Speechless

New year, new goals and new opportunities. But this year, my new year’s resolution is not going to be to work out more, eat more healthy or anything of the sort. This year I’m going to be a bit more provocative, and promise to stop talking about sustainability. We are not going to talk about sustainability. We are not going to talk about climate change. We are not going to talk about sustainable development goals or circular economy. And I encourage fellow sustainability professionals to do the same. We have to cure the “talking disease”. This is a call for action.

The talking disease goes beyond individuals. It has spread across the industry, politics, and society. No one, in their right sense of mind, questions that climate change is real, and that we must react with urgency. But yet, the COP24 climate conference in Katowice last year ended with just talking about what needs to be done to implement the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement, which commits the world to keep the global warming below 2°C relative to pre-industrial times, was put in place in 2015. That was three years ago. COP24 should have been about evaluating actions, not setting up the rule book for how to implement actions…?

A couple of months ago while Above was researching what actions we can take as innovation facilitators, I came across the insightful article “Why people aren’t motivated to address climate change”. At the beginning of the article the author, Art Markman, describes how we as humans usually are very motivated to react to threats. He makes an example of a bus “ If you step into the street and see a bus bearing down on you, you jump back”. That bus example stuck with me. If the bus would be climate change, biodiversity loss, resource scarcity or any other of the external threats that we are facing, our reaction right now is…talking to it? Here is some insight: If you see a speeding bus coming towards you, it will not slow down just because you start talking about how hard it will hit you!

So why are we not acting? Is the bus too far away for us to see it? According to the science community, it’s quite the opposite. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a critical report about how dire the consequences of climate change are becoming, and how fast we need to move to avoid the worst. While the world has already warmed 1.0°C since pre-industrial times, holding the world to 1.5°C is still technically possible. Even the 1.5 degrees will result in devastation, but it’s far better, both regarding well being and in respects of economic impacts, than 2 degrees. Getting to 1.5 degrees will require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” and this transition will need to be “unprecedented in terms of scale…and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors.”

The evidence is there. So there has to be something else that makes us not take the necessary actions against the apparent threat of climate change. Art Markman mentions a combination of factors, such as the trade-off between short- and long term benefits, that we have a hard time to grasp the effects of accelerating models (we’re too good at thinking in linear models) and that most of the impacts of climate change are still too distant for us. All of these are true. And frustrating.

Frustration can be a good emotional state if you realise it is a driver for action. It triggers the “fight, flight or freeze” stress response in our brains and helps us react. As Leyla Acaroglu points out “If you want to see a change in the world, you have to change yourself first — which means accepting the uncomfortable emotions that our brains are constantly trying to avoid.”

From our vantage point in the middle of the industry, we meet both the talkers, the action takers and the ones in between. Where we exist in the business ecosystem offers up an interesting position to shape and change how we address sustainability. To be able to work with a more long-term, systematic and holistic approach we have recently initiated a business innovation team, where we merged sustainability with innovation management, strategic design, and service design. Designing sustainable products together with using compliance as an opportunity and managing sustainable value chains are vital aspects of eco-innovation. This holistic approach is something we are eager to explore further.

So, if you don’t feel like freezing and since running isn’t really an option, here are some ways to turn frustration into actions:

  1. Think about where you place sustainability in your organisation. Is it just a marketing tool or does it permeate your entire operations?
  2. Find forums for you to share in collaboration with others. Climate change adaptation and sustainability, in general, suffers from the classic “tragedy of the commons”. Why should one company bother to massively invest in climate mitigation if everyone is going to share from those gains? Stop right there. The answer is that we would all benefit. Be open and share- and others will do the same.
  3. Be bold and try out new things. We want to get involved with clients in an early stage and act as a long term partner, so we can understand their needs and together introduce and create new ideas, services or products.

The way we work is not an omnipotent solution to solve the world’s problems, but rather steps we have taken to go from talking about the issues towards solving them. We might not be able to stop the bus just yet, but it is a way to work to avoid a traumatic incident. Are you with us?

Johanna Tunlid has a background in environmental science and works with strategy, innovation, and sustainability at Above. Interested in learning more about us and how we work with sustainability and business innovation? Reach out; we would love to hear your thoughts!

Illustrations by Erik Jonsson, Principal Visual Designer at Above

www.above.se