Raising Purgatory

As I suspected, Kotter’s book about raising urgency in order to support transformational change has a lot of overlap with climate change activism. And he clearly saw this himself as well, though all of his anecdotes and research are business-based:

“It can be helpful to think in terms of the biggest issues of all, because to do so adds clarity. Think nationally and globally: climate change, terrorism …. Do we have a strong sense of urgency to deal with these issues? Remember, words are not the test. Action is the test. … Alertness, movement, and leadership, now–and from many people, not a few–are the signs of true urgency.”

So there you go. Short post, eh?

Well, maybe not. Because while I certainly understood some of the necessities of creating and sustaining a sense of urgency if we’re going to beat climate change after reading the book, I also understood why we’re not doing better at it, and–worse–why we might not be able to.

Aim for the Heart

Kotter argues that any purely rational, evidence-based argument for change will fail because urgency is a feeling that can only be created by at least partially emotional appeals. Fair enough. You may be familiar with some of the following emotional appeals for climate change:

Sea levels are rising!

Enh, who cares. It’ll take centuries to reach my house.

Polar bears are going extinct!

Really? That’s sad. I’ll donate some money to the WWF.

It’s going to get much, much hotter!

Cool. More barbeques.

No–even hotter than that. Like, really hot. Too hot for barbeques. Hotter than it’s been for millions of years.

Wow! No more snow! I hate shoveling.

Malaria will spread! Seeds may stop germinating. 50% of species could go extinct. Our entire agricultural system could collapse. Coral reefs will disappear and the last time the ocean acidified in this way, 95% of species died.

Stop with your fear-mongering! You’re trying to drag me back to the stone ages and I will not live in a cage in the woods!

You know, people are going to die. Real people. Maybe even people you love. People are already dying. And we already have all the technology we need to solve climate change, the solutions are a tiny fraction of global GDP, we could do this in 10 years and create important new industries. If we wanted to.

Curse you and your global socialist agenda! I will not be manipulated by guilt! You are trying to make me feel, and I REFUSE.

Bring the Outside In

In Kotter’s book, this means bringing suppliers and customers and their experiences into the company in a way that informs decision making, so problems can be addressed and processes improved. For climate change, it’s those videos and articles about the kids in the countries where people are already dying from climate change–and which most people never bother to watch. In an organization, you can force people to sit down and listen to a customer rant about his terrible experience with your product; you can then change the decisions and processes that led to that experience. Managers and executives have the authority to control at least to some degree the information employees are exposed to and how that information is incorporated into the company.

But societally, we do not have the authority (nor should we) to control what information people are given outside of school. We also have no control over the execrable actions of climate change deniers, sowing deliberate misinformation in the press in order to confuse people about whether or not sea levels are even rising. And we just don’t have time to wait for the kids currently in school to grow up, start running things, and hope they make better decisions.

Find Opportunities in Crises

Like, say, the potential for renewable energy deployment to kickstart a stagnating economy, actually creating prosperity for more people while also mitigating climate change. Brilliant! Except …

Wind turbines are the devil’s work, solar is too expensive, we don’t want subsidies for any fuels that don’t already have them (oil & coal get billions every year), and actually we would just all-around prefer the crisis to the opportunity, since it’s what we’re used to. It doesn’t feel much like a crisis yet.

Deal with the NoNos

Being those people who meet every argument, every suggestion, every tactic with a “no no, we could never do that because…”. In a business setting, it’s suggested that higher-ups assign them to roles where they have no opportunity to interfere with the change process: get them away from HQ, give them a different job, and keep them very busy. Excellent advice–in a business context.

In a climate context, we have the deniers: they are not answerable to anyone outside of a legal context, and, shockingly, their actions are considered entirely within the law. We can’t pack them off anywhere or keep them busy on anything, and they’re quite happy to jet all over the world to conferences where they continue to spout the same debunked anti-scientific crap. Their stated goal? To make people just confused enough about the reality of climate change that coal and oil companies will be able to continue operating.

What this creates is a dangerous distraction for society and the climate movement: instead of building momentum for moving forward with solutions, an enormous amount of time and energy is directed at engaging with denialists and deflating their patently absurd arguments–over and over again. We don’t have time for this, but we can’t afford not to, because too many people are confused by their arguments. But then by taking the time to argue with them, in many people’s mind it legitimizes the points denialists raise and lends credence to their argument that there is a debate. But there isn’t.

If this isn’t consensus, I don’t know what is.

Kotter also suggests making fun of them. That might work–or at least be more entertaining.


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