Sounding the alarm to find leaders for the sustainability emergency

(Based on a posting to the Greenleap list on 15 Nov 2007.)

In an opinion piece from the Canberra Times 15 November 2007: Modern fables and eco fatigue by Leo Hickman said:

Professor Mike Hulme, then director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warned scientists and the media against the use of hyperbolic language when speaking about climate change scenarios. In particular, he warned against using the words "disaster", "apocalypse" and "catastrophe". His own research showed that such terms generated apathy among the intended audience.

http://canberra.yourguide.com.au/news/opinion/opinion/modern-fables-and-eco- fatigue/1086860.html

While it is true that some people are jumping straight from "aware" to "despair" and are suffering from "eco fatigue", I don't think the solutions offered in the article are really all that helpful - in fact I think the proposed 'solutions' will actually make the situation much worse by blocking needed awareness raising and by blocking effective action.

My guess is that Mike Hulme has not looked at the dynamic interplay between leadership, the 'message' and effective action - as it plays out in a whole population rather than just as an average of individual responses.

Let's take a scenario where leadership is equivocal - claiming that the issue is important but not really following through with actions that match the claimed severity of the problem. If you then dump more 'disaster' talk on people in the community then people have a double blow to their morale. Firstly they are being asked to believe that things are disastrous. Quite understandably that is a worry (it should be a worry!). But there is an additional subconscious problem. Anyone with any experience with the real world of people working together knows that we are enmeshed in a complex system with a huge amount of inertia. It is (objectively) very difficult to turn bits of this system around, let alone the whole system.

If the leadership of our organisations/society are not engaged or are not engaged fully and effectively enough then when we dump a disaster message on people we are implicitly saying that we want people to individually solve both the leadership problem and the environmental problem as well. This is simply too big an ask for most people. And they very reasonably try to minimise their psychological pain by disengaging.

But to jump from this insight to saying that we must therefore 'soft peddle' the problems does not follow logically. There is at least another strategy that can be applied.

If people are facing a disaster (tsunami, fire, war, pandemic, massive climate change, etc.) it is not 'alarmist' to draw this to people's attention to the problem. To be alarmist means to alarm others needlessly.

In times of crisis the alarm bells are rung to alert not only everyone but critically to also alert leaders. If the crisis is one that people are well prepared for then there will be leaders who know what they should do - the floor or area captains for building evacuation, the SES volunteers, the regional and head office emergency administrations. Once the leaders are engaged they can help an alerted citizenry to take action in a calm and effective way.

In a well rehearsed emergency, even if the normal leaders are not available, people generally know what to do and people can step forward spontaneously to fill any leadership gaps.

But what happens if the crisis is novel, no one knows what to do and the normal leaders are not engaged or are engaged ineffectively?

In this situation the purpose of ringing the alarm bells is to find spontaneous leaders wherever, whoever they might be. A person who suspects that the community faces a disaster cannot know by telepathy who is going to be willing and able to play a leadership role. he only way to find such people is to ring the alarm bells generally and see who responds. In a novel and challenging situation the leaders need to be flushed out.

In the bigger scheme of things it simply doesn't matter if broadcasting the alarm causes some people to withdraw. It wouldn't even matter if most people became disengaged. The crucial thing is to find people who are willing to provide leadership in a very confusing, ambiguous situation.

Once a critical mass of de facto leaders has been found, they can start to develop some sort of plan of action. They can work to engage people who wear the official badges of leadership and in the worst case if the formal leadership cannot be engaged despite vigorous efforts to get them involved, then those alert to the problems simply have to find ways to provide the needed leadership themselves.

Once some form of effective leadership is in place, then the withdrawn and disengaged can be encouraged out of their despondency and these people who earlier appeared to have been lost from action will, in the vast majority of cases, find their morale rising dramatically and they will reengage.

With this alternative model for handling alarming situations, it is possible to productively use the words "disaster", "apocalypse" and "catastrophe" without permanently causing apathy.

But it is important to recognise that it is desirable to do more than just raise the alarm. t is much better to also engage in dialogue with the formal leadership to assist these people to become engaged. This might require an active problem-solving stage, where efforts are made to find out exactly what is blocking effective action by the official leadership and to actively develop solutions to these blockages. And in addition, effort needs to be put into finding and facilitating action by any informal leaders who might emerge to fill the leadership vacuum.

Philip Sutton
Strategist, RSTI

Author: Philip Sutton
First posted: 2007
Content updated: 15 May 2008
Format updated: 7 April 2016
Feedback & Enquiries:  Philip.Sutton@green-innovations.asn.au