Change the Culture, not the Climate

based on a talk by Theo Kitchener at the Climate Summit in Brisbane 2014

I’ve been thinking about what I would do about climate change if I wasn’t caught up working on other kinds of activism, and amusingly perhaps, it turned out to be very similar to what I’m doing. I’d work on building an alternative system and do community organising work around the dissatisfaction people feel about the dominant system.

I’ve been thinking about what Simon Sheikh said yesterday:

  • Politicians don’t care how many people support action on climate change,
  • they care how many people support action at significant cost.

And I think the root of why people in general don’t want action at significant cost, and hence why we haven’t had any movement on climate change, is that people know they can’t live the way they do now, and solve climate change.

Philip Sutton and Adrian Whitehead are absolutely right about what the science means, we need a wholesale, fast transition, zero emissions and massive drawdown, and it will change everyone’s lives.

People intuitively know that and they don’t want to change, and so they have cognitive dissonance – discomfort with the difference between their values/beliefs and their actions. Which allows them to ignore the issue. In my opinion, this is why the climate movement hasn’t really gotten anywhere.

The only way to change that is through cultural change.

People aren’t actually happy with their lives the way they are. 1 in 3 Australians have a diagnosed mental illness, I’d say it actually seems like 80% or so of people would acknowledge they’re actually pretty unhappy if they’re honest with themselves.

The only people I know who really are happy are the ones who have downshifted, or were never up to begin with. The stay at home dads and the students living in sharehouses, indigenous people still living traditionally, people living in the ecovillage that Morag was talking about this morning, and the people who’ve just chosen to opt out of the rat race in whatever way they can.

I’m guessing this experience might apply to a lot of people in this room. How many people here have realised that you can be a lot happier working less and living on less? The people who get voluntary simplicity are often the same people as those who get climate change and have the energy to do something about it.

People aren’t happy with their full time jobs and their mortgages, their plasma tvs are a coping mechanism, not a joy. They’re overworked and stressed out. They know this. But they don’t think there’s any alternative.

One of my housemates on the other hand, lives in a tent in the backyard, gets up every morning at 6am, plays with the chickens and ducks, does some exercise, teaches himself languages in the morning, works in the garden, does a bit of activism for Quit Coal, and socialises throughout the day. He lives on next to nothing, so he isn’t going to work at all for a while. He’s the happiest person I know, sometimes there’s even a cute little skip in his step.

So what I’m proposing is that we go doorknocking and talk to people about how they’re going with life in the system. That’s not enough though. We have to give them an alternative as well. I’m thinking about starting a network of environmental workers co-operatives. Everyone would work part time, and the co-ops would give people the experience of working in a group with no boss. Being part of the network would give you a sense of community, sufficiency and participatory democracy. [That network now exists and is very exciting. You can find out more at]

I think a lot of people would love to downshift and get out of the rat race, but they don’t feel like they know how. We could help with that.

And the cultural change would spread. It already is. Happiness is infectious, the only thing stopping it is a workable alternative.

Once people have the experience of living more simply, and they know how much happier it makes them, the cognitive dissonance about climate change could disappear.

Talk of climate change wouldn’t make them feel guilty and it wouldn’t make them fearful about their loss of affluence either. It would make them fearful about the threat to the planet and its inhabitants, the way we activists react to it.

There’s even a study that shows that because climate change requires a collective response, the only people who are able to accept it are the ones who believe collective action works. Which means that if we give more people the experience of collective action working, then they’re more likely to do something about climate change.

So I’m not suggesting we stop campaigning on climate change, just that some people start building alternatives and campaigning people to shift to voluntary simplicity. A movement like what I’m talking about could allow the climate movement to build into the broad-based movement we’ve all been hoping for. The two movements are inextricable.

This cultural change is already happening, what I’m talking about is working to drastically speed it up. Perhaps people think this could never work, but the truth is we’ve never tried. The community organising people have been doing around coal seam gas and coal has been working really well. The voluntary simplicity movement has never tried doing the same thing.

I’m not quite talking about changing the system the way Naomi Klein is in her new book, I’m talking about changing the culture. Once we do that, the system will change itself and we’ll be able to deal with climate change in a sensible and rational way.

Affluenza doesn’t make people happy. Community does. That’s the only leverage point we’ve really got to change the dynamic.

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