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:
1. We can’t relate to abstracts
“People are often highly motivated to avoid threats. If you are walking down a dark, isolated city street, you are vigilant for unexpected sights and sounds and probably pick up the pace to get back to a populated area as quickly as possible. If you step into the street and see a bus bearing down on you, you jump back. If a large unfamiliar dog is growling outside your front door, you stay inside.” — Art Markman, Harvard Business Review
Imagine being in one of the above scenarios, arguably, the threat you would feel in that moment would be very real and very concrete. However, when we read the news or hear about things like climate change, it’s very hard for us to relate. Instead, they become abstract ideas or notions — we feel fleeting emotions about what we see or read, then we get about our days.
In the example of Cape Town, the problem only became a real threat when abstract became reality, in other words, when everyone realized they had to change, or their water supply would be shut off in a few months time.
In psychology, this is called construal-level theory of psychological distance — the idea that the more distant an object is from an individual, the more abstract of a thought it becomes. The closer that object is, the more concrete it becomes.
So for many of us, ironically the ones who have more privilege and power than others to create change, we simply aren’t close enough to the issues we hear about.
2. Humans are wired for laziness
“Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival, as it allowed us to be more efficient in searching for food and shelter, competing for sexual partners, and avoiding predators.” — Matthieu Boisgontier, postdoctoral researcher, UBC Brain Behavior Lab
Research shows that when we are idle, our brains don’t have to work as hard — this ties in with our evolutionary instincts to conserve energy. In Boisgontier’s study, he found that in the case of physical inactivity in young people, “the failure of public policies to counteract the pandemic of physical inactivity may be due to brain processes that have been developed and reinforced across evolution.”
Thus as humans, whether we are policy makers or citizens, we are wired to stick to the status quo because it demands less cortical resources from our brains.
In a time where the threat of climate change and its negative effects are looming over all of us, our failure to take action at micro- and macro- levels can be explained by the fact that we are just pure lazy.
The case of “Day Zero” is interesting because it begs the following questions: how close to the edge of disaster will we have to go until we start making drastic changes to save our planet? How can we rewire our own behaviors and patterns so we make changes now?
Whilst we generally only have the mental capacity to relate to and act on the things we see in our peripheral vision, and we’re inherently wired to maintain the status quo out sheer laziness, this hardly excuses us. It simply means we have to try harder and do better — whether that means getting closer to climate change issues, physically or mentally, or noticing our patterns of behavior and making small changes to address them.
If we took Neil Armstrong’s quote literally, one small step could indeed be that much-needed, giant leap for humanity. Otherwise dreadful realities will be arriving at our own doorsteps, sooner than we can imagine.