Why do we stand paralyzed while our environment is being destroyed around us?

By Mark Vincent


Garbage on beach

If an alien was watching the human race, I’m sure there would be some curiosity and maybe mild amusement as we continue to destroy and pollute the environment we live in. I’m not going to wade too deeply into the political debate on the specifics (climate change, consumption of resources, plastics waste etc), but it would be really tough to argue that we are living in harmony with our surroundings. I certainly don’t suggest you try it at a dinner party.

So why do we continue down a path that we know intellectually is not great for us? Well when you think about it we do the same thing with our own bodies. A huge industry has been created around diet and health and yet obesity is a bigger problem than hunger. I’ve seen businesses continue down a path to oblivion, despite being run by smart people with access to strong evidence they are on the wrong path. When we’re battling to understand these contradictions, there is an important point to keep in mind and it’s fundamental to addressing them.

We value the present more highly than the future.

In other words we seek instant gratification and we seem to be seeking it more than the generations before us. From binge watching a series on Netflix to Amazon delivering same day. We’re all in it and our kids expect it as the new normal. Psychologists actually have a name for it – PIG (the Problem of Instant Gratification) and it gets in our way.

Recognising that we value the present more highly than the future is critical to creating real momentum for change whether it’s in ourselves (our health), at work or in society. So what does this mean?

If we want people to change, they must truly believe at least two things as a starting point:

1. That they can no longer stay as they are.
In other words, change is not optional, it’s essential. Change involves some uncertainty and risk. It also often involves giving up or reducing something we like (such as certain types of food, alcohol etc), or going to greater effort, buying foods without plastics, recycling. We are working against a natural tendency to avoid risk and to avoid extra effort. So the reason needs to be good.

2. That the need to change is more urgent than anything else they are dealing with    
We’re easily distracted. We lead busy lives and have the matters of today or the next 5 minutes to deal with. The next email, meeting etc at work, cooking dinner at home, getting the kids ready for school. So the level of urgency is critical. Sustainability is an obvious concern, plastics awareness is high and yet we still see cucumbers wrapped in plastic at the supermarket. We can always blame others, in this case the supermarkets, but that is failing to face reality. The decisions we all take each minute are leading us to this place. In the end we’re the ones buying the cucumbers.

And the reason for pointing this out?

If we want to establish momentum for any change, whether in ourselves, at work or even at a global scale, we need to recognise the forces that are working against us and find ways to counteract them. Making the need to change can feel more real and more immediate is a good place to start and is critical to gaining real momentum. It’s also worth remembering that it’s an emotional process more than a rational one. Rationally most of us recognise what we are doing to our surroundings but unless we’re really feeling it nothing useful happens. Distance plays a part too, but that’s one for another day.

In almost every aspect of life the frequency of change feels as if it’s increasing, whether it’s at work, at home or in the broader community. At Applied Change, we’re continually striving to build on the body of knowledge in dealing with change, especially change resistance, so that more people can adapt more quickly and with greater ease. We can’t stop change from happening but how we respond is our choice.

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