Required: Step Changes In Mindsets And Behaviours

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This post is part of a series of newsletters was originally written for Katerva, an NGO dedicated to the identification, evaluation and acceleration of disruptive sustainable innovation; it was first published 1st November 2019.

 In the series introduced here I am  addressing, not the science behind climate change, nor the technologies required to create change, but why change is happening so slowly and which cultural shifts are required before we can exist sustainably. When the science is clear and accepted, why do governments, consumers, businesses and others not act as if the world as we know it could come to an end?

Some continue to deny the material in front of them; we may call this wilful blindness. A book by Margaret Heffernan illustrates this topic with a beautiful and shocking story. You can also watch her TED talk (see also below).

Margaret Heffernan: The dangers of willful blindness | TED Talk

As Kumar and colleagues have framed the current state of the world quite aptly in their 2018 article Environmental sustainability: challenges and viable solutions, ”Since last century or so anthropogenic activities have intensely metamorphosed the earth’s ecosystem and resulted into major environmental changes. ….. Studies and data clearly show that if present trends continue the conditions are expected to worsen in the coming time and human civilisation itself will be in trouble.”

There are individuals and groups who share a sense of urgency – reflected in things such as the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals that provide a shared framework for action, young people led by Greeta Thunberg, who remind us of our responsibilities, the Extinction Rebellion movement that offeres a platform for joining together. There are also an increasing number of solutions to the problems we face. The movie ‘Tomorrow’, released in 2015, is showcasing solutions to challenges in the prevailing mindeset in areas such as agriculture, energy, economy, democracy and education. The examples given in the movie are not at the idea stage, things that we might be able to do, but are solutions that are working already, in practice. It is of course such solutions that are submitted in large numbers to Katerva’s Awards Program (Do you know anything?  Please submit!). At Katerva, we are always amazed and humbled by the creativity and ingenuity of our nominees who focus all their energy on paving a path towards a more sustainable future for all of us.

Filmmakers Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion travel worldwide to investigate concrete solutions to environmental and social challenges.
Most of us accept the problem exists; there are solutions out there; so much could be solved if only humans collectively decide to embrace the golden rule, as extended by our friends at Reboot The Future: “Treat others and the planet as you would wish to be treated”.  Yet our demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year (see Earth Overshoot Day). Why don’t we embrace and adopt the sustainable alternatives that exist?

In his 2018 article Arty Mangan identifies three challenges to accelerating our journey towards sustainability:

1. Rewarding the Wrong Activity – through government subsidies; for example, in the US “more than 15 billion dollars annually is given to corn, soy, cotton and other commodity farmers whose products create extensive toxicity and skew the market place.”

2. Industrialisation of Biological Systems – “our modern version of animal husbandry is CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, which may be the most industrialised of all agricultural systems and whose  blind pursuit of yield and efficiency have resulted in increased disease among animals and people, inhumane conditions for the animals, an increase in greenhouse gasses, antibiotic resistance and create as much waste as a small city.”

3. Treating Nature Like a Slave – “Environment is considered to be a subset of commerce, merely a place to get resources for business. Environmental laws do not protect the rights of nature but merely slow down the rate of destruction.”

These barriers have little to do with what is and isn’t possible, and all with mindsets and behaviours; it is how we view the world, and how we view our role within it.


What changes in mindset and behaviour would help us overcome these barriers?


Here the topics for the upcoming newsletters:

  1. Thinking further into the future while acting now – in our decision making we should heed the advice of the Irokese Indians who believed in decision making that considered the implications for 7 generations hence yet at the same time there is increasing urgency to act now.
    Already on this pathway: The Schumacher Center, a 2017 nominee, works to envision the elements of a just and sustainable global economy; undertakes to apply these elements in its home region of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts; and then develops the educational programs to share the results more broadly, thus encouraging replication.
  2. Understanding connectedness and thinking in systems – it is time to let go of Descartes’ clockwork analogy and accept the insights from quantum physics: everything truly is connected. If this is so, we need to develop a concern for the whole, and lean to think in systems not discrete entities.
    Already on this pathway: E4A’s (Economics for the Anthropocene) overarching goals are to articulate, teach and apply a new understanding of human-Earth relationships grounded in and informed by the insights of contemporary science.
  3. Emergence vs control – a sense of certainty and feeling in control seem to be preferred by many of us. Yet in today’s world that is highly complex and changing ever faster than ever before, such luxuries no longer exist. Staying alert to any changes, being adaptive and responding with agility are what is required.
    Already on this pathway:  the Array of Things (AoT), one of our 2019 nominees, is an urban sensing network of programmable, modular nodes that will be installed around cities to collect real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use. AoT will essentially serve as a “fitness tracker” for the city, measuring factors that impact livability in cities such as climate, air quality and noise.
  4. Give more importance to the feminine side – based on a survey  asking what kind of leadership qualities are required to survive and thrive in the 21st century, conducted by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio with 64,000 people from around the world, it seems that traditionally feminine leadership and values are needed more than ever.
    Already on this pathway:  2015 Gender Equality Category Winner Akili Dada, an international award-winning leadership incubator whose vision it is to live in a world in which African women leaders are actively participating in key decision-making processes across sectors.
  5. Believing in contribution not entitlement – drawing on the words of John F Kennedy from his presidential inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Though we believe it is beneficial to scale both up and down, replacing ‘country’ with ‘community’ on the one hand and ‘planet’ on the other.
    Already on this pathway: Specialisterne, a 2020 nominee, harnesses the special characteristics and talents of people with autism and uses them as a competitive advantage, and as a means to help people with autism secure meaningful employment.
  6. Embracing sufficiency while nurturing abundance – if we are facing scarcity it is because we do not (yet, truly) understand how the cycles of nature operate. Anyone who has a garden will know that given the right conditions, abundance is abundant, and ‘waste’ from one part of the system becomes nourishment for another. Indeed, in nature there is no waste, everything is retained in the endless cycles of life and death.
    Already on this pathway: for their concept Rising Canes Bamboo City, architect firm Penda China, a 2017 nominee, has developed a joint for bamboo construction, which is strong, flexible and easy to tighten by ropes. This joint is the base for a modular bamboo structure that has the ability to expand in every direction and can construct architecture of all scales: from small, temporary shelters to large urban structures.
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