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3 lessons you need to learn about climate change from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks

It feels like, we are all consumed by the news and the repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Countries are taken strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus further. As I am writing this, there are 860 confirmed cases in Austria. 

There are very simple measures that we need to take in order to stop the spreading of the virus further. Wash your hands and stay at home.

But what happens when others don’t? 

In systems thinking, we always talk about complex, adaptive environments. We talk about how the wholes are more than the sum of their parts. We talk about the importance of interdependency. 

And it could not be more relevant now. 

Every action you take today during these times, has a distinct effect in the system that you live in. 

That brings us to our first lesson that we should learn. 

 

Lesson 1: What others do in their daily life shape our life and reality, even if we do not want it to

Whether we talk about consumption behavior, recycling rates or more, our interconnectedness can create results that are less favorable to you and to society overall. 

In the case of the coronavirus, this means, it does not matter whether you have a conspiracy theory about whether the virus is created on purpose or not, if you do not stay at home, you run the risk of infecting other people, which will asymptomatically infect others. 

 

 

In terms of global challenges, you can find another example of this in terms of data privacy. Currently, companies can use such giant data sets that they can predict your life events, or purchase behaviour, through the data that other people happily, or unknowingly provided. This means that you personally could provide no data to a certain company, but they could still have a pretty accurate guess as to what you would be interested in buying.

In terms of climate change, we already know that human behavior is changing the climate, and humans are, in turn, impacted by climate change. So, as long as there is a major production of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, we will suffer the same ultimate consequences.

Therefore, it is more relevant than ever to understand that you are an element in the systems you are in, and what you do matters for the whole and take action accordingly. A great tip came up during the panel I moderated during ONE DAY 2020, on whether people can change systems or not; think in circularity. 

We are attracted to the idea that we can have a to-do list that can curb climate change. What is dangerous about this mindset is that it is very linear. It does not take into account the effect of the effect of the effect we have. This is the same way how we do not think about whether we can be the reason for infecting an 80-year-old person, who would likely not survive the coronavirus, just because we have not personally interacted with an 80-year-old in the past week.

Let me give you an example. Inspired by a trend on Netflix, you might have found yourself with a lot of clothing to give away. You are not going to just throw it in the garbage of course, right? That feels like a waste. So, you find the closest charity box and you put it in, walking away proud of your choice. 

This is a linear solution.

In reality, the current problem with textiles is largely created by overconsumption.

But, you already have bought the clothing, and now the problem is: where does it go? 

A very small portion of the clothing thrown into charity boxes are actually sold in Austria. A large portion of them travel to a sorting facility outside of Austria, and then shipped back. Whatever does not sell, typically goes to African countries, and competes with their textile industry there. 

Eventually, it ends up on a landfill somewhere, rotting for years or being burned in a field. Now your shirt has travelled all that way to be sorted, cleaned, offered in a store perhaps, and then shipped in a bag to another continent, affected the local economy and then ended up on a landfill anyway. 

This is the importance of thinking in circularity. Because in complex environments, one cause will not have one effect.

After we use this mindset, must also learn from our mistakes. This means that next time, we buy the clothing that will last the longest, use it for a long time, and then lend it, rent it, swap it with others.

 

Lesson 2: Behavioral change is possible under the right circumstances

These are also some of the reasons as to why we do not react to climate change, the way we react to the coronavirus. 

I am not a behavioural scientist by any stretch of the imagination. So, you need to do your own research here as there is a lot of research on behavioural science and climate change. I did try to identify the intersection between some of these to suggest some potential reasons and lessons we can observe.

When we talk about washing your hands as one of the best things you can do against the spread of the virus, behavioral science would have some suggestions as to what would increase the number of people who wash their hands:

    1. Make the solution simple, intuitive and obvious: washing your hands is a regular part of our lives. We are familiar with how viruses spread overall. We know that washing your hands is a deterrent of catching a cold. Therefore, this advice comes as very intuitive to people when it comes to protecting themselves. This is not the best news when it comes to complex challenges. Because, there are no simple answers. We can all understand that we need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the world, but how exactly we should make that happen is not unanimously understood. 
    2. Show everyone else that is doing it: Especially in the short term, what others do have an impact on what we do. If someone is washing their hands in the bathroom when you leave the stall, you are more likely to wash your hands too. We have a desire to keep up with what others are doing. This is something that we can also see in marches and movements.
    3. Demonstrate the consequences of your actions: I’d like to believe that this is why the curve graph above was effective. When we understand that the actions we take today have demonstrable consequences, we are more likely to be convinced to take that action. Especially considering how late we are and how slow we are on acting against climate change, it is easy to feel discouraged and feel that our personal actions will not make a difference in the future. Some questions to think about here. Do we need to reflect on how we can communicate what we are facing and about how we can create mental models that are intuitive?

I don’t have the answers there, but I do know that a reaction and measures like this to climate change would be nice, right? 

 

Lesson 3: When we show solidarity, we can get through anything 

We don’t need this outbreak to be under control to realize the good that we are capable of. However, this is as good as any time to show solidarity and become a part of the solution. 

I will attempt to explain what solidarity is with one of my favourite quotes by Aurora Levins Morales:

“Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest. From the recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable.”

A girl sings from the window during the flash mob, March 13, 2020. Some people have organized a flash mob asking to stand on the balcony and sing or play something, to make people feel united in the quarantine.
Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Image

 

Looking through my News Feed, it is filled with people trying to be a part of the solution. 

In our essence as human beings, we are all walking around, looking for genuine connection. In whatever form that comes. This applies to you as the change maker, and it also applies to the oil executive that you’d like to convince. 

When we understand and truly embody the thought that we are all in this together, we can start to transform inhibiting mindsets that keep us where we are. Whichever global challenge we are talking about, the privileged has a duty to make sure that they are a part of the solution. 

 

Where do we go from here?

It’s simple. We must understand that the global challenges we are facing have elements that are highly interconnected and interdependent. We must take interdisciplinary action, encourage co-creation and think in circularity. We must understand that systems are changing in front of our eyes when they have to, and reflect on what we have to do now, and what we will have to do in the future if we do not take measures against the climate crisis. We must truly understand that we are all in this together, and that an injury to one, is an injury to all. 

I truly hope that we do. 

Don’t forget. 

The world is shaped by you. 

Until next time,

 

Okan McAllister 

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