Archives for June 2012

Has The Green Door Been Bolted?

Cartoon of 'Titanic' style boat labelled 'World Leaders' heading towards an iceberg labelled 'climate change' - caption: 'It's settled - we agree to sign a pledge to hold another meeting to consider changing course at a date to be determined'

Image credit: David Horsey

The Rio+20 Summit has been and gone, was largely considered a failure, and has barely registered in the consciousness of the average person. We are no closer to any co-ordinated, serious global approach to addressing sustainability at the international level than we were in 1992 at the first Rio Earth Summit, which set out the ‘sustainable development’ agenda (itself a contested concept among sustainability activists).

Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, called Rio+20 ‘a failure of epic proportions’ and bluntly described the 253-paragraph Summit statement as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot noted the absence of a popular movement:

It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers’ rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law.

So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

While there is an increasing number of environmental and social groups around the world doing this work – involving more people than ever before in history – it seems that Monbiot’s observation is also correct.

In many OECD nations, a combination of budget cuts, austerity measures and increasing costs of living associated with the GFC fallout appear to have diminished popular concern with environmental and sustainability issues. Data collected from the UK, US, Germany has shown that environmental issues are not top of mind for these populations, and according to a recent research report ‘What Matters to Australians’ cited in The Australian:

A study of what matters to the average Australian found environmental issues “mattered intensely” in 2007 but had dropped to being of “middling” importance today.

The resulting picture was one of a conservative society intensely concerned about day-to-day issues.

Global sustainability dropped from third in 2007 to eighth in 2010, the only category to see any big movement either up or down…tangible things such as health and family “always were and always will be the things that really matter”.

Leaving aside the not-insignificant question of what people understand by ‘sustainability’ or ‘environmental issues’, and whether or not they see connections between issues (for example, food and health issues rated as the biggest concern, and yet sustainable food systems are intricately connected to a plethora of environment/sustainability issues), it is clear that for many people, all things environmental have fallen off the radar. The report does note that the high profile around climate change 2007 may have been an aberration.

With pressing day to day concerns around cost of living, access to basic services and local crime prevention, abstract notions of invisible gases causing major atmospheric and geographical changes at some undefined point in the future are simply not the immediate worry for citizens.

Similarly, just as people do not experience ‘the economy’ – they experience availability of work, fuel and food prices and mortgage repayments – the scale at which most sustainability advocates are attempting to communicate issues is beyond the realm of many people’s experience and therefore seen to be irrelevant. If people feel no sense of agency about how their individual efforts can effect change, and if daily demands leave little spare time to contemplate, let alone plan to enact change, it simply will not be a priority for most people.

For businesses facing economic downturn, and governments facing budget cuts, any initiative that involves investing money and employee time to become more resource efficient – even if it can ultimately save them money – is off the table as organisations retreat to focusing on ‘core business’. Sustainability is still being perceived as an add-on rather than an integral part of how organisations work.

If the general public and organisations have gone into siege/survival mode, then sustainability advocates need another approach to find their way in than exuberantly flinging open the ‘green door’ carrying a basket laden with all kinds of messages about carbon, climate, energy, waste, water and efficiency.

Because by and large, the ‘Green Door’ to the wider public is bolted.

ornate green door with two padlocks

Image credit: Breno Peck

What to do?

We could start with what’s going right, what is working using an assets-based approach, rather than talking about insurmountable problems.

Then there’s the packaging – ‘sustainability’ might work better if it’s more subtle and less overt, a bit like hiding vegetables in the kids’ pasta. It might be good for them, but they’re doing it because they enjoy it, or because they identify it as meeting their needs, not because someone told them it would be good for them and/or the planet.

A cynic might say we need a Sustainability Trojan Horse – to conceal the intent in a different guise. But we really do need to start where people are, with what they value.

head of Trojan Horse tinted green

‘Sustainability? Oh no, we’re talking about how you can make your life more fun and easier right now!’

An example: an initiative developed in Australia called MamaBake was established to encourage collaborative meal making as a means to lighten the daily evening meal preparation burden on women. A group arranges to get together at a member’s home, decides what to cook, and the task happens as part of a social occasion. At the end of the session, the women divide up all the meals into portions for each family who then has a week’s worth of frozen meals on hand – not to mention a week’s worth of free evenings.

These women are not cooking in bulk, and reducing potential temptation for for time-saving but often expensive and less healthy take-away because someone told them it would be better for the environment.

They are doing it because its fun, it offers them social connection, and to turn what is a chore into an enjoyable occasion and claw back precious time during the work week.

Now MamaBake is not going to save the planet or address concerns for healthy eating and more work-life balance for families on its own – but it is a contribution, and if we identified, worked with and supported the replication of many similar initiatives, it would amount to a social shift. MamaBake groups are also a ready-made audience and social norms transmission device for talking about local food production, healthy eating, recycling and food waste, modern cloth nappies in lieu of disposables, and a whole range of other things that are captured under the sustainability umbrella.

In the broader collaborative economy, people are finding ways to meet their needs through sharing, not because it is a government policy about reducing consumption, not because sharing – and therefore needing to buy less – is good for the environment, but because it makes sense to people, allows them to meet their needs, and has been enabled by technology, the social web and the ‘currency’ of reputation.

It’s a model that can also be applied to business:

“Most business owners are currently overlooking the renting potential of their business equipment. At Open Shed we believe renting out the equipment you own, when you are not using it, creates a number of opportunities for you. It can reduce your operating costs, help you establish relationships with other businesses and customers, reduce waste and keep money in your local area,” says Lisa Fox, director and co-founder of Open Shed…other common requests by businesses that use the site include projectors, projector screens and PA equipment, which people often need for a one-off event.

Is the Blue Door of the sharing and collaborative consumption approach the one we should be knocking on? That’s where people are.

We might find that progressing sustainability could be more effective if we treated it like acupuncture – subtly channeling the flow of energy through providing a platform for encouraging the existing momentum out there – rather than the major surgery of international action that we keep putting off.

Sustainability advocates can always carry the spirit and intent of sustainability into their practice, but present it in ways that are relevant and meaningful for people. Find the door that opens for them, rather than the one we want them to enter through.

Have you had any experiences where a message couched in ‘green’ or sustainability terms has been rejected, but a similar message framed in a different way has been accepted?

What other ‘doors’ are there through which to reach people?

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What Jamie Oliver Can Teach Sustainability Activists

Jamie Oliver in a blue and black striped hoodie, smiling at his Food Revolution kitchen bench

Crux has long been a huge fan of British chef Jamie Oliver, not only for inspiring an interest in – and some development of my talent – in cooking, but for his activism and examples of change-making.

His first foray was 2002’s ‘Jamie’s Kitchen’, in which fifteen disadvantaged young people were offered an opportunity in Oliver’s new restaurant, Fifteen, if they successfully completed the training. Five of the original group, all of whom battled problems including homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse, went on to secure cooking careers, four in top restaurants in London and one who opened his own catering business.

Oliver’s efforts with 2004’s  ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’ to improve school lunches in the UK, 2010’s Emmy Award Winning ‘Food Revolution’ in the US in West Virgina, and a second series of Food Revolution in 2011 in Los Angeles, were intent on changing one of the most personal, and yet also political, of human actions – what people put in their mouths.

Any student of change would do well to watch these series and pay close attention to Oliver’s modus operandi, most likely informed by people skilled in the art and science of persuasion, but also carried by the leadership and interpersonal skills of Oliver himself.

Although the issues Oliver was tackling were reviewed, praised, criticised and commented on widely, there are surprisingly few case studies out there capturing the lessons for application by others.

Yet here we have many of the situations change agents face presented as a story, with real people and situations rather than a list of theoretical concepts, and someone working his way through the pleasures and pains of change, in a familiar and readily digestible format (television).

Oliver’s Food Revolution site includes a section entitled ‘A Case Study For Non-profits On How To Activate The Crowd’ which offers some guidelines on how to animate and engage a community. ‘A Platform for Change’ sets out some concrete steps on specific issues. However the advice still focuses largely on the mechanics for change, for example:

  1. Have a simple message that people grasp.
  2. Have a vivid call to action that is linked to your message – host an event, share your knowledge, inspire better food education.
  3. Allow everyone to get involved. Use all networks at your disposal to establish a community around your cause.
  4. Focus on under 25s – get their attention, their networks are often the most active and connected.
  5. Secure the commitment of like-minded companies, organizations and individuals to unify expertise and support the message.
  6. Get celebrities and influencers to spread the word to increase the reach of your message.
  7. Monitor the conversation, engage with the community and measure your results. This will help you to learn where your campaign is working well, and how it can be developed further.

All absolutely valid and useful pieces of advice. But the most powerful methods of change are not in what we do, but how we do it – how we persuade people to get involved, how we frame our messages, how we get people’s buy-in, how to manage the dynamics of change.

At this deeper level, the lessons from Oliver’s work for change agents include:

He recognised and accepted that those he came into conflict with might fear that their position, status or authority was being questioned or threatened:

Oliver’s first roadblock in both the UK and the US was the school dinner ladies – trained to provide school food with little preparation needed other than reheating; adamant about what students would and would not eat; under pressure and working to feed hundreds of mouths each day – and in walks a young fellow intent on changing it all. To those staff, his presence would have seemed like something was not working well, and by inference, they themselves were doing something wrong. To parents, especially in the UK, he was usurping their authority over their children, even telling them they were not good parents. Maybe he was right in some cases – such as the parents who took to handing fast food through the school fence to keep their kids happy and undermine Oliver’s initiative.

By putting himself in the lunch ladies’ shoes, learning their work role and being on the coalface of change, he showed he was willing to see how things worked from their perspective, and earned their trust – which kept the working relationship intact, even when they didn’t agree on issues.

During the first Food Revolution series in Huntington, West Virginia, Oliver came under attack from a local radio DJ, who voiced the concerns of people worried that Oliver was there to ridicule and stigmatise their home for being the fattest and unhealthiest city in the United States, and then broadcast it around the world in a television series (although the town had been chosen based on government statistics about diet-related illness and death).

By staying the course with the community, involving people and building momentum for the initiative, Oliver turned ‘DJ Rod’ – and his media influence – from the most vocal critic of the Food Revolution to one of it’s most staunch supporters. Oliver worked to morph his adversaries into his allies; rather than wanting to ‘neutralise’ or silence DJ Rod, his mission was to get him involved in and excited about the Food Revolution.

And in the second Food Revolution series, he butted heads with the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), who oversee the largest public school system in California. The LAUSD, although they welcomed Oliver’s input to help reinvent menus,  were uncomfortable with the presence of Oliver and his cameras documenting the food systems they were in charge of. The LAUSD were understandably wary of how the school would be portrayed, and did not see eye to eye with Oliver, who considered the series an opportunity for the school to position itself a leader of positive change:

Four hours of TV back home got a billion dollars from the British government, got rubbish in vending machines taken out, got new standards, fresh produce, local food and we’re on the beginning of transition of change.

Jamie Oliver on Oprah, 28 March 2010

Arguably, the LAUSD itself was the cause of the conflict it sought to avoid, creating a drama and a news story around revoking Oliver’s filming permits, and then access to its schools altogether.

By persisting in the face of resistance and being undermined, Oliver was able to influence not only the composition of school menus, but the composition of the LAUSD Board.

He made things visible:

My most vivid memories of the Food Revolution series are the visual elements of the documentaries, Oliver’s stunts:

The absurd comedy of seeing him dressed up as a giant pea pod, running across a schoolyard with a gaggle of squealing kids tearing after him, while he shouts ‘Eat your vegetables!’

Jamie Oliver in a giant green pea pod costume

The visceral horror of seeing him literally dump the amount of fat consumed by the school’s children in one year on a tarpaulin in the school yard (see 1:52 in clip below):

In the second Food Revolution series, Oliver waged war on flavoured milk in schools, demonstrating how much sugar was in a week’s worth of milk consumed at the school by pouring an equivalent amount of sand into a school bus:

Oliver in front of a yellow school bus into which the piles of sugar were poured

Oliver is well aware that these highly visual stunts are the most effective means communication and getting people to internalise a message:

As far as I’m concerned, we just made an incredible documentary with big stunts. Why do we do big stunts? Because a lot of the information we work with is bloody boring. And I don’t expect any public, let alone the Americans, to be remotely interested.

The high impact visuals of these stunts work on two levels – it creates an emotional response in the audience, and it makes great content for being picked up and distributed through mainstream and social media.

On the day of the ‘sugar’ stunt, there were barely two dozen people there. Yet long after the series went to air, the video and images of the stunt are still on the internet, having been picked up by bloggers and other media.

Closely related to making things visible, he made participating in Food Revolution activities a social norm:

In the Food Revolution Kitchen, he posts an image of everyone who has signed up to support the initiative. It shows other people are on board, and helps people to become involved because other people are doing it too:

Jamie in front of his pinboard featuring photos of every participant who has signed up to support the local Food Revolution

That, and another of his stunts, arranging a very public, visible, cooking Flash Mob which got the town talking:

He made things tangible:

To get his message of health and nutrition across to a family featured in the first Food Revolution series, Oliver placed the family’s weekly meals – typically processed foods and fast food – on the kitchen table all at once.

Jamie talks to a mother featured in the Food Revolution series after placing the contents of the family's weekly diet (largely processed food, fried food, pizza etc) on the kitchen table at once

The golden rule of writers is ‘show don’t tell’, and it’s a rule that applies equally to change work. Seeing it, smelling it, realising the scale of it, touching it all affected the person he was engaging with in a much deeper way than simply telling her.

Also in the first Food Revolution series, he took his arch-adversary, DJ Rod, to a local funeral home where the radio announcer was shocked to see the massive sized caskets in which chronically obese people are buried. The turning point for Rod was hearing from the funeral director about conversations he has with grieving families in relation to the burial process for overweight corpses, how the casket has to be transported in the back of a cargo van, how cremation is not an option and the coffin requires two grave spaces. It made the issues Oliver was campaigning on real, immediate in his own community – and the messenger was a local, like himself.

When seeking the support of top local chefs to mentor students, Oliver invited them to lunch – and then served them all a range of foods that comprise a standard public school lunch. The chefs were horrified at the low quality of the food, and agreed to participate.

He understood and empathised with people.

In the second Food Revolution series, he met a single father of two boys, 14 and 10, who were all living on fast food and takeaways, even though the boys did not like the food.

The family wanted to change – but first Oliver had to create an ‘interruption’ to business as usual. He took the family on one of their trips to the drive through, but unbeknown to the family, he had arranged to keep the orders coming, filling their car with the amount of fast food the family eat in a month. But that wasn’t all.

While they were at the drive through, the shows producers entered the family’s house and covered every surface with thousands of dollars worth of fast food amounting to what the father and his sons would eat in a year. The message hit home.

family's house covered in foam containers and bags of fries, hot dogs, pizza, burgers etc

Importantly, Oliver was not just about showing them what they weren’t doing well – he was also there to show them what they could do, and to ensure they had support in the days following his visit so that the change would ‘stick’.

He issued a challenge (ie. made it into a game) – could he guide the boys to cook a chicken and salad in lunch in less time, and more cheaply, than it took their father to go to the drive through, order food and make it home? Yes they could! The boys’ meal came to $23 in ingredients, the takeaway, $31. When their father came home 45 minutes later, Jamie and his sons were throwing a football in the street, lunch already made.

He didn’t judge anyone.

There are all sorts of reasons people make poor food choices, from economic circumstances to lacking skills to not coping in other areas of life or not knowing how to change. Although he pulled no punches in stating what needed to change and why, in being able to listen, to be gentle and to help people realise what they can do, he empowered people he encountered.

He challenged entrenched systems.

No change worth making ever happened without challenging power structures.

In Oliver’s case, the most difficult block he encountered in his school food series was not kids unused to fresh healthy food, not parents unwilling to hear his call for change, not even the formidable school dinner ladies whose work roles would be reinvented, but the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD). The authority had the power to grant Oliver access to work and film in the schools (or not), and are also in charge of making decisions on suppliers and budgets for school food.

They didn’t want him to film in the school’s cafeteria. With the assistance of school staff who were his allies, a loophole was found that allowed Oliver back into the school to teach or film, but he would not be allowed near the kitchen.

The authorities then revoked permission for all filming on the school grounds. Oliver responded by establishing a shop front, the Food Revolution Kitchen, across the road from the school so that students could still participate after school hours. He showed the students that he was not abandoning the initiative when things got tough.

He held his ground, even when it was difficult – even when it hurt:

I hate making TV documentaries, because it takes quite a lot of energy to know that you’re going to get your arse kicked and people will hate you, or fight you, for large proportions of time.

You know, change is very hard – structures, organisations, businesses, people, anyone really. And if you’re shining a light on one of the most unhealthy places in the world, it has to be a car crash, there’s no pretty way. I knew what I was flying over there for, I knew it would be horrible, but I hadn’t done horrible without my family. When you have shit days you need to be able to go and hug your kids, do you know what I mean? I didn’t have that, and it was hard, really hard.

Oliver remained steadfast to his beliefs and his mission, and withstood the heat he generated that comes with being an instigator of change.

In 2010, Oliver was awarded the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) prize for his activism, which offers him a platform to call on the TED community and on influencers to help him fulfil his wish:

I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.

Here is the TED talk he delivered when receiving his prize:

But for all his public profile, connections, awards, ability to command resources and personable manner, it didn’t equate to making change easier for Jamie Oliver, MBE, celebrity tv chef, author, film maker, businessman – he was in exactly the same position as change agents everywhere find themselves: encountering resistance, facing communication challenges, doing the hard yards.

Jamie Oliver, dressed in pea pod costume, holding fork to mouth of little boy pleading with the reluctant little fellow to eat!

So perhaps his most important lesson on creating change is – never give up!

I reckon I could get in to the head of food service in any Russian cities. I reckon I could get into North Korea inside a week.

That’s Jamie Oliver, in response to being shut out of LA’s public school cafeterias. No change worth making was ever easy.

Who else do can you think of in the public eye, or do you know personally, who is or has been an effective change maker? How were they effective in their work?

What techniques do you use to maintain your spirit in the face of resistance, even hostility?

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Visual Guide to Cognitive Biases

One term often heard in relation to sustainability, and any other kind of change, is ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was discussed in a recent post, Motivating Sustainable Behaviour:

Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions simultaneously. If something conflicts with an existing belief or value, people will be more likely to move out of the discomfort by rejecting the new information or request than changing their belief or value.

For example, if someone who identifies as being concerned about biodiversity and species loss discovers that their favourite dinner fish is on the endangered list, they may choose to ignore or not act on the information because they can’t bear to give up the meal they love the most.

Crux is just pleased that there are a number of fair trade and organic options for chocolate.

An easier, simpler term for cognitive dissonance is the ‘Say-Do Gap’ – what an individual says is different to what they actually do. Other terms are the Value-Action Gap, and the Attitude-Behaviour Gap – ‘Say-Do’ is just the simplest term with the least syllables.

This bias alone is a tough one to tackle, however, cognitive dissonance is only one of a large group of biases.

Great, right? As if cognitive dissonance was not enough, there’s a whole stack of the things lurking about, waiting to trip up the communication efforts of change agents!

A close relative of cognitive dissonance is confirmation bias, which is:

…a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

Learning a little bit about these can help you to identify and choose communications approaches that effectively respond to the bias.

But first of all, what exactly are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are psychological tendencies that cause the human brain to draw incorrect conclusions. Such biases are thought to be a form of ‘cognitive shortcut’, often based upon rules of thumb, and include errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory. These biases are a common outcome of human thought, and often drastically skew the reliability of anecdotal and legal evidence. The phenomenon is studied in cognitive science and social psychology.

Further to previous posts concerning tools to help change agents in thinking and practice – Know Your Logical Fallacies, and Pattern Language – there is now also a ‘ready reckoner’ for getting your head around the taxonomy of Cognitive Biases.

The Royal Society of Account Planning have developed a guide to help people get to grips with all the different cognitive biases in a fun way, designed to introduce the different types of biases and make them easier to memorise.

visual contents page from guide with icons for four categories of bias

The guide is comprised of four categories of biases, and examples in each group. All the examples are represented with an icon, summarised in once sentence, and most are hyperlinked to a Wikipedia reference.

Here is an example of each category – no doubt you will spot the relevance to sustainability and your work!


Social Biases:

screenshot of social bias - 'projection'; unconsciously assuming others share similar thoughts, values, beliefs


Memory Biases:

screenshot of memory bias - 'consistency'; incorrectly remembering one's past attitudes and behaviours as resembling present attitudes and behaviours

Decision Making Biases

screenshot of decision making bias - 'hyperbolic discounting'; people's preference for payoffs sooner rather than later, focusing on short term over longer term


Probability/Belief Biases

screenshot of probability/belief bias - 'hawthorne effect', the tendency of people to behave differently when observed

Crux confesses to being guilty of planning fallacy – the underestimation of task completion times.

Note: the content – derived from the Cognitive Biases wiki – is still a work in progress in terms of comprehensiveness and accuracy. The guide should also be viewed as an introduction and pathway to the works of professionals in this field. Regardless, it is a useful introduction to the layperson.

Do you recognise some of the biases in the guide? Are you aware of using any yourself?

Which biases do you think are the most important ones for sustainability change agents to be putting their attention to?

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