Climate change is (still) on my agenda

In November, Australia hosts the G20 Summit. World leaders will gather in Brisbane for talks on the world’s most pressing issues. Except one.

Ceding to the demands of big polluters, Tony Abbott has removed climate change from the G20 agenda. But problems don’t just go away because you ignore them.

Together, we can show that climate change is on our agenda. In the week of the G20, from Wednesday 12 to Saturday 15th November, Australian Conservation Foundation supporters and Climate Leaders are organising events all over Australia.

Will you host an #OnMyAgenda event and screen the Reasons for Hope video?

Small groups make change

“Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness most often occur through associational life, where citizens show up by choice, and rarely in the context of system life, where citizens show up out of obligation. The small group is the unit of transformation and the container for the experience of belonging.” ~ PETER BLOCK, COMMUNITY: THE STRUCTURE OF BELONGING


A sustainable transformation happens when citizens choose to come together to create a future grown out of their aspirations and gifts. And when small groups are convened into something bigger, that’s even more powerful.

Journalist David Bornstein studied the bank for the poor, Grameen Bank, concluding that sustainable changes in community occur locally on a small scale, happen slowly and are initiated at grassroots level. Grameen Bank was declaration of possibility – that poor people are good credit and entrepreneurs – and relied on working with groups, lending to groups of four. Each small group is asked to operate as part of a larger whole community too.

In Obama’s election campaigns, millions of citizens contributed. Thousands were trained and thousands of local leadership teams were responsible for local objectives.

Marshall Ganz calls it, “The biggest investment in civic capital that has ever been made.”

Civic capital is the skills and practices of working together and self governing in a democracy.

Organisations that are taking advantage of cognitive surplus are thriving, with Wikipedia being the best known example. Adjunct professor at New York University Clay Shirky explains in his book Cognitive Surplus:

“Civic value rarely comes from sudden social conversations; nor does it bubble up from individual actions. It comes, instead, from the work of groups, small groups at first that grow in size and importance, the pattern of collaborative circles, communities and practice, and many other group patterns. If we want to create new forms of civic value, we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things…”

History supports this theory of change. The English movement for the abolition of slavery was built on top of the decentralised platform of the Quaker movements.

As Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom explain in The Starfish and the Spider, “Just as the abolitionist movement had piggybacked on top of the Quaker network in England, the women’s suffrage movement now piggybacked atop the abolitionist movement in the United States. Women’s suffrage circles began forming all over the country.”

American abolitionist and women’s rights activist (mid-1800s) Elizabeth Cady Stanton was “the architect of a movement that changes the lives of American women. By creating circles, tapping into an ideology whose time had come, drawing upon a pre-existing network, and joining forces with a champion, Stanton changed the course of history…”

Digital now means that the cost of coordinating and convening these circles is the lowest in history. Everyone is empowered to gather together and get things done.

How nature increases health, productivity and wellbeing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere do people currently experience nature in Australia? What activities, groups or organisations are involved? What are the new opportunities in this space?

As Richard Louv has extensively documents in The last child in the woods, saving our children from nature deficit disorder, future environmentalists are formed through childhood experiences of play in nature.

And as Common Cause research into values shows, engaging intrinsic values primes people to care and act on behalf of the environment. Nature connection engages the following values:

• A world of beauty
• Unity with nature
• Protecting the environment
• Care for future generations

I am fortunate in my work at ACF, to have the opportunity to explore some powerful questions about how we can be more effective in our work, and how social and cultural change relates to our environmental goals. One of the question we’ve been exploring this week is where the opportunities lie to reengage and animate people in their connection to the natural world.

The “great outdoors” is an Australian myth and reality, rated highly by Australians when they talk about what makes this country unique.

Healthy Parks, Healthy People is an extensive literature review, by Deakin University in 2002, updated in 2008, examining over two hundred studies indicating significant human health benefits of contact with nature.

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Creating change with distributed leadership

Slide1Marshall Ganz defines leadership as “Accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose, in the face of uncertainty.”

Marshall Ganz gives a substantial introduction and summary of his work in this video, but it’s long, so if you’d like a summary, read on.

Ganz describes how to build leadership, build community, build power. You can’t, he explains, rely on super-talented extraordinary leaders, so you have to figure out how to grow and spread leadership. The only way you get to scale is by developing the capacity of lots of people to lead.

Social movements have rarely been successful as an isolated local movement, nor as someone sitting in capital central. It’s the combination of national purpose and local action that builds a social movement. Local action gains meaning and significance from being part of greater whole.

This is rich food for thought for my work at the Australian Conservation Foundation, as I think ACF can be powerful in this role.

It’s not sufficient to rely on systems and procedures, because in social change we are constantly confronted by uncertainty, says Ganz.

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Ordinary people are leading on the climate crisis

Human sign on St Kilda beach. Photo: L.I.V.E./Beyond Zero Emissions

Check out my latest op-ed piece, published recently in the Sunday Age: When politicians fail, people do it for themselves.

If you look at the structure of this story, you will see there is a distinct story of self, story of us and story of now, which combine into a whole. This is the structure taught in the “Camp Obama” community organising and public narrative workshops. It’s a simple, effective formula for a persuasive and engaging story.

Why you should let your kids do dangerous things

Kids playing with fireAs paranoia around kids’ safety grows, kids become more cut off from their environment. Gever Tulley wants to shake things up.

His number one recommendation? Play with fire.

The mysteries of nature and physics revealed through fire can only be understood by playing with it. As he told Babble,

“When you don’t let kids climb trees or you don’t let them put their arms out the window to feel the wind, you’re actually preventing them from developing interest in the world around them.”

Tulley, a computer scientist and sculptor, runs the Tinkering School, a US summer camp where kids can deconstruct appliances, climb trees and build wild structures with power tools.

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Telling the story of self, us, and now

Photo: kk+

Last year I was lucky enough to go to a workshop based on “Camp Obama” style community organising and public narrative. It blew me away. As someone who has told stories for a living for nearly 15 years, I learnt so much it was almost embarrassing.

There were around 40 climate activists in the room and when I started to hear the stories of why they cared, it switched on my emotional being.  A young man whose grandfather survived the holocaust and instilled in his grandson the belief that you fight for what’s right. A loner who made the decision to reengage with others because there are no solutions to climate change alone.

Stories help to bring alive motivation that is rooted in values, highlighting each person’s own calling, our calling as a people, and the urgent challenges we face.

The analysis, the statistics, the science are important, but telling a story has the power to articulate the deeper values that motivate you, to transcend issue silos and polarized political debate. In my work communicating climate change I find myself constantly being dragged into excruciating detail, dragging me away from story and into something much less engaging.

Yes we need that detail. We need the policy wonks. They may yet save the world! But we can’t expect to engage millions with complex probabilities and formulas.

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On being lost and found in the mountains

Written as Victorian politician Tim Holding was rescued, lost on Mt Feathertop.

As Tibetan mystic Milarepa said, “Deep in the wild mountains is a strange marketplace where you can trade the hassle and noise of everyday life for eternal light.”

And you can trade your everyday perception for a fresh take on your self and your place in the world. Mountain-climbing exploits are often told as a quest to conquer nature with the mountain as trophy.  But delve a little deeper into the vast bookshelf of mountaineering stories and you’ll find obsessive quests for things more intangible, even to the protagonists themselves.

Mountain landscapes are repeatedly described as sources of personal inspiration and renewal. For many climbers, the landscape is not something to conquer, but something to respect, even something to enter into in a way that transcends the self. And underlying the narratives is the idea that an acceptance that the natural forces of land and weather are infinitely more powerful than human will is a crucial part of the bargain the climber enters with risk.

In the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell: “[T]hough terrors will recede before a genuine psychological readiness, the over-bold adventurer beyond his depth may be shamelessly undone.”

Our assessment of risk – and our place in the world of ecological life – has come askew. We have come to consider ourselves as separate from the more-than-human world. We consider that we live in a technological, ethical, and cultural order that is not constrained by ecology. Animals, the world and its atmosphere exist in an ecological order that is not constrained by ethics.

We systematically overestimate human knowledge and control. We have forgotten that as in mountain climbing, humility in the face of nature is appropriate, that it does not diminish us as human beings, and that it is, in fact, a characteristic of a hero.

As the enormity of the risks that really do threaten us bank up, we focus on eliminating smaller, more identifiable risks with greater and greater zeal. Maybe Tim Holding should have taken an emergency beacon to make it easier for rescuers to find him. But maybe we’re missing the bigger risks our behaviour creates, because they are not so obvious, because the consequences happen at another time, in another place, or to another generation.

Most of us now live in a world of endless comfort. A person who chooses to venture into wild nature is acclaimed as a hero or derided as a fool. Either way, they’re considered a freak. This polarised response admires heroes who dare to leave the comfort of ordinary life, and on the flipside, disapproves of personal risk-taking so intensely that it borders on a kind of moral panic. Tim Holding is copping both admiration and the tut-tut.

In times past, unsuccessful adventurers like Ernest Shackleton or George Mallory could be forgiven poor preparations, hubris, and insensitivity to the wild place, and hailed an heroic failure. But in the age of Gore-tex and the Global Positioning System, such failures are not tolerated, especially if the unsuccessful adventurer needs the help of others to escape a self-imposed predicament.

Whether triumphant, disapproving, or something in between, the public seems fascinated by wilderness risk-taking. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest tragedy where eight climbers died, sold millions of copies, and, bizarrely, seemed to increase business for adventure travel operators. Everyone wants to go to Everest, where despite oxygen tanks and safety ropes, it is still possible, even easy, to die.

Perhaps this fascination is a kind of tragic katharsis, as Joseph Campbell described in his classic explorations of the social role of myth, where the emotions of the spectator of the tragedy are somehow purged or purified through exposure to pity and terror.

Like me, when I walked 700 kilometres alone through the  mountains from Walhalla to Canberra, Tim Holding is both a hero and a fool.  We shouldn’t quibble over the cost of helicopters. We should thank him for allowing us to feel deeply the fear that all was lost, and then the love when all was found.

And we should relax our grip on the idea that wild nature is an inherently risky place where modern humans do not belong. Unchallenged, our perception grows flat and bland. Enclosed entirely in a word of human making, our solutions become predictable, our innovations self-referential.

I have hiked Feathertop in wintertime and there, my gaze, and somehow my whole self, was drawn into the million diamonds embedded in the fabled cornice of windblown ice and snow flowing in a magnificent feathered crest along the mountain’s spine. It looks more like a huge, foaming, snap-frozen wave than a ridge. And below it, the exhilarating space in my peripheral vision where the ground usually is. This combination of exquisite detail and massive depth of vision made me feel expanded, my senses refreshed in the beauty of the world.

If we want to survive our species’ dark night on the mountain, we need to reclaim this wonder. We need to disrupt the imagined separation of  human and nature, and reclaim the overlap, extending ethics into ecological realms, and ecology into human realms. Our technology can help us, but we must  integrate our technology wisely into the world of ecological life and to succeed in this we must also transform ourselves.

If our political leaders want to remind themselves that such transformations are possible by getting themselves lost in the mountains, I’m all for it.

Why carrots and sticks won’t solve the climate crisis

Before watching Dan Pink (former speechwriter for Al Gore), in this outstanding TED talk, I was aware of the idea that intrinsic motivation – like doing something for the fun of it – was more powerful than extrinsic motivation – like financial rewards – in many situations.

But I didn’t fully appreciate what those situations were. Pink makes the case that simple, mechanical tasks may be performed better and faster with carrot incentives – but when problems have even the slightest cognitive difficulty, the incentives make performance worse.

Think about it. Carrots and sticks may be a necessary part of our response to climate change, but they will not solve the problem.

We need wild, beautiful, creative and divergent thinking of the sort that comes from an intrinsic motivation for this problem.

The Australia Institute elaborates this argument in their recent report Zero-sum game? The human dimensions of emissions trading.

The structure of Australia’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme sets its target reduction in emissions at an unambitious cap. It also sets a floor under emissions reductions so that voluntary reductions by ordinary Australians actually free up pollution permits for the big polluters to use.

All that effort of people insulating houses and paying more for green power will reduce exactly zero tonnes of Australian emissions.

Price is not the only motivator for emissions reductions, the Australia Institute argues. People are highly motivated intrinsically to do it. Why?

Because it makes sense, its morally right, they want to.

According to Pink, the powerful intrinsic motivators are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Carrots and sticks represent outdated, 20th century thinking. Autonomy, mastery and purpose beat carrots and sticks every time.

The Australia Institute is not arguing against using a price on carbon to drive reductions, they just want it recognised that it should not be the only motivator.

A huge amount can be achieved if we simply decide we want to.

The policy solution, according to TAI, is to create a “CAP AND SLICE” scheme, where voluntary reductions reduce the overall cap every year.

And then all that community energy and desire to solve the problem I see everywhere – with no expectation of personal reward – can be part of the solution.

Thanks to The Climate Project team for pointing out this video.