The elephant in the room has no pop-up notification — how easily we forget.
I recently watched the documentary Chasing Coral. Initially even I, a conservationist and sustainability advocate, saved it to my watch list on Netflix and then left it for some time. I didn’t want to confront the depressing reality the film would highlight i.e. that we are degrading the environment to the point of killing off vital ecosystems.
However, I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary wasn’t a litany of environmental destruction but also the journey and challenges of shooting the film such as capturing time lapse under the pressures of the deep sea.
The final time lapse sequence was particularly confronting. It offered a visual exposé of coral bleaching and dying within a matter of months. In 2016, the world suffered the largest ever occurrence of coral bleaching due to increased ocean temperatures. In my own backyard, 29% of the Great Barrier Reef died.
I felt saddened and a heightened sense of righteous indignation. My immediate action? To book a holiday to visit the Great Barrier Reef before more coral dies. I then followed the Chasing Coral ‘Wake up the World’ and ‘Commit to Action’ campaigns.
….. and then merely an hour following my strong indignation I went on with the rest of my day, week and life. This is so often the case with most social and environmental issues or political agendas. Even when they matter to us, we easily forget them unless we are frequently reminded of them or the issues jeopardise our sense of safety or wellbeing.
How often have you updated yourself on developments of the 2015 Nepal earthquake? Circa 9 000 people died, 22 000 were injured, countless were left homeless and entire villages were destroyed. At the time, there was an outpouring of aid from charities, government, not for profits and corporates alike. Yet two years on, when many of the impacted people are still living in tents or displaced, most of us rarely give it a second thought let alone act upon it.
One of central questions is the ‘WHY’ we forget or avoid certain issues. This is an interesting area of behavioural psychology and for which there are numerous explanations. Here are but a few:
Hedonistic (pleasure — pain) principle suggests we move away from pain and toward pleasure. Our emotional experience can be thought of as a gauge that ranges from bad to good and our primary motivation is to keep the needle on the gauge as close to good as possible
Immunity to Change — Addressing local and global issues requires us to change our mindset or actions in some way. Immunity to change suggests that that motivation and desire alone are not enough to enact change because behind each of our habits is a strongly held belief that fights any change that threatens the status quo. This leads to an “inability to close the gap between what [people] genuinely, even passionately want and what [they] are actually able to do.”
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — love it or loathe it, Maslow’s’ hierarchy of needs seems to be one of the most popular and long-standing theories of motivation. If we apply Maslow’s five-tier model of deficiency of needs to this context, it would suggest that peoples’ motivation centres around meeting their basic and psychological needs for themselves and those close to them before they start thinking about the needs of the environment or society at large.
Desensitisation — through repeated exposure to a certain stimulus / topic we build up a tolerance with decreases our emotional response to it. This is most certainly one of the root causes underpinning the inconsistent action around climate change, loss of bio-diversity, poverty and global inequality. We often ‘shut off’ because of the prolonged duration of these insidious issues.
Often however, the discourse can get stuck around ‘WHY’ we forget / avoid social and environmental issues or ‘WHY’ we should do something said issues. Potentially the more difficult questions concern the ‘WHAT’ and the ‘HOW’ of keeping ourselves updated and addressing social and environmental issues ….and there are a lot of issues!
To get the ball rolling here are some of the ‘WHAT’ and ‘HOW’ challenges I have been pondering:
· How many issues should we care about?
· Is it okay to forget about pressing social and environmental issues temporarily? If so, for how long?
· How do we meaningfully address these issues in any day, week or month when we generally need to work, do chores, take care of family or spend time on recreational activities or on technology?
· In a world where social media and entertainment platforms are vying for our attention what is the best medium to get people connecting with social and the environment issues that leverages both technology and non-technological means? What is the correct balance?
· What is the appetite amongst different demographics to consistently solve local and global issues?
· What are the different experiences people are personally wanting to get from addressing social and environment issues?
· How do we overcome the ambivalence or scepticism to corporate social and environmental schemes? e.g. Will my $2.00 airline booking contribution really go toward carbon offset?
· If we truly want to curb a 2°C increase in global temperature or decarbonise the economy by 2050, how will we do this in a way that is pragmatic, cost effective, and which accounts for human immunity to change and desensitisation?
This is by no means an exhaustive list. I have no doubt that globally there are various enterprises and initiatives which address such challenges. In a series of articles over the coming year I will be forming, sourcing and interviewing for different points of view, on the Why, but mostly the What and the How of addressing social and environmental issues.
I am very interested in hearing your thoughts, additional questions of interest and learning from your solutions and experiences in this area. Please do tag or send me a PM of referrals of people who are doing amazing work in this space.
 Immunity to Change (2009) Lahey and Kegan