htstw 2
Recently I summarized my long analysis of How to Save the World in four bullet points:

  1. We need to communicate to everyone in the world a new story of our planet’s destiny, showing them a better way to live than our bankrupt and ruinous ‘civilization’ way.
  2. We need to achieve a huge consensus that overpopulation and overconsumption are the two root causes underlying all the problems we face today, and agree on deadlines and targets for correcting them.
  3. We need to organize six billion people to use their collective wisdom to tell us how to meet these deadlines and targets, and then free them to work in their communities to make it happen.
  4. We need to help each other clear away obstacles to success. That means a lot of humanitarian and peacemaking assistance, helping to build new infrastructure that will work in the new community-based world, redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, and disarming those that will try to establish new wealth and power hierarchies.

It’s a very ambitious goal, but after two years of study I don’t see how anything less that this revolutionary, worldwide program has a chance to save us from social and ecological catastrophe by the end of this century.

I have couched this program as a social and educational one, because it so threatens the established hierarchies of wealth and power (it almost inevitably would mean massive decentralization of power, and the collapse of much of the capitalist economic system) that, as I have argued elsewhere, I don’t see a political and economic program aimed at the same ends standing any chance at all of succeeding.

I’ve also said that I see innovation and technology playing a critical role in achieving these deadlines and targets,  in three ways:

  • Invention of radically new food, shelter, distribution and energy technologies that consume much less resources yet provide the same benefits as today’s wasteful products, services, channels and systems.
  • Invention of much simpler, more effective, less costly voluntary birth control, abortion and suicide technologies.
  • Invention of non-voluntary but non-discriminatory fertility control technologies that would only be deployed if the voluntary ones fail to achieve the agreed upon deadlines and targets.

The idea of this third application of technology “just in case” has distressed many of my readers, but in my opinion if we don’t have this option available the alternatives could be much uglier and highly discriminatory. Likewise, I think we need a coercive “Plan B”, entailing the humane and carefully targeted sabotage of some of the most wasteful attributes of our existing economic system, to be used if and only if social and educational actions fail to achieve agreed upon deadlines and targets for consumption reduction: If you can’t get people to reduce demand, you have to intervene to reduce excess supply. I would hope that no “Plan B” would have to be deployed, but I also think it would be naive not to have one in case it’s needed.

So I got to thinking about the probability of success. Both our instincts and our reasoning ability motivate us to take action when the probability of success is reasonably high, and not to act if it isn’t. I’ve had enough experience in my life (both personal and business) with situations where people are asked to make “leaps of faith” to appreciate that trying to persuade people to do things they don’t think will succeed is an arduous, if not impossible, task. Just take a look at Bush’s efforts to persuade politicians and then the American people of the wisdom of invading Iraq: He argued (dishonestly but very effectively) that the invasion would be quick, easy, and inexpensive, that the Iraqis would welcome Americans with flowers and crowds of joy. If he’d been honest about the probability of success, he would probably have failed to convince either Congress or the people of the wisdom of the invasion.

What do we need to do to increase the probability of success of the 4-step change program above? Well, if we follow the most popular business change model, that espoused by John Kotter in Leading Change, we need to:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Create a vision
  4. Communicate the vision
  5. Empower others to act on the vision
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins
  7. Consolidate improvements 
  8. Institutionalize the change

Kotter argues that you don’t bring about sustained, meaningful change by edict. You need to persuade, enthuse, and engage people in sufficient numbers to change behaviours, beliefs or processes. Miss one of these eight steps, or get them out of order, he says, and you’ll fail. How could we apply these eight steps to the 4-step process needed to save the world? Here are a few ideas:

  • To establish a sense of urgency, we need to communicate to the public the causal connection between overpopulation & overconsumption, and their stressful effects: war, violence, poverty, epidemic disease, mental illness etc. That means countering the prevailing wisdom that these problems are caused by tyrannical governments, interference in ‘free’ markets, and basic flaws and weaknesses in human character. We need to enlist the help of scientists expert in proxemics to argue and provide evidence of this causality.
  • To establish a sense of urgency, we also need to urge the media to cover the true scale and scope of the horrors occurring in today’s world, as unpleasant and unpalatable as that truth is. Since the media are rewarded for pandering to public ignorance and desire for escapism, reassurance and oversimplification (trashy news about celebrities gets better ratings than news about faraway crises), we need to use blogs, alternative media and public discourse to create broad awareness of these unreported crises and hence pressure the major media to catch up.
  • My novel in progress, The Only Life We Know, will present a vision of a better world and a better way to live. Once it, and other compelling visions of alternative ways to live, have been published and broadly communicated, we then need to show that these idyllic visions are achievable if there is broad public will to do so. To do this we need to create Model Intentional Communities as ‘short-term wins’ that give these visions substance and demonstrate their viability in the real world.
  • To further convince the public of the achievability of such a remarkable change in our world, we need to draw on the successes from history of similar radical, swift change: The Industrial Revolution, female suffrage, the ending of slavery, and the ending of the Vietnam War.
  • To monitor and show progress, we need to replace the measures of our success. At a global and state level, GDP needs to be replaced by a measure of well being divided by footprint. And at an individual level, we need a simple way to track our personal ecological footprint, perhaps using something like the aggregate of the ESCs (environmental and social costs) of all of our personal purchases and expenditures.

The Kotter model, designed as it is for business, does not translate perfectly to a whole-world change program. As much as a ‘powerful guiding coalition’ for global change would help, it is probably unrealistic to expect global leaders in any sector, who have a vested interest in the status quo, to support the change, let alone guide it. This is going to have to be a mass movement in which the leaders follow (mostly reluctantly) the lead of the people.

The Kotter model also came out before the power of the Internet to galvanize and influence public opinion and organize for change was well established, and before the Wisdom of Crowds successfully repudiated the cult of leadership and the conventional wisdom that the work and advice of experts is more valuable than that of the mass of people on the front lines.

I don’t claim to have all, or even most, of the answers to convincing the majority of the people on this planet of the wisdom of my 4-point program. It’s an iterative process, and many of the ideas that will persuade people of its appropriateness, urgency and viability will come from the people themselves. But let’s suppose we are able to convince a few billion people that:

  • overpopulation and overconsumption are the root causes of the problems plaguing our world
  • there is an urgent need to address these problems
  • the vision is desirable and achievable
  • we all have a responsibility to play our part to solve these problems and achieve the vision

What’s next? Well, once someone is convinced of the merits of making a change, they want to know what to do, precisely and specifically, to achieve it. When it comes to overpopulation, that’s pretty obvious, but in the case of overconsumption, we need to have some standards that will provoke heavy consumers to cut back, and give them some specific ideas how to do it (kind of like an ecological footprint ‘diet plan’), and recognize and reward those who have already achieved that standard.

When you break the problem down into these components, and look at solutions at the individual level, intractable problems start to look a lot more solvable. Maybe the chances for our world, fixed from the bottom up, are better than we thought. Now we only need to convince a few more billion people.

The chart at the top of this post is explained in this article.

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  1. Kevin says:

    “2. We need to achieve a huge consensus that overpopulation and overconsumption are the two root causes underlying all the problems we face today, and agree on deadlines and targets for correcting them.”

    I wonder how big the “huge concensus” needs to be. I have begun to think that perhaps the whole idea of a tipping point means that we don’t need to convince billions of people, as you say, but rather only a handfull (all be it a large handfull). If this is enough to cause the tipping point, wont the rest follow? Isn’t this the whole concept that the tipping point is based on? I wonder if when we reach that tipping point, the people who are passive now about our misuse of the environment will not be just as passive about any actions and policies that help the environment. The tipping point is that magical place where the momentum suddenly shifts, and our work becomes a whole lot easier. Or am I just thinking this way because the idea of reaching consensus among billions of people is so overwhelming?

    “4. We need to help each other clear away obstacles to success. That means a lot of humanitarian and peacemaking assistance, helping to build new infrastructure that will work in the new community-based world, redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, and disarming those that will try to establish new wealth and power hierarchies. “

    I was just in a discussion with Goran Carstedt. Former president at Volvo and IKEA, the former president of Volvo France and Ikea, and one of the points he mentioned was that a leaders’ job is simply to remove obstacles. It’s uncanny how every day when I read your site it somehow relates to (and clarifies) something I had been thinking about recently.Regarding the “Plan B” I think I commented on your site once before wondering at what point you think a Plan B would be needed. In my mind, I somehow feel that if we ever reached a point where people decided that Plan B was needed, it is probably already too late. I wonder, at that point, what would be worth saving. Perhaps it is just that we have different ideas of when the Plan B would have to be implemented. Would this be something that would have to be democratically decided? Or is it something that would have to be imposed?”Miss one of these eight steps, or get them out of order, he says, and you’ll fail.” Yes, and it is also important to note that each step need not be fully completed before moving onto the next. Society is after all, a system. We must establish urgency enough to get a few people working (I think this already off to a great start). The further steps will also help to establish more urgency, etc… I also would like to change the word “Communicate” with “Share” in regards to the vision. “Communicate” sounds to dismally authoritarian in this context. If the “coalition” has to push it onto the rest of the people, perhaps it is not a good vision (even if it is the only way to save the world). Maybe when we are unable to get people to “share” the vision, as was presumably done by the guiding coalition, that is the point when we realize that our time is actually up. We can only save people who want to be saved of their own free will.

  2. JC says:

    Regarding point number 2, two things.1. How does this not become the rhetoric of the early 70’s, whereby in “15 years there will be massive starvation, etc, etc”. One of the OTHER features of “civilization” has been the technological capacity to FIX things that were becoming very problematic – say like with the food revolution of the 70’s, we can and are supporting a much higher capacity of food production. In this case, things aren’t ‘FIXED’. 2. In the same vein, technological optimists such as Bucky Fuller, cheerfully think the earth could support 100 billion people. How do you avoid the doom and gloom label?Society can and will respond to real crisis – the real problem is that if things have gone to far, and can’t be repaired after said crisis. That’s the danger for humanity as a whole.

  3. NeoLotus says:

    “2. We need to achieve a huge consensus that overpopulation and overconsumption are the two root causes underlying all the problems we face today, and agree on deadlines and targets for correcting them.”I believe this starts off on the wrong premise. The “root causes” of today’s problems are not overpopulation and overconsumption. These are only the symptoms of a more fundamental problem which is: the lack of an ethical consensus. The “root” of overconsumption arises from the greed of a few who advertise their wares and create an artificial “need” for the item. Get rid of the greed, you get rid of the rest.What I see as the most needed first step is the re-establishment of the Golden Rule, the fundamental basis of which is to show others the same dignity, respect, and kindness as we want for ourselves. This is where the whole concept of justice comes from and is about maintaining fairness, balance, and harmony.In America, workers are not being paid a fair wage. Why? Because a rapacious few have no regard for others. This lack of regard for others is the root of all evil and can be seen played out in just about every national policy America has or fails to enforce from not punishing and closing polluting businesses to denying health care to the elderly. This is between the Scrooges and the law of the jungle and the Tiny Tims and Golden Rule. I think you can get serious consensus on this without a lot of effort.Also, please see materials at http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Kevin: Absolutely. But even with the power of the Tipping Point we have a lot of work to do. Once it’s reached I don’t think the problem will be indifference so much as ‘learned helplessness’ — the pathology that most people have built up that makes them timid to think there is anything they can do, no matter what they want to do. As for Plan B, maybe you’re right and I’m getting too far ahead of myself worrying about it. I just don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. And ‘share’ is a better word than ‘communicate’, since we all internalize information differently.JC: I think the danger is that if we always believe that things will fix themselves in time, we will leave it too late. That’s why I’m so mad at Ehrich and those who predicted doom and gloom imminently. It’s going to take a while for things to go catastrophically wrong, and it’s going to happen in small incremental steps. It’s probably already started.NeoLotus: With respect, I think you have the cause and effect reversed. I believe the greed and hoarding is due to fear and stress caused by overpopulation and overcompetition for increasingly scarce resources. You can’t fix the symptom — you have to fix the cause.

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