There's nothing like an extended period of hosting relatives over the family holiday season for gaining some insight into the sometimes tricky links between where we need to go as a society, at a strategic level, and the mundane day-to-day behaviors of individuals that can hamstring (or enable) our getting there.
Our little house in Washington State has been bursting at the seams for the last month over Christmas with relatives: our four adult kids (two John's, two mine), their partners, and their puppies and ours. Of course, we love them, and rarely see them -- especially the two who work in London, and another two who are about to return to the UK after a few months of living with us. They are all between 23 and 31, at different spots in their journeys through life, and different places on the continuum between proactive and reactive, purposeful and passive, impressionable and judgmental.
But when John and I finally had a half-day to ourselves today, spent partly processing piles of laundry and trash, I had a good reminder of how steep is the hill we must all climb in getting people to change their behaviors.
John's two children were brought up in Johannesburg and Cape Town, two big bustling cities. They were the financially-and experience-privileged children of a popular couple in the media and entertainment world. Their parents employed nannies or maids to help them raise their daughter and son when they were working or traveling. After divorce, John raised them alone through teenage years into adulthood.
By contrast, my two were brought up as the experience-privileged children of two conservation biologists, roaming in the relative wilderness - the Sabi Sand Reserve of South Africa, the small capital town of Windhoek, Namibia, and then a small settlement south of Cape Town where the beach, wetlands and mountains were a short walk away. Their African upbringing, for them, was free-ranging, sometimes scary and exhilarating, and thoroughly loved.
The first two, themselves very different, are both urbane and media-savvy, funny and sarcastic; the second two, also chalk and cheese sisters, are both wildlife- and environment oriented, idealistic and driven. It's been a fascinating and sometimes tricky experience to blend such different families when John and I married in 2013.
Sorting the trash of the last two weeks reminded me of a few hard truths about step-parenting of adults. Although I've been sorting-and-recycling since I was a kid (and I managed a recycling depot as part of my high school community service), it does not come naturally to those who've never learned why it matters, or for whom someone else cleaned up for their whole childhoods. Plastic bags still containing uneaten food get mixed with cans, which are thrown out un-rinsed - you get the picture. They've made a bit of an effort, but only because they're here with me. Otherwise, things get thrown out all mixed together and tied in a plastic shopping bag, of the kind that rarely, if ever, have entered my house in the last two decades or more.
But recycling is only one small facet of the multidimensional challenges we face as a society, as we sail recklessly onwards into the pivotal decade to 2030.
This is the decade that in my childhood and John's sounded impossibly futuristic: something out of Star Trek, Space Odyssey, or Dune. But now, today, we are suddenly entering it - the decade where we have an extraordinarily short time to 2030, the year by which we must have taken radical, substantive steps to decarbonize our global and local economies.
The task is not, of course, a trivial one. It's a fearsomely multidimensional one. It's the wickedest of wicked problems. Decarbonizing our economy by between 50% and 100% by 2030 involves making massive and lasting changes in human society, our economy, our political systems, our waste management, land use, traditions, and mindsets all at once. Can we do it? Experience and cynicism says maybe, but in 1000 years, not 10. But we have also done a great deal to handle massive change, as a species, when forced to do so. Ice-age migrations, world wars, bubonic plagues - all that. We survived these things, and in principle we can survive this.
You might already known that in another blog post, a commentary in the Daily Maverick by Tiara Walters, and the scientific paper I coauthored on which these were both based, my colleagues and I identified six core areas on which future action to decarbonize the economy and avert the worst of a climate emergency. These are: 1. Energy transitions and efficiencies; 2. Nature restoration and protection; 3. Food systems reform and plant-based diets; 4. Economic reform from extractive/ exploitative to regenerative/ restorative; 5. Population stabilization by non-coercive, education-based methods; 6. Short-lived atmospheric pollutant reduction.
These six things provide a helpful framework for everyone from parents to city councils to states to nations and corporations to make changes. We are busy at local and state levels in Washington, at least, planning how to get them implemented.
But how do we expect children and adults who have not learned a culture of self-reliance, or social service, or environmental justice, and even those who have, to make the transition to where we need to go by 2030?
I don't think we really need to worry too much about the children. I'm more worried about the middle-aged adults, at least those of the complacent, comfortable, convenience generations and mindsets. And those in the USA, for whom personal convenience and "rights" are vastly more important than other people's, and certainly more important than their own, unrecognized responsibilities.
We all know that the 18th- and 19th-century American (colonial) identity of "rugged individualism" had some adaptive benefit in those times - keeping one's self and one's family alive, though often at the cost of others' lives. But how much good does it do now?
I was, for several decades, married to a man - not a bad man really, but one whose strategic sense was often overwhelmed by his testosterone. One night, lying awake trying to solve a long-running problem with our marriage, I realized that if we, then living in a South African city, were ever burgled at night and I woke up to find an intruder in our bedroom, I would prefer to keep my husband asleep than to have him wake up. His rugged individualism, which I guessed would involve him springing from sleep into noisy and provocative aggression, could bloody well get us all killed, daughters and the two of us. So I would instead quietly plan my stealth response, including defusing conversations in different languages, and a heavy stick if things nonetheless escalated.
Now living back in the USA after many years, I realize afresh how ill-equipped many people in this country are to handle the times which are coming. Community cohesion and care for one's neighbor sometimes seem pretty thin on the ground, and vocal articulation of one's 'rights' pretty thick. But are they really? Can we not learn to do what we have forgotten to do? Didn't the hijacked 9/11 airline passengers group together to defuse the situation, overpower the hijackers and regain control of the plane? Don't we have thousands of successful, joyful, practical community organizations proving the benefits of cooperation every day?
There are many examples which prove our ability to collaborate rather than compete, to strategize rather than to fly off the handle, to recycle rather than to throw our plastic and fast-food rubbish into the trash.
Shifting our mindsets in the pivotal 2020s is something we know we have to do. Of course, some of us have been doing so our whole lives, but many will only respond when they have no other choice. Have a look at the Transition Network in the US
or globally. Practical, positive, simple, community-based change.
It's all possible. It's all happening. Join us there. https://transitionnetwork.org/ and https://www.transitionus.org/.