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Issue 276
January/February 2013
The Tipping Point

Ethical Living

Signs of Change
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Signs of Change

Seeing things differently is a good starting point for a shared ecological wellbeing, says Elaine Gilligan.

“Get used to ‘extreme’ weather, it’s the new normal”, shouted a recent Guardian newspaper headline featuring Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, making the case for tackling the interlinked problems of the climate and economic crisis together. This story followed hot on the heels of a Channel 4 news item on climate change where the question wasn’t about the existence of climate change, but about whether it was to blame for US droughts. Earlier in the year, a Guardian/ICM poll on climate change, economics and politics had also revealed that the public view of human-induced climate change has remained consistent over the last three years.

On the one hand it’s good to see prominent politicians speaking out, the media running strong climate-change stories, and public opinion holding firm – despite the best attempts of the climate sceptics. Way back in 1991 one of my first jobs as a volunteer at Friends of the Earth was helping to organise a national training event on global warming. Much to the amusement of the media the event was cancelled at the last minute – due to snow! So some of the press coverage featured a cartoon snowman lampooning global warming.

Just over 20 years on, and climate change is no longer a joke, or a far-off issue on the distant horizon. But as evidence mounts that climate change is happening even more rapidly than most climate scientists themselves had expected, climate change and the issues it presents serve as an illustration of the growing gap between the scientific understanding of the challenges ahead and the political response to it.

Change is needed now more than ever. Not just environmental change, but political, economic, social and technological change.

Change isn’t easy, but it is possible. You only have to look at the history books to see examples of transformational change, from women getting the vote to the abolition of slavery. Great upheavals led to the Industrial Revolution and the formation of the United Nations. More recently, the digital revolution has utterly transformed communications, commerce and lifestyles. These have not been without some negative side effects but they all illustrate that major changes can and do happen.

There are signs of change in the right direction. Across the world we’re rapidly increasing the use of solar panels to provide us with renewable electricity. Electric cars are beginning to be mass-produced and the more foresighted businesses are now putting sustainability at the core of their business models. Digital technology is developing rapidly and is being used to improve democracies and deliver huge efficiencies and innovation. Leading cities are collaborating to develop real solutions and drive change. In its recent report Green Economy: A UK Success Story Green Alliance declared: “Quietly and without fanfare, green business has become a UK success story, at home and abroad. [...] This success should be celebrated. With greater public recognition and stronger confidence green businesses can help secure a faster and more resilient economic recovery.”

Yet at the same time it is generally accepted that humans are rapidly damaging natural life-support systems, to a point that without urgent action in the next two decades there could be significant negative consequences on the ecosystems that both sustain us and amaze us. And alongside the growing evidence of global environmental and social problems is a sense of deep disconnect on environmental issues. Short-termism in politics means politicians play to the short-term needs of the political cycle, with the environment consigned to low-priority status.

Going forward, how we bring about change will be as critical as the changes we call for. There has been a tendency to treat people as rational beings who with enough information will do ‘the right thing’. But people aren’t rational.

Much has been written too on what motivates people to change, whether it’s the ‘nudge’ effect of positive reinforcement, or harnessing the ‘herd’ tendencies of large numbers of people to act in the same way at the same time. In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell explains the tipping points that happen when ideas, trends and behaviours cross a threshold and spread like wildfire. It’s an uplifting book that shows that with the slightest push in the right place things can be ‘tipped’. We need to better understand how change happens and engage more people, inspire them, make them laugh and make it better.

A global transition needs to take place as swiftly as possible and the next 10 years will be crucial if we are to avoid environmental catastrophe. This transition will require a complete transformation of our energy system and a radical overhaul in the design of our towns and cities. It will entail huge changes in how we manage our land, freshwater and seas, in what and how we produce and consume, and in how we manage markets and deliver an economy within our environmental limits.

At Friends of the Earth we’re bringing in five new transformational programmes looking at a range of issues, including these:

• Securing the transition to a low-carbon economy in the UK.

• Reconnecting people with Nature.

• Providing food for all within planetary boundaries.

• Putting the environment and human wellbeing at the heart of the economy.

• Making sure the transition is fair for all.

We’re looking for the strategic interventions around these broad areas that will start to build a critical pathway for change. This means being open to new ideas, testing and trying them out and taking a hard-nosed, honest look at where and how we can make an impact. As we look ahead, we plan to share our ideas and programmes in more detail with Resurgence & Ecologist readers, and we will be looking for your ideas and feedback. So to start this dialogue, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the 10 most critical strategic interventions needed to put us on the path to delivering wellbeing for people and the planet.

Elaine Gilligan is Head of Programmes at Friends of the Earth.

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