When I say culture, I don’t just mean the climate-inspired art installations that pop up across NYC during upcoming Climate Week. Nor the poetry readings. I don’t even mean the rock stars playing at the Global Citizen concert which closes out Climate Week.
I mean that if we don’t start taking the necessity for mass culture change seriously, then all the climate-tech, policy change and net-zero plans discussed elsewhere during Climate Week won’t save us.
In April 2022, the Nobel-prize winning scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even (finally) acknowledged the cultural aspects of climate change:
Just like infrastructures, social and cultural processes can ‘lock-in’ societies to carbon-intensive patterns of service delivery. They also offer potential levers to change normative ideas and social practices in order to achieve extensive emissions cuts.
Basically, without culture change we can’t stop climate change. But culture might just be the lever we need for ‘extensive emissions cuts.’
Does culture matter that much?
When schoolchildren study ancient societies in which human sacrifice was common, where infant girls’ feet were broken and bound, where revered American forefathers traded in human beings – they wonder if people were different back then. The answer is, of course, ‘no’, but their culture was. Those people were the same as us, but their culture normalised behaviours, morals and institutions that were wildly different to our own.
We all exist within a vast web of social structures and semiotics – from the languages we use, to our customs, assumptions, social norms, biases, traditions, and stories that permeate every second of human life, including our dreams. Collectively they are called ‘culture’, and despite our fondness for the concept of free will, our cultural rules rigorously control each of us far more than we’d like to admit. We shape our collective identities and behaviours together and call them normal.
The planet is turning at the same speed it always has, and we humans live with the same biped bodies and brain-chemistry basically unchanged in 200,000 years. But our wild, often confounding, and malleable human cultures can evolve at speed, with transformations even in one lifetime so elemental it’s hard to remember life before them.
And this cultural transformation is a neglected but extraordinary promising factor in the greatest challenge any human society has faced.
We should remember that future school children will likely look back to today’s accepted behaviours, with bemusement and perhaps outrage. Especially in terms of how we’re responding to climate change.
Leaving us with the question, can we change culture faster than climate change?
The S Curve
On a linear line of increased action for climate we are horribly behind. The combined promises from individual governments won’t adequately limit climate change, let alone what they are actually doing (a great deal less than their promises).
Track forward any of the trends in a linear way, from energy transition to achieving net zero, and we seem locked into cultural and societal norms that will doom us.
Thankfully, life isn’t linear, and nor is cultural change.
Back in the 1990s, social scientists tracked how major social changes – on smoking and health, suffrage, technology adoption, etc – actually happened. None of these huge social transformations were linear. Instead, a theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium‘ emerged in social science.
They discovered that in big, complex societies, most things are run by specialist sub-groups. Experts and institutions are needed, with the technical knowledge to manage part of the big complexity – health services, energy policy, and even discreet parts of the system like pesticide regulation or social media algorithms. These systems aren’t very democratic and tend to stay very stable because they benefit the members of the group who run them (and those funding them).
In fact, this systemic homeostasis can persist far beyond when it fulfils any socially beneficial function. Parts of society can actively destroy collective value, but the built-in institutional and cultural ennui (plus defensive vested interests) makes those systems seem impossible to change. That’s the equilibrium bit.
But, if enough pressure builds up then…SNAP! These systems don’t shift gradually, because intense pressure has built up behind them, the change comes swiftly. This is why history is interesting – it’s all dramatic changes between long boring bits. Sharp social transformation happening so quickly that life in the previous system becomes unimaginable. If you struggle to remember how we managed things before the internet/cell phones, you know what I mean. That’s the punctuated bit.
We are overdue to punctuate the equilibrium that’s heading to destruction.
Change the story, save the world.
The cultural sector – movies, TV, social media, gaming, theatre, advertising, music, art, novels – tell the stories that tell us who we are. Stories are only one facet of culture – but a powerful and extremely changeable one.
And in a fight between a story and a fact, the story will win.
Which makes storytellers pivotal in culture change. I’ve called on advertising creatives, movie & TV scriptwriters, game designers and social media influencers to grasp that power before. The entire climate action movement needs to join that call.
Every climate-geek, Chief Sustainability Officer and youth activist should be talking culture change this Climate Week. And telling the stories that can change the world.