April 1, 2020

Seeing Change Creates Change

Gerry McGovern has just written a new book called World Wide Waste: How digital is killing our planet—and what we can do about it. It’s an extremely important issue, given the mantra of “more tech will solve climate change” and the illusion “digital” is somehow ephemeral and without a carbon footprint.

My biggest fear about the COVID-19 crisis is that it will take up everyone’s mental bandwidth and budgets and be an excuse not to do anything about sustainability for some time. If we don’t, we’ll head into a much worse climate-change disaster that unfolds in unstoppable slow motion.

Brett Jenks’s piece, Keeping Up With Corona and Other Lessons For Climate Activists, describes another way to change our perspective:

We change when we see those around us changing, especially when we can observe local effects and local responses. Seeing change around us gives us permission to talk about the problem. (“This is crazy. I’ve been washing my hands ten times a day.”) Seeing change gives us insight into potential solutions. (“We established a travel ban. We’re all teleworking. We just bought a slew of videoconferencing licenses.”) Seeing change and taking smalls steps to enact change ourselves creates subtle shifts in our identity. (“No, of course we’re not going out tonight; we don’t want to be transmitters.”)

Human beings are incredibly social, which is why social distancing and how it’s come about is such a fascinating experiment. I often tell others: people don’t flee the theater when they see smoke; we flee the theater when we see other people fleeing the theater. This has been proven dozens of times by researchers who make the point that others’ behavior is way more influential to us that any alarm bell or scientific evidence. Long before science, pre-literate humans knew that if everyone started running from a threat, she who ran last was probably lunch.

Crucially, the scientists’ responses, warnings and data on the coronavirus haven’t simply been dismissed as lefty ideology as they have been with climate change. Even the arch Bullshitter in Chief has climbed down, along with his Fox News cronies. Perhaps a silver lining will be a renewal of respect for experts. Here’s hoping.


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