It’s good to talk

Small steps…

  • Demonstrate the change you want to see.
  • Take what opportunities arise to talk about it; be an unashamed ambassador for your choices.

The quiet power of the ripple effect
(photo by Jordan McDonald)

Three recently witnessed events that highlight to me how far we have to go:

  • Sitting in our school car park waiting for her kids, a mother leaves the engine of her 4×4 gas-guzzler running for at least fifteen minutes as she catnaps in the front seat and children run back and forth within a few feet of her exhaust.
  • Friends who’ve already notched up literally thousands of air miles in the last twelve months announce another flight, to Vancouver. Not for work, or a wedding, or to finally make the trip of a lifetime. They just want another holiday.
  • Seeing me cycle the three miles from home to our local village to play rugby, friends assume I must be on a fitness drive, as though there’s no other reason a car owner would choose to travel by bike. After the game I watch as people climb back into cars to drive the 100m to the pub – and then, on failing to find a parking space, drive another 50m beyond to park up and walk back.

Though individually trivial, these situations are symptomatic of a mindset with huge implications, showing just how deeply embedded we all are in what we’ve all grown so used to.

If we accept that no one is deliberately trying to bring about the floods, drought, famines, wildfires and consequent misery already hitting this planet, the question is simple: why are we all still failing to make those often negligible changes that, collectively, could make all the difference?

Surely there are only two possibilities: either, despite what seems like an onslaught of warnings in the media, many of us remain unaware of the impact of our actions; or, worse, we’re aware of the impact but doing all we can to ignore it, to drown out that quiet voice of conscience so we can continue, business as usual.

Either way, each situation left me wondering something else: why the hell didn’t I say something?! Why didn’t I take the opportunity to make those people consider what they were doing? I could have asked that mother to switch off her engine, or queried whether my friends were at least off-setting all those flights. I could have suggested that everyone cycle the few miles to play rugby.

One way to influence is to demonstrate the behaviour you want to see. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a popular parenting tenet; exhibiting the desired behaviour yourself is so much more effective than just talking about it (and the reason why I have to wait till the kids are out to sneak chocolate from the kitchen cupboard).

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The obvious problem, though, is that merely demonstrating change isn’t always enough; sometimes the only way to ensure the message is heard is to say it. And that’s where it gets awkward because, unless they’ve signed up for it, no one likes being told what to do.

An increasingly common rebuttal by those under threat is to counter with accusations of ‘virtue signalling’ – a lazy smear that attacks the messenger so it can ignore the message. But real virtue signalling is about posturing: making a statement for the sake of approval, not because you believe it. It’s vanity dressed up as selfless conviction.

If you believe the truth you’re spreading, and speak out despite the risk of preaching, it’s hardly virtue signalling. And to accuse someone of that without addressing the underlying argument isn’t a valid rebuttal – it’s just another form of posturing in itself.

Yet the mere act of suggesting change creates a dynamic that risks placing one party ‘above’ the other, into a self-appointed position of authority – even if, as in my case, it’s an ‘authority’ gained from nothing more than near obsession. So it’s no small thing to suggest room for improvement in others – especially when you’re all too aware of your own failings and are hoping those others will still talk to you afterwards.

The point I have to remind myself, though, is this: talking works. You wouldn’t believe the disproportionate thrill when, after chatting about the offset certificate we display in our holiday cottages, a guest asked how he might do the same at home. Or on learning that, after talking about transport emissions, one friend has gone electric, while another has decided to cycle to work instead of drive. Yet another has approached her boss about offsetting their company’s transatlantic flights.

When the world too often seems indifferent and the news full of doom, it’s a hugely rewarding thing to realise how one brief conversation, one minor act, can act as a small, cumulative ripple in catalysing change.

And it doesn’t take much for ripples to become a wave. It turns out that a society’s tipping point – that critical mass at which behavioural change becomes mainstream – can be as low as 25%.

So given the urgency of the crisis and how far we’ve all yet to go, we all need to demonstrate the change we want to see. But then, crucially, we need to amplify those small actions by talking – calmly and rationally, and in full recognition of our own failings. That way we can raise each other’s awareness, and be each other’s small voice of conscience. By not speaking out, we risk something far worse than self-righteousness or complicity. We need change, and only discussion will bring it about. It’s not just good to talk; it’s necessary.

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