By Angelika Schanda
Located in Lebanon, New Hampshire (USA)
European Master in System Dynamics, Class 2013-2015 / isee systems
How humans react when facing an immediate threat is programmed deeply into our brains. The response of humans today is the same as that of humans who – let’s say – faced a saber-toothed cat thousands of years ago. This example is often referred to as a symbol for our deepest instincts. Fear can drive our body and mind to maximum performance and swift action, securing our survival.
But how about more abstract problems such as climate change? They are nothing like meeting a saber-toothed cat. And yet, it seems that last year the abstract challenge has morphed into a more direct threat, as several crises throughout the globe shook us in 2015. Does this closeness evoke a simple fight-or-flight response, or can it become a wake-up call for dealing with global challenges more sustainably?
Close to home
Consequences of climate change have been felt more widely than ever with severe droughts and floods across the world. Social tensions and violent conflict intensified, with terror attacks having been on the rise for years and hitting closer to home regarding people in the West (therefore reported differently, or even disputed to be terrorist attacks). Migration increased greatly, most strikingly with half of the Syrian population being displaced as they fled food insecurity and violence (exacerbated by climate change). Millions made it as far as Lebanon or Turkey, and a smaller group made their way into the EU – with the latter drawing much more attention and discussion. Especially in the West, the events of 2015 have opened up new discussions in the public, making it harder to ignore effects of climate change and social conflicts. In other words, the saber-toothed tiger has come to our front yard.
So what do we do, now that this scary creature sits in the way as we try to go about our daily business? Has the fear come close enough for us to change our behavior and to adapt to new realities? Will we change our resource intensive life style to combat climate change or try to maintain our current lifestyle at all cost? Will we work to improve our relations with people from other cultures and social groups, or will we try to hide behind ever higher fences?
Fight or flight?
With increasing fear, we have seen many figures rise in popularity as they provide the public with simple and convenient answers to crises. These are divisive answers that only delay and often reinforce problems.
As we know, fear rarely is a good advisor. But could fear also ignite a spark for more long-term, positive change? Even if it did, it seems that it would not be a sustainable motivator for change either. As Dean Ornish puts it in his article on climate change:
“Something similar happens on an individual level when a person has a heart attack. The physician has their full attention, and they’ll do just about anything the doctor tells them they need to do—but usually only for about four to six weeks or so. Then, they often go back to their old ways.”
The same way it is difficult to promote more long-term, sustainable responses to crises based on imminent fears. Like the physician, scientists and experts may provide all sorts of recommendations at this time of heightened public attention. Just imagine that someone tells you not to build a fence, to stay inside the house, but to approach the wild tiger and tame it until it is as harmless as a house cat. Who will dare to go near it, while paralyzed with fear? Only few will make dispersed attempts at approaching the tiger. It is all too easy to try and choose the easier, apparently safer paths, and to give up on more complex measures if they don’t show results within a few years. This way, at some point the perceived danger may simply become the new normal, and we will walk past it with denial, ignorance or resignation.
From systems thinking to systems action
So fear is not a good basis for building sustainable solutions. But what if system thinkers were to present inspiring insights into complex problems instead? Insights that acknowledge the complex interrelationships of global challenges, and are yet simple enough to understand, easy to link to our personal lives? Many systems thinkers propose just that. In fact, much systems thinking and modeling work has always been rooted in practical applications. Still, it seems that there are few voices in the media who are promoting systemic initiatives. It is time to amplify them. Please add your own voice to the discourse, comment and share your experience wherever you can. Let’s make 2016 not a year of fear, but of systems action!