Time to Get Serious
It’s 2015, the year that we begin to take the ‘change’ part of climate change seriously. Sure, there is already a lot of talk about transitions and transformations, and more and more people recognize the need for systemic change. For example, in This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein considers our economic and financial systems to be the real drivers of climate change. But how do we actually change these systems?
Systems are made up of relationships, and to change systems we have to change relationships. This involves, first and foremost, seeing the connections and patterns that make up systems, and understanding our own relationship to the systems that we want to change. To do this, we need to engage with the personal and experiential aspects of change.
The Challenge of Change
To support an experiential understanding of change, we invited twelve people from Norway to participate in a 30-day change experiment, starting on November 19, 2014. As part of the ‘cCHANGE Challenge,’ each of them committed to a single change of their choice. They reflected on the positive and negative aspects, the implications for others, and the relationship between individual and systems change.
“If you do not change direction,
you may end up where you are heading.”
The participants represented a diversity of ages, professions, and backgrounds. Importantly, not all of them were motivated by a concern for environmental issues or climate change – they were simply willing to take on the challenge of change. This pilot group submitted over 100 reflections in the course of the 30-day challenge. The reflections were insightful, thought-provoking, humorous, and most of all, inspiring.
Relating to Change
The goal of the cCHALLENGE was to explore how we relate to change in our daily lives, including how we experience change in relation to others, and to larger systems. Instead of trivializing the role of individuals, the point of the experiment was to generate reflections on the differences that an individual can make. As a limited-term commitment with no penalties for failure, there was little to lose.
There was, however, a price to pay. Changes often lead to new and unfamiliar situations, which can create discomfort and anxiety. The frustrations of change were voiced by all of the participants. Sigrun Brustad Nilsen, who committed to two hours each evening without electricity, became restless at times, aware that she had evolved into a ‘homo electronicus’ who was dependent on electro-gadgets of all sorts.
Both Arild Hermstad and Kari Ryan decided not to eat meat, thus they had to change their own eating habits and navigate shared meals with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Although most of the time people were supportive, sometimes family members wanted anything but a meatless dinner. Kari was impressed when her in-laws made her an alternative to the traditional Norwegian Christmas meal, and Arild discovered that friends and neighbors actually thought that his vegetarian experiment was cool.
Relating to Others
Sigrun Brustad Nilsen was surprised by some of the reactions of others. She was often reminded that her change was meaningless since electricity in Norway comes from hydropower. She was quick to point out, however, that Norway’s globalized energy system now includes imports of fossil fuel-based electricity. Mette Newth found some friends to be skeptical to her decision to reduce her carbon footprint, especially during the Christmas holidays. Newth noticed that it is easier for Norwegians to celebrate comfortable traditions rather than to create a tradition of care for future generations.
An individual’s decision to change clearly affects more than the individual. It affects families, friends, colleagues, strangers – and pets. When Will Nicholson committed to driving less he had to develop new routines, including for his dog, Mustang, who preferred long walks in a forest that was 11 km away. Although Mustang did not like taking the metro or bus to get to the forest, he too got used to new routines.
Relating to Systems
Relating to systems change involves seeing relationships between individuals and systems as a whole. In avoiding plastic shopping bags, Mette Bøe Lyngstad found that sometimes she simply did not have a choice (for example, when buying fruit at the grocery store or tropical fish at the pet shop). Systemic changes make a difference. While visiting friends in a municipality that supports recycling, Nimra Batool noticed that it was easy to sort food waste — a system was already in place. However, creating a system in her own home made her realize that small changes can also make a difference. Once a routine is in place, John Richard Hanssen saw that it can be easy to add on other changes. Reflecting on his experiment with bicycling to work, Ørjan Zazzera Johansen pointed out that it was really about making the decision to change.
Sigrun Brustad Nilsen reflected that change always starts small, and it starts with someone, but eventually political decisions are necessary. Yet she also experienced some unexpected benefits from her experiment. Her two-hours without electricity had a calming effect, creating more space for talking, reflecting, and doing other things. In short, it changed her relationship to time. Maria Sand’s challenge to spend one hour a day being creative was difficult in a busy world, but drawing in the morning left her seeing things differently, and smiling throughout the day. Anne Karin Jortveit’s challenge was to limit her consumption, spending no more than 30 NOK a day on herself. By making her spending transparent, Anne Karin was able to change her relationship to consumption. As an artist, she recognized that change is more like an art project than an exact science.
Changing – even talking about change — can have ripple effects. Indeed, the difference that one small change can make is generally not about the change itself, but about the conversations that it starts with oneself and others. Kari Ryan talked about her vegetarian experiment with anyone who would listen, and found that it eventually led to discussions about the environment. She was enthusiastically cheered on by friends in New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and Germany. She also noticed that the challenges of other participants affected her – for example, she too stopped using plastic shopping bags. Hiwa Mayi’s ‘take the stairs’ experiment inspired his sister from Kurdistan to take the cCHANGE Challenge.
The experiments gave participants new understandings of where the power of change actually lies. Mette Newth reflected on the power of words, pointing to the difference between ‘believing’ in change and actually understanding change processes. There will always be people who believe that a single person bicycling to work, sorting waste, not eating meat, spending two hours without electricity, limiting consumption, reducing car use, avoiding plastic bags, taking the stairs, bringing a lunch to work, tracking carbon use, or just taking an hour to be creative will make no difference, not the least because the problem of climate change is complex and systemic.
Yet participants found the challenge of change to be anything but trivial. They discovered that they, as individuals, had the power to change, and to influence others, merely by starting new conversations about change. Yes, systems change is critical to addressing climate change. But if we are going to take change seriously, we have to engage with it personally and politically. Personal change is not an alternative to systems change, but rather an effective and meaningful way to generate changes that matter.
If you or your organization are interested in taking the cCHANGE Challenge, send us an email to the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.