Making the sustainability change

February 15, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedRecently I read a frightening article by Bill McKibben on the state of play in the climate change debate outlining how we are on track for catastrophic climate change (a four to six degree increase) if China’s planned 1000-plus coal-fired power plants come online in the next few years, and the fact that since 1990 greenhouse gas emissions have risen by more than 58 percent. It strikes me as very strange that we have known about climate change and the risks associated with it for many decades, yet individuals, politicians and business leaders are doing so little. 

With such overwhelming evidence, why do we find it so difficult to change? Change is perceived as hard. The unknown frightens us. We may be worse off than before, so why bother opening that door? But what if we changed our paradigm and open ourselves to a new realm of possibilities and potential?

It appears we are in a period of transition, be it human induced or otherwise. The ecological disturbances that persist present opportunities for change and growth. It is a malaise that human systems are seen as separate to the ecological systems that support all life upon earth. Our economic social and political systems are merely subsets of the broader ecological system that enables us to extract, harvest and utilise resources to develop societies rich in goods and services for human use.
Our inability to act and create change lies in the fact that humans crave a state of permanence. We want things to stay the same, we want certainty. We want good things to last forever and painful things to end quickly. We have created institutions that help us to deal with this fear (economic, social, political and religious), to help us maintain our security and safety.
Another reason people find it difficult to change is because humans are responsive to short-term stimuli. We are bad at planning for the longer term and seek short-term gratification. We assume things will remain the same and fail to notice gradual changes in our environment and surroundings that will eventually impact us. We compartmentalise and separate things so it is easier to manage and handle problems – a form of denial as it allows us to minimise and avoid any change. A classic example of this can be seen in our use of language, the term ‘the environment’ as opposed to ‘our environment’. If we take ownership of something the chances are we will make the effort to make change.
So how do we instigate change and get others motivated when it comes to sustainability?
Bob Doppelt outlines in his book The Power of Sustainable Thinking how the trans-theoretical model (TTM – a model developed by 24 major approaches to cognitive and behavioural change condensed into a single framework and developed by James Prochaska – can be used to understand the process of change that occurs within individuals. The 5D model outlines five stages of change.
Stage 1 – Disinterest
At this early phase of the process there is little interest and awareness in a specific topic or cause (climate change) and often denial that their behaviour has any effect on the issue at hand.
Stage 2 – Deliberation
At this stage of the process the individual enters the “might change” phase where they begin to acknowledge that there might be a problem and start to consider changing their thoughts and behaviour. People begin to collect information relevant to the topic or cause that they can potentially use in the future. Information and facts are weighed up as the individual tries to make sense of the information. Although people at this stage of the process are more open and willing to make change they still overestimate the disadvantages of change and remain ambivalent about making a shift.
Stage 3 – Design
This stage of the process is classified as the “I will change” stage. At this point individuals have decided that the benefits of making change overshadow the costs of not making change.
Stage 4 – Doing
This is the “I am changing” stage of thinking whereby individuals, groups and teams act upon the already established plans. Tangible actions are taken at this stage such as downsizing, non- consumption, reducing reliance on fossil fuels etc.
Stage 5 – Defending
“I have changed” is the last stage of this transformational process. At this stage people defend their approach and continue to grow and solidify their commitment to making a difference.
Doppelt goes onto to explain that once we have identified the various stages of change we must use the appropriate forms of action to help people transition to the next stage.
The first key to successful change is to understand what stage of the process individuals, teams or organisations are at. Trying to influence or persuade people in the disinterest stage may inhibit movement to the next stage of change.
The second key to successful change is through building tension and fostering self–confidence. Doppelt writes, “Sufficient tension must be established between some deeply held values and aspirations and current conditions. Tension can relate to a potential risk that an individual or group want to avoid. Action to reduce the risk thus achieves the goals of safety or comfort. Tension can also result from the awareness of important internal or externally established goals or standards that are not being met. Resolving this tension allows people to feel good about themselves, to feel successful, and in other ways to feel high self-esteem. Tension, however is not enough. Sufficient confidence must also exist that the change required to close the gap and reduce the tension can be achieved.”
The third key to change is by emphasising the benefits of change early on and dealing with the downsides later. One important pattern TTM researchers found while investigating how people move from the initial stage of ‘disinterest’ to the advanced stage of ‘doing’ is that it is imperative that the individual sees two benefits for each downside of change. Benefits can include things such as: personal safety, cost savings, personal wellbeing, increased self-esteem and support and affection from community members. The key to facilitating change is helping people increase their perception of the benefits of new patterns.
There are many mechanisms for change that can influence and determine individual and group decision making. As a change agent it is important to keep in mind that change is not linear. People can progress to the next level of change then return to the previous stage, then make dramatic shifts to a higher level of the change process. In essence, people oscillate between the various stages of thought and action. Underlying the change process for climate and ecological systems is increased mindfulness of the connectivity of the natural world and how our current Western paradigm of ‘take-make-waste’ economic systems need to be reworked to encompass an holistic approach that understands natural systems are complex and are not merely a resource for humans to plunder and exploit for economic gain.
Image credit: Think graffiti – theclevelandkid/flickr

Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin is author of One - A Survival Guide for the Future and publisher of a sustainability blog that covers topical stories from around the world in relation to trends and sustainability. See 

Tags: behavioral change, climate change