What really drives change: Shocks. Readiness. Stories.


I’ve thought for a long time that one of the most important drivers of change on global sustainability issues will be the shocks, crises, and breakdowns that will, pretty much by definition, be the result of our increasing unsustainability.

These kinds of ‘moments of contingency’ have the capacity to startle us enough to make us think the unthinkable, at least for a short while – and hence have the potential to catalyse dramatic political, economic, or social change. Paul Gilding argues in his book The Great Disruption that it will be the impacts of climate change itself that unlock genuinely transformational action on the issue, noting that:

As a species, we are good in a crisis, and passing the [environmental] limits will certainly be the biggest crisis our species has ever faced. Our backs will be up against the wall, and in that situation we have proven ourselves to be extraordinary.

He continues,

As the full scale of the imminent crisis hits us, our response will be proportionately dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy … in just a few short decades. Perhaps most surprisingly we will also learn that there is more to life than shopping. We will break our addiction to growth, accept that more stuff is not making our lives better and focus instead on what does.

But while shocks and crises can unlock transformational positive change, there’s no guarantee that they will. And that’s where two other crucial factors – readiness and stories – come in.

Consider that the US has experienced two once-in-a-century extreme weather events in the past decade – Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 – and that neither of them has led to a fundamental shift in America’s political discourse on climate change.

Similarly, the 2008 global economic crisis has not led to a transformation of the financial sector, much less to a serious willingness to tackle the issues of equality and fairness highlighted by the Occupy movement in the months following the crash. Nor did the global food price crisis of 2008 lead to a revolution in how we grow or consume food; nor did the worldwide oil price spike of the same year lead to a decisive global shift away from fossil fuels. And so on.

So what decides whether crises lead to really dramatic policy and values change or not?

Part of the picture is that it’s rarely if ever that one massive shock drives massive change: instead, it’s more often a whole series of shocks, with no way of telling in advance which will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. (Why was it the poor progress of Britain’s 1940 military campaign in Norway, rather than one of half a dozen earlier foreign policy humiliations, that finally propelled Winston Churchill into the Prime Minister’s job during the Second World War? Who knows?)

There’s also the key factor that someone has to be ready and waiting to use those moments when people are prepared to think the unthinkable. The economist Milton Friedman nailed that point when he wrote to his fellow monetarists, years before they would come to define Reaganomics and Thatcherism, that:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Here too, the example of Winston Churchill is instructive. Throughout a long period in the political wilderness in the 1930s, Churchill had stuck resolutely to his unwelcome message that negotiation with Hitler was not an option and that Britain had no option but to rearm and fight. For a long time, no-one wanted to hear it. Finally, though, the inevitable became clear to Britain’s political class and its public; and it was Churchill, more than any other British politician, who was ready to move decisively into the political space that had opened up.

But the biggest variables of all that determine what happens as a result of a crisis are the stories that are used to make sense of them. Here too, of course, it’s Churchill who provides the example par excellence. His early Second World War speeches warned of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But they also married that gritty realism to a fundamentally hopeful vision of the future: “if we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”. Above all, they were based on a deeply energising view of what his compatriots were capable of: “let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.”

So where does that leave us in the west – as we face a crisis of unsustainability far more fundamental than the Second World War, and with a severe lack of stories and storytellers to boot?

Our failure to get to grips with issues like climate change, extreme inequality, the new age of scarcity and so on has put us on track for an extremely turbulent period in history, as the last five years have underlined. These trends have the potential to become very scary indeed – and as we face more and more frequent and intense extreme weather events, or economic crises, or food price spikes, or spams of unrest or conflict, we will find that our lack of shared myths is a source of considerable vulnerability.

This is above all because of the risk that the wrong kind of stories will fill the void. The rise of Nazism in Germany in a case in point, with fascism flourishing amid a narrative of how politicians had betrayed the country’s forces in the armistice that ended the Great War. (I saw a chilling illustration of the same theme myself a couple of years ago, while presenting at a conference in Brussels on resource scarcity, when I looked up from my speaking notes to see Nick Griffin, the head of the far right British National Party, listening intently in the audience; clearly the potential for scarcity-driven shocks to catalyse his Party’s message of xenophobia, racism and nationalistic chauvinism was not lost on him.)

Nowadays, one of the most dangerous stories that could emerge from the wings is a tale of civilizational over-reach and collapse. In this narrative, our belief in progress is about to come to a grinding halt as we arrive at, and go beyond, a range of environmental limits and tipping points.  For instance, Stephen Emmott, the head of computation science at Microsoft Research, wraps up his book Ten Billion along the following lines:

We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will. I think we’re fucked.

Likewise, Tim Donovan – a self-appointed spokesman for the ‘Millennial’ generation of young people in their teens and twenties – argues that:

It’s wholly unrealistic to assume humanity will undertake the massive, world-changing, economy-disrupting policy solutions needed for us to even stand a chance of long-term survival.

Comparable avenues of thinking can be found in John Gray’s hugely successful Straw Dogs (“humans are like any other plague animal … [mankind] seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth – and thereby be the agent of its own destruction”), and in James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (“the bell has started tolling to mark our ending … only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive”).

Given its assumption that only a few of us will make it, this storyline can tends towards an ugly form of zero sum survivalism. The neoconservative author Garrett Hardin, for example, has notoriously argued that “for the foreseeable future, our survival demands that we govern our actions by the ethics of a lifeboat, harsh though they may be”: people in rich countries shouldn’t try to help people in developing countries, as there just isn’t enough space for all of us.

The great danger of the collapse story is that if enough people start to believe it, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stories are powerful things, after all: they create our reality as much as they explain it. If the ones we reach for to comprehend what’s going on, when everything seems to be coming apart at the seams, are ones that lead on themes of disaster, fragmentation, and breakdown, and that offer no hope of making it over the chasm to safety, then it becomes much more likely that we’ll find ourselves confronting just such a scenario.

People are capable of extraordinary things when they think they have something to fight for. But if they don’t, then history offers no shortage of examples of what happens when that capacity for ingenuity and resourcefulness tips into panic, kneejerk responses, or those dark recesses of the human psyche where fear morphs into aggression, scapegoating, or hate.

If, on the other hand, the stories we use lead on themes of purpose, solidarity, justice, resolve, and renewal, then they have the power to drive a different, and much more hopeful, kind of transformation.  Stories can be exceptionally powerful means of prompting societies to find the heroic within themselves, to pull together and rise to overcome even existential challenges, and to look beyond appalling conditions in the present to a hopeful future that seems both attainable and worthy of huge sacrifice.

And while our lack of shared myths will certainly create vulnerability during moments of crisis, there is also plenty of historical evidence to suggest that periods of turbulence and breakdown provide extremely fertile ground for renewal of societies’ stories and worldviews.

Look for example at China’s warring states period (between the fifth and third centuries BCE), which produced Taoism and Confucianism; or the Jewish captivity in Babylon, which gave rise to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah; or the fall of the western Roman Empire, which paved the way for the rise of Christianity in Europe; or the 14th century Black Death, from the ashes of which came the Renaissance and the Reformation.

And us? The American writer Jim Garrison terms our current situation as “wandering in Sinai”.

We have been delivered from Egypt, but we have not yet reached the Promised Land. We are wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. We have reached the end of our beginning, but not yet begun the beginning of our end. We are between worlds.

Or as former Czech President Vaclav Havel puts it:

There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.

So an awful lot depends, I’d suggest, on what Havel’s ‘something else’ might be – and whether it will emerge in time. I’ll come back to that in my next post.

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