful pedestrian and cycling infrastructure had similar roots in the Stop de Kindermoord campaign.
This is why my consultancy is based around workshops with stakeholders – effectively getting people to redesign the part of the organisation they work in. The difference is incredible, instead of pushing a huge rock uphill, you find yourself trying to keep up with it as it thunders along the path you want it to go. Don’t get me wrong, leadership is essential to Sustainability, but targets and goals should be cascaded down through the reporting structure as much as possible for more local solutions. Getting people properly involved is the secret sauce of Sustainability.