Why Not Change?

Sharon November 2nd, 2009

Interesting paper from the World Bank about why people aren’t making more life changes in relationship to climate change. 


The author writes:

Myriad private acts of consumption are at the root of the climate change challenge.  As consumers, individuals hold a reservoir of mitigation capacity.  Roughly 40% of OECD emissions result from decisions by individuals – travel, heating and food purchases.”

That 40% number is actually low – it assumes that we wish to continue on more or less as we have been.  Consumer spending drives 70% of the economy and accounts, depending on how you calculate the number, for considerably over half of all emissions, if you draw the circle properly – radically reducing consumption would have ripple effects – businesses would close, for example, and thus not run their computers and lights all night long. 

The paper goes on to analyze the reasons that people don’t make changes in economics-psychology language, but offers some interesting observations, including a sense of the deep scientific illiteracy that we face.  One in four Americans, for example, can’t identify a single fossil fuel.

This is, of course, pitiable and pathetic, but I don’t think it is the deepest reason, nor do I think that the World Bank gets it quite right.  My own suspicion is that the problem is not that ordinary people are too dumb , but too smart. 

The two “sides” of the climate change story both tell essentially the same narrative.  On one side there is something bad, that will change your world forever, take away your security and do you great harm. On the other, there is the world as we know it, with only a little variation.  Unsurprisingly, most people prefer the more familiar choice.

If you believe the climate skeptics, behind door number 1 is the world as we know it, maybe a little bit warmer and dryer, but whatever, and behind door number 2 a nightmare of rising costs and poverty, one world government and all sorts of other baddies.  If you believe the climate activists, behind door number 1 is the world as we know it, only with renewable energies and maybe a tiny bit higher taxes.  Behind door number 2 is ecological disaster – rising seas, hunger, disease, etc…

Who wouldn’t prefer to offer people a familiar choice – that’s a no-brainer.  The problem is that the conflict between the two stories being told makes people uneasy – most of them instinctively grasp that it will be hard to fix the economy and get us all buying again and also cut our energy by those big numbers people ask about.  Where will the money come from?  And they also instinctively recognize that the climate is changing around them – that you can see and feel it, and that we all know that the climate has changed before.  Being told that this is no big deal doesn’t quite work – even for people who aren’t sure they believe global warming is anthropogenic. 

That is, most people instinctively distrust those who tell us that things will be easy and quick and painless, at the same time that we desperately want to grasp onto an easy and quick and painless solution.  And both sides of the discussion have largely failed to tell the truth – that the only choices out there for us are not “easy and familiar vs. terrible and unfamiliar” but two versions of unfamiliar – one in which we change ourselves in response to a changing world, simultaneously softening the degree of physical change and expanding the degree of personal change, and the other in which we cling desperately to the shattered remains of the familiar in a world that is utterly transformed around us.

If we ever want people to fully grasp the connection between their way of life and the future, we have to tell the truth about it. It won’t be easy or pleasant, but it is only then that we can begin to change.


23 Responses to “Why Not Change?”

  1. Mayberry says:

    The sheep in this country hate change, and can’t even imagine doing things any differently than they do now. Plus, the Powers That Be promote rampant consumerism because it is required to maintain the Ponzi scheme that is our economy. It’s “patriotic” to spend yourself into bankruptcy you see….

    As to climate change, I think many people see the hypocrisy of those delivering “the message”, and also realize that it is being used as a tool to add yet more government control and taxation to our lives, and therefore treat it with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s all too “convenient”, if you’ll excuse the pun.

    Folks are wary of “sacrificing” when those who are asking them to are not sacrificing anything themselves, and in my opinion, rightfully so. Then there those such as myself who are in that camp that recognizes the fact that our climate is changing, but have our doubts as to the magnitude of human involvement in that process. Seeing Gore, Obama, and others proclaim “the debate is over” does not help much either, because the fact is that a lot of scientists do not agree. Toss in ten years of declining temperatures for good measure, and a lot of us conclude that the jury’s still out on this one.

  2. Brad K. says:


    I fear we face another distraction. Here in the US, President Obama is knee deep in levying all kinds of change, much of it contrary to historically validated experience, and contrary to principles of respect and self determination for Americans.

    The taxes supporting Cap and Tax are starting to kick in, immense impacts of workplace and market regulations are starting to impinge on any attempt at economic stability or recovery, and inflation is getting to be noticeable to the poor, and starting to glimmer to the middle class.

    While Obama dismantles the US Economy – directly and indirectly – he threatens to overshadow concern about climate change. President Obama presents a real threat of associating his modest actual interest in climate change with the thuggery and corruption of his union boss and communist social agendas – and getting a real backlash going against all of the topics he espouses, the good and the bad.

    Obama continues to play the ganster card, intimidating opponents as well as those that merely have differing opinions (for most sane people, the two are not the same thing). We face the real prospect of political instability putting back preparation or discussion of climate change for an indefinite period.

    As much as agribusiness contributes to our economic and political instability, and to food insecurity, this is still where a lot of food comes from. I am growing more concerned that the economic displacements, the building deflation due to business-level credit depletion, will disrupt the nation’s ability to raise food crops for next year. Did you follow the discussions about crop yields? What I read on Frank W. James’ blog is that the yield is high – and wet. Unexpected use of natural gas, fuel oil, and propane for drying grain threaten to diminish supplies of winter heating fuels. For people that aren’t prepared, this is a near term emergency; preparation takes planning and time. And an investment of energy to accomplish. And, of course, the cost of the GMO seed – the only seed available to commercial farms this year – continues to grow, as do the government-enforced market protections for the monopolies of the big three seed companies.

    In talking about relationships, I use the aphorism that “change is measured in pain.” I think the same applies to why people aren’t embracing preparation, transition, or whatever approach you prefer. I think humans are hard-wired to repetitive behavior; it takes an obstacle or an understanding that what we do is failing, to get people to consider real change. I am sure we have all heard the observation that a drunk won’t change until he/she “hits bottom”. Duh. The change from self-destruction is the definition of bottom; there is no metaphysical absolute definition of bottom that applies to any two people, except, “the point where they changed.”

    When you point out you don’t use a clothes dryer, you inspire people. But not the people employed by companies that make clothes dryers. Or games, or cars, or that service cars every three thousand miles; when three thousand miles stretches from three months to instead two years, that means a reduction of market for servicing cars. And this applies to clothes, and making clothes detergents, and water heaters, and pipelines for oil and gas. As cargo ships wear out, if there is no market for the oil, or coal, or latest China-made gimcracks – this displaces the ship builders and the merchants and the miners.

    While we are preparing ourselves and our families for the loss of globally available cheap energy, and advocate others to prepare as well, our picture of survival in a low- or zero-carbon footprint lifestyle leaves the unprepared to fend for themselves; or to prey off others while they can.

    What is missing, the reason I think so many are reluctant to begin preps, is that they fell through the cracks. They (we) aren’t facing an obstacle potent enough to trigger change in their lives, they lack resources to respond (money, information, plans, secure shelter), or a combination.

    Perhaps a useful Congress and actually engaged President should be transporting those past the first few weeks of unemployment, to a situation where they could weather an extended storm. A place with a garden plot and a hoe and a couple packages of seed – and someone to show what goes where. Displacement – horrifically so. Yet, what is the alternative? Waste more resources propping up the union bosses and corrupt practices that hinder America today? Where is the honor, the respect for people in that? Displacements might start out, at least, voluntarily, with a supported homesteading proposal.

    So I guess that is the other factor missing today, that many people stop moving because they don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.

    I fear that the Obama administration is completely capable, and quite likely, to interfere with anyone’s preparations. This adds an additional damper on hope and plans for the future.

    Blessed be.

  3. Susan B says:

    More than moving from familiar to unfamiliar, change requires value shifts.

    For instance, success formerly displayed as a beautifully manicured estate shifts to success displayed as a quarter acre vegetable garden supplying enough food for your household.

    And I must agree that the trend of government is to control individual change. Preserving the power base is foremost and individual freedom/choice is steadily being stripped away or modified.

  4. Kelly R says:

    I want to sell the house and buy a small farm or a 1/4 or 1/2 acre lot we can feed ourselves from. I have most of the skills I need an am capable of learning how. I know how to can and we have canned for several years now..other items on food preservation we can learn. I even believe in climate change and how drastic things could become. I am wrapped in inertia. We have mortgages and loans to pay. My job occupies most of my time. My fears about being destitute keep me tied to it. My partner doesn’t seem to grasp the climate challenge the way I do, although I have tried to educate him as well as I can.

    I don’t necessarily agree with all that’s said above, but I do agree with Brad K: ” In talking about relationships, I use the aphorism that “change is measured in pain.” I think the same applies to why people aren’t embracing preparation, transition, or whatever approach you prefer. I think humans are hard-wired to repetitive behavior; it takes an obstacle or an understanding that what we do is failing, to get people to consider real change. I am sure we have all heard the observation that a drunk won’t change until he/she “hits bottom”. Duh. The change from self-destruction is the definition of bottom; there is no metaphysical absolute definition of bottom that applies to any two people, except, “the point where they changed.”

    Change is really hard. This change we need to make seems like a huge one..a fundamental change. The sense of urgency isn’t quite there. The tools to do it are hard to find. Society fights you all the way. I barely have the energy to get through my day, it seems most days.

    I think we will change when that sense of urgency kicks in.

    That’s not to say we can’t change in good ways with out a lot of persuasion. Heck, I recycle and compost most of my garbage. We’ve been doing that for decades around here.

    Right now, I’m praying for time, paying down my debts, looking for that great house and lot and praying my family and I and as many people as we can can be protected from the worst..whatever that might be.

  5. P.J. Grath says:

    You have cut through the simplistic either/or to a more complicated reality. The challenge is how to convey a complicated truth to the greatest number of people in the simplest language? You’re doing a great job.

  6. vera says:

    I think the folks who want to “save the planet” as the saying goes have been hijacked with the whole climate fight. As usual, the official push has been “divide and conquer”. Just like all the previous divides, loggers’s jobs vs the owls, etc etc.

    The only idea/application that makes sense to me is the First Step people who created a consensus in Sweden on the basic stuff (which is not hard, by the way) and then went ahead and started doing it. But if you look at all the stuff we all agree on –too many toxics, oceans dying, too much land being paved over, desertification, rivers in trouble etc etc — most of that stuff is not remediable on the level of individuals. Derrick Jensen is right about that (Orion mag, Forget Shorter Showers). Most of the damage across the board is done by businesses and farmers. So, now what?

  7. Sharon says:

    Agreed, Vera, but where do you think businesses and farmers get their income? From us, of course. We go and give them big wads of cash to feed us and clothe us and transport us, and then they use those big wads of cash to get bigger and use more and buy our politicians.

    In a sense, no individual act, taken alone, matters. Not voting or carrying signs or standing in front of tanks, not cutting your showers or turning off the lights or not buying things.

    But in another sense, millions and billions of individual acts do matter – they fund and subsidize the entire project.


  8. Lisa Z says:

    I don’t agree with everything Brad K. said, but like others commented I most definitely agree that “change is measured in pain”. I don’t think it has to do with our intelligence, whether we’re smart of dumb, but with our character as animals. We are creatures of repetition and routine. We get up, go to work, do our job, cook our meals (or find them elsewhere), long for a cozy chair or bed to rest, go to sleep, then repeat in the morning. We do what comes to us, from what is around us, and until what we see around is is no longer working at all, and we’re suffering because of it, most of us are unlikely to change much.

  9. Claire says:

    Here’s an interesting indication of how far things have gotten from any sense of reality. Last Sunday we received an unsubscribed-for bundle of ads from our local newspaper, no doubt because holiday shopping season has started for some folks. In this bundle was a copy of Parade magazine, usually inserted in Sunday papers across the US so pretty widely read. Parade included an article describing the results of its survey on how people have experienced and are coping with the recession. A sidebar described Parade’s contention that three new social groupings have come into existence during the recession. One social grouping is “Anxious Moms.” Here’s a quote from the article about Anxious Moms:

    “What’s occupying their attention? Their families’ finances. One in four in this subset is out of a job. Even if they have jobs, the vast majority say that the American Dream is out of reach and they don’t have enough money to live the lives they want. They spend their days trying to make ends meet – they clip coupons, cook meals, and search for employment.”

    That last sentence really got my attention. It seems to imply that cooking meals is done out of a sense of deprivation, that the Anxious Moms would be eating out if they had the money to do so (maybe would need to, if they were working and didn’t feel they had time to cook). And furthermore, that everyone, or at least everyone who reads Parade, shares this belief that one cooks only when one has to, because one is short of money to do otherwise. Cooking no longer seems to mean making meals out of good food to share with the people you love, but a time-stealing, anti-American Dream deprivation.

    If things are this far out of whack, it’s hard to see where we can speak of the need to cook, store, and preserve foods to help us make our way through the more-drastic changes coming our way from several directions. And that’s a relatively easy thing to talk about compared to, for instance, keeping one’s thermostat at 55F or lower in the winter, at least for people who have cooked in the past or enjoyed their parents’ or grandparents’ home-cooked meals.

    I’m going to study the linked article and your response more closely, to see if I can learn something useful to help the people I know deal more gracefully with the changes that have already occurred and those on the way.

  10. dewey says:

    :( My DH went off on a backlash a few days ago about how I was oppressing him with the low temperatures (63 daytime, and there’s a little oil space heater he can use in the back room where we spend much of our time). Why, he shouldn’t have to put on more layers, that would be living in squalor, we have civilization so we don’t have to put on an extra layer. In trying to list all the ways he could deal with the cold (including turning up the thermostat), I made the mistake of adding that he could put on a hat … oh boy, you would think I had told him to start grinding the cornmeal on a flat rock. So we had a spat about whether it makes any difference what we do anyway and whether he has/I have any say in it, blah blah blah. (And besides, I pay the heating bills.)

    So any advice? What are you supposed to do if you want to conserve but your beloved is an unreasonable consumerist (and kicking him to the curb is NOT an option)? I think he was sulking ’cause I cut off his pay TV recently, and it hasn’t come up again, but I’m sure it will.

  11. Cathy says:

    Actually, from the viewpoint of value vs effort, cooking does not have a good payback. I can spend an hour cooking on Sunday and they devour, inhale, and depart in 10 or fewer minutes. What good is that?

  12. Deb says:

    One of the problems I see with asking people to make long term changes is that a huge number of people dont have the basic skills that generations past did. Many cant cook without boxes, sew more than a quick repair on a hem, keep themselves warm without some sort of electricity or even entertain thier families without a box in the living room. We have become so used to our machines and conveniences that we’ve lost something–working with our hands for not much money as a valuable thing, maybe, I’m not sure. I just think that a change as dire as Sharon predicts will leave a lot of people horribly off and angry…but not at themselves.


  13. Jen says:

    I think people hate cooking b/c it has become such a production. With the advent of all these cooking shows/channels, not to mention the extreme excess in cooking books, women feel like they have to provide a 5 course meal 3 times a day. I get exhausted from the sheer “planning” of it all, not to mention the execution. A pot of soup and some good bread are easy and I feel satisfied, but my children have been “spoiled” by my catering to their needs so the transition has been hard. We have so many choices. My goal is to limit our choices now. As far as the real changes go, people don’t see that there will be a changed future. Most of the people I know think we are crazy or “odd” to be implementing the sorts of things we are, chickens, goats, HUGE gardening, some solar, low-energy practices. If it’s anything that is “beyond a bit frugal” we get a bit of head shaking and better you than me. I think of how far I need to go to really get there and I get worried about how many of us can even do it, mentally I mean, there’s just such a gap in acceptance and action.

  14. homebrewlibrarian says:


    Your DH sounds scared. Scared at what, I can’t say for sure but perhaps his version of what is Right With The World is starting to fray. That can be awfully frightening to people because it threatens not only their sense of rightness but also their identity.

    I’m not a counselor (nor do I play one on tv ;) ) so I can’t advise you as to how to converse better. If you have friends who feel as you do, even if only a little, that he trusts, I’d ask them to help out.

    Good luck and stay patient, as best you can.

    Kerri in AK

  15. dewey says:

    He is intellectually willing to accept the possibility of decline, but his preferred adaptation to it is “Kick the bucket before things get really bad.” I’m not kidding. It’s hard to deal with this as an argument — “Okay, let’s imagine your luck is bad and you live to a ripe old age…”

  16. AnneT says:

    Re: cooking. This year I found myself preserving the stuff I needed to make cooking easy the rest of the summer: tomato sauce I can pour out of my own reusable jar for pizza and pasta, wholly made-up spaghetti sauce, curried simmer sauces for crock pot cooking, wholly made-up green chile stew, chile meat base for crock pot chili, tomato stock and mixed preserved veggies/herbs for soups. A lot of these things are good for two meals. None of them have ingredients I can’t pronounce nor have any idea where they came from.

    I started the preserving kick while I was working full time. The first couple of years I made the mistake of making a lot of sweet preserves we didn’t use while not making the condiments that are integral to how we like to eat and that we’ve usually spent a fair amount of money on.

    Now we eat better, have a lot less food waste, and spend a lot less at the big grocery stores (we still get fresh produce at the farmers’ market). We still use a lot of fossil fuel for our road trips, but our food doesn’t travel much and our house is becoming much tighter so it’ll be more comfortable at lower temperatures and lower fuel use. None of it was done overnight.

    I did grow up a dairy farm though, with 9 brothers and sister, and my mother had a big garden and lots of preserving. So I have the background I could draw on. This stuff wasn’t “foreign” to me. The one thing I found over the years is that stuff from a jar is rarely as good as the advertising makes it out to be. I remember milk from before growth hormones were used all the time, eggs from chickens that scratched up real dirt, and beef from when it grew on grass. Fortunately I live in an area where I can get that stuff again (I live in town and can’t do much in livestock).

    Remember: any journey begins with the first step.

  17. Susan in NJ says:

    Dewey — your DH and my partner seem to be on the same wavelength. My partner has his own variation on the “kick the bucket” line and recently complained in public (he said he was just kidding) about “being on restriction” and his “restricted diet.” As best I can figure out these restrictions involve not buying lunchmeat, white bread, and eating seasonal. He could of course go shopping for his own height of civilization delicacies.

  18. TLE says:

    I think people have a lot of emotional investment in money/security etc that they’re not aware of – and yes, a lot of fear. My grandparents grew up in the depression & were quite frugal – as were my hippy graduate student parents in the ’70s. There was no sense of deprivation or poverty in our family though – we were solidly middle-class, but with our ‘value’ was derived from cultural/intellectual capital, not cash.

    If you are raised in a family where you are very poor, or you have money, but your sense of personal value & status is primarily measured by cash/material possessions, the sense of loss that comes with frugality/powering down must be terribly painful & frightening. I’m not sure what the answer is.

  19. vera says:

    I agree, Sharon. But a lot of the money the biggest villains get is not from honest business, from us. It’s from all sorts of subsidies and special deals.

    The whole shebang needs to go… the only cure for all those ills is that the system must go bust. And how many of us have the guts to walk away?

  20. Sharon says:

    But I think the reality is that the marginal money is sufficient to break the system – that is, if we withhold our contributions, the subsidies won’t hold them up. The problem is that they feed us and clothe us and take us places and employ us. It isn’t an easy situation – my own feeling is that the best way to change the system is to take it down by withdrawing funding.

    Dewey, that’s a tough one – can you turn the tables? Would he care if you let him win but let him also know how painful it was to you?

    What about asking to switch who pays for the heat? Or setting a flat budget for heating and telling him he can have the rest for pay tv if he keeps it down?

    Would the attractions of ummm….resolving chilliness by more time in bed under the covers work? I realize it might be a sacrifice, but think “Lysistrata Corps” ;-) .


  21. dewey says:

    :) Good suggestions. We can’t afford them as stated, but the idea of setting a fixed winter utility sum and spending the leftover on something good in spring might be a good motivator; I’ll suggest it tonight. Right now, natural gas is significantly cheaper than last year, so (at least in St. Louis) you can get more heating for less. I’m not entirely happy about that; I think we should be steadily adapting to less usage, which rising prices would encourage, not coasting along happily thinking that the party will never end.

  22. Ciaran Mundy says:

    I agree with Sharon’s analysis up to a point, but both miss a critical aspect – the impact of commercial messaging in maintaining the status quo.

    The paper seems a little naive in its understanding of how to frame messages that are credible and commensurate with the scary truth, but however perfect a suit of messages and stories the environmental movement might devise, most of us are receiving 1000 fold those messages through advertising of commercial products, many of which should barely be legal if we were serious about climate change. Not only that but the manner in which they are advertised constantly hampers our ability to normalise collective behaviour and elicit a widespread “I will, if you will” response.

    e.g. http://adsoftheworld.com/media/print/lexus_jealous?size=_original

    While we give thanks and respect to individuals already living sustainable lives, we dont want personal martyrs, feeling ostracised from their friends and family. We want to people to feel that acting collectively is the fairest and most powerful way to effect change.

    As long as the daily tsunami of much commercial advertising is out there, promoting self interest and materialism as normal, cool and even aspirational, it is very hard to see how any countervailing message will get through and foster widespread rapid change we all need.

    So let us start with a ban on any advertising that promotes self over the community/survival of mankind. It’s a no brainer . . . .

  23. Toni says:

    Hi Sharon. I’m trying to recall whether I told you about “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It’s an excellent description tracing a repetitive four-stage historical cycle of events (beginning a couple centuries ago) always starting on a high and ending in hardship – where it looks like we are now. Encouraging because it’s a reminder that events are cyclical and we have always come out of hard times.

    Also want to let you know of the Huffington Post’s suggestion about how to ‘throw the rascals out’ (my term): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/move-your-money-a-new-yea_b_406022.html

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