Is Change Only Possible in the Face of Crisis?
Understanding human behavior and our failure to take action on climate change issues
In early 2018, the South African government announced that 4 million citizens in Cape Town were months away from running out of water. Panic ensued. Brought on by three consecutive years of drought and overconsumption, the city’s reservoir levels had become dangerously low, with water levels only reaching 15–30% of total dam capacity.
In response, the government decided to issue a date for “Day Zero”, 22 April 2018 — the point at which the city would switch off its municipal water supply and residents would have to queue up for daily water rations. For those living this reality, it felt like the apocalypse was coming.
Yet “Day Zero” never came to pass. Why?
When the Capetonians realized the imminent crisis that was coming their way, they united as a city, conserving as much water as they could and following new city-wide restrictions to use only 50 liters per person per day. Practices like showering over buckets to catch water, and only flushing the toilet once in a while, became the new norm.
“Cape Town has done fantastically in that, mainly because the sight of these empty dams have scared the whatsit out of everybody.” — Peter Johnston, climate scientist at the University of Cape Town
On one hand, the story of “Day Zero” demonstrates how humans can come together in a time of crisis. On the other, it shows us how only by getting extremely close to the edge of disaster, does significant change occur. After all, water levels in the dams of Cape Town had already been declining from 71.9 percent in 2014, to 50.1 percent in 2015. The water crisis didn’t exactly happen overnight.
So why is it that people change their behavior in the face of an imminent crisis? I believe there are two factors: