On a suicidal body politic and the three ‘Rs’ that might save it

The Coborra Coal Project (the coal mine above) in its current form will provide subsidised coal to energy producers for the next decade

The last few weeks of environmental politics in NSW have been an arena for the backwards Olympics, with the NSW Government emerging as the clear winner. Ensuring tax subsidised coal power for the next decade, the slashing of renewable energy feed in tariffs, and the approval of coal gas extraction underneath Sydney’s water supply were all gold medal decisions. Ignoring all of the environmental and electoral indicators that say ‘we need to invest in a sustainable future’, the Government has gone and done the exact opposite, demonstrating what can only be a desire to commit suicide on both a political and a very real societal level.

That the retrograde behemoth doused in cheap aftershave that is the NSW Government should prioritise short term political gain over the development of a sustainable state is no surprise to any long term resident of NSW. You cannot expect progressive policy change to be borne from a political institution that has grown ideologically idle from years of simply turning the cogs of society. Nevertheless, being no surprise makes it no less a cause for alarm.

As I have explained previously in reference to Kotter’s Eight Steps, organisational change is key if we are to transition to a sustainable society. Alan Deutschman, author of ‘Change or Die’ , presents us with some further insight into how this might be achieved.

Deutschman

He begins with the assumption (based on research) that people are unlikely to change our behaviour, even when faced with our own impending death. In fact, he suggests that the odds of changing our behaviour in this circumstance are nine to one against change. Using the example of lifestyle choices in the US that lead to early death, he demonstrates the difficulty of trying to persuade people to change their behaviour. According to Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, an astounding 90% of coronary-artery bypass grafting patients do not change their lifestyle in the years after their operation, even though doing so will likely prevent further operations and death. Like Kotter, Deutschman argues that in business and society, as in health “The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.” Although I take some issue with this  individualistic take on change, and his playing down of the importance of culture and systems- he nevertheless pushes a few interesting and valuable buttons.

 In this paper, he raises several questions that are particularly relevant to the green revolution considering the multiple crises we are facing; “The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn’t motivate — at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?”

He turns to Kotter for an answer, who posits that “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings..This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

Most activists and NGOs understand this intuitively, as part of regular practise- as do those in marketing and branding.  Take this add by the World Wildlife Fund, for example;

Rather than use statistics demonstrating the negative affects of climate change, or reasonably presenting factual information that demonstrates how much we will benefit from changing our behaviour, they ‘sell the sizzle’ instead, associating sustainable living with innovation and concepts such as modernity and a positive future. The unique perspective that Deutschman adds to our understanding of change is how to apply these lessons drawn from the psychology of change to large organisations. His answer? Relate, Repeat and Reframe.

In his words..

Relate

Form a new, emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope. If you face a situation that a reasonable person would consider “hopeless,” you need the influence of seemingly “unreasonable” people to restore your hope—to make you believe that you can change and expect that you will change. This is an act of persuasion—really, it’s “selling.” The leader or community has to sell you on yourself and make you believe you have the ability to change. They have to sell you on themselves as your partners, mentors, role models, or sources of new knowledge. And they have to sell you on the specific methods or strategies that they employ.

Repeat

The new relationship helps you learn, practice and master the new habits and skills that you’ll need. It takes a lot of repetition over time before new patterns of behavior become automatic and seem natural—until you act the new way without even thinking about it. It helps tremendously to have a good teacher, coach or mentor to give you guidance, encouragement and direction along the way. Change doesn’t involve just “selling,” it requires “training.” 

Reframe

The new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life. Ultimately, you look at the world in a way that would have been so foreign to you that it wouldn’t have made any sense before you changed. This may sound simple at first, but let me assure you that it’s not. This is all the “theory” that you need to get started.

So how could we apply this to an organisation such as, well, the NSW Government?

 

Relate:

There are a number of key stakeholders that could inspire new ways of thinking for the NSW Government, and whose relationships would be critical to the success of the sustainable state. Of key importance is the rocky government relationship with the ‘green sector’, and with renewable energy companies in particular. In the current power hierarchy, these companies play second fiddle to unsustainable industries such as mining and fossil fuel based energy companies. Elevating their status and reversing the current subsidy trend that favours polluters would definitely be a start. By developing stronger partnerships with environmental groups and experts such as the Climate Institute, and the Sustainability Learning Institute the government could draw on outside innovations, utilise existing knowledge rather than reinvent the wheel, and outsource creative solutions to those who are, well, more practised at being creative.  Finally, the government would seriously benefit from reconnecting with their biggest stakeholder group, made of millions of people all of whom can bring unique perspectives to the table; the citizens of NSW.

Repeat

This is where things become more bureaucratic and much more complex. In order to ensure the repetition of new behaviours, they have to become government policy, and that policy must be enforced. When it comes to a legislative issue such as the introduction of industrial scale feed in tariffs for renewable energy plants, for example, this would of course have to be passed in parliament (This is where ‘Relate’ comes in, ie; the importance of relationships supportive of good environmental policy when trying to get bills passed). But there are a number of internal government behaviours that could be altered through repetition even without legislative change.

The level of hierarchy within the NSW government means that policy makers rarely receive input from key stakeholders at the bottom. There is a degree of detachment between government and community that often results in a lack of consultation. Old political alliances mean that certain groups in society are given more attention than others.. and rest assured, those groups in favour are generally not environmentalists. Fear of public scrutiny often leads to a lack of transparency, in turn leading to public frustration with politics and counterproductive feelings such as powerlessness. A culture of political donations skews the democratic process. Competition for funding means that many departments and sections are reluctant to collaborate or share information.

These are all examples of ongoing problems that are rife within the NSW government (and, I imagine most governments), and will remain regardless of which party wins elections. These problems can only be dealt with internally, for example with the development and enforcement of departmental policies and the introduction of tools to support them. Certainly, these new behaviours would need to be ingrained through repetition; it’s how they ended up so established in the first place. The transition to a sustainable society requires us to embrace new ways of thinking. This neccessarily means we have to scrutinise and restructure current habits that inhibit innovation and positive change, whether they are on personal, political, industrial or societal levels.  

Reframe

As the World Wildlife Fund demonstrates in their video, the key to reframing sustainability is to associate it with development and other positive concepts such as innovation, modernity, happiness, equality, progress and good health, rather than using scare tactics (although these sometimes have their place). This position is best illustrated in this article,‘Sell the Sizzle’ by Futerra Sustainability Communications.  The NSW government certainly has alot of work to do in appealing to people’s hope for positive change. By capitalising on the post ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ environmental resurgence and becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to put in place significant targets to tackle climate change in 2005 they were off to a fairly good start. (These included a 60% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the return to year 2000 greenhouse emission levels in NSW by 2025).

Unfortunately, because these targets were not accompanied by the necessary organisational change and policy agenda they have turned out to be little more than lip service. The government failed to really integrate the principals of sustainability into their operations; and no-one likes a hypocrite. What they seem to have completely overlooked is that in sustainability they have a fantastic opportunity to really improve their deplorable image. By implementing meaningful positive change and framing it as a progressive and hopeful agenda, they could develop a new raison d’etre for themselves and possibly steal a few votes back from the Greens.

 Unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen. It would take a significant shake up (such as a change in government) for any new ideas to hammer their way in through the walls of sheer inertia that have built up around the Government over the last two terms like calcium. Of course, it’s not to say that a NSW Liberal government would perform better; given their environmental record, in all likelihood they would perform worse. But thinking with a bit of long term vision, these are all ideas that ministers and public servants in the current government may want to consider for the Labor party’s next term down the track, or they may find the green bandwagon being hijacked by the conservatives as it has been in the UK.

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