It was and is a trend in the business and political community to refer to ‘science based targets’ * when it comes to climate change. This triggered me to discuss the implications of this motto and what it tells us about… well, ourselves.
Let me first explain what I believe to be wrong with ‘science based targets’ before going into the alternative.
- Science is the discipline of placing the world outside of ourselves. Objectivity and the ability to produce the same outcome again and again through different people are key characteristics. However, the problem is not with the facts. The problem lies with our behaviour. Humans are the masters of ignoring facts and doing stupid things anyway. You can throw facts and science at humans without causing any effect for at least 50 years at a time (Club of Rome report “Limits to growth” came out in 1972).
- Behaviour is what actually happens inside our mind and heart – that shapes the world outside. With all facts and knowledge about climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and fatal habits we uphold, there is little movement to halt our behaviour that causes all this. Sometimes we blame addictions, sometimes the system, sometimes other people. But the one that decides to behave in a certain way is always and only me, the self. No way to hide. That is of course not withstanding the fact that behaving against an addiction, system or peer pressure is easy; no, it is utterly hard. That is the reason why so few people do it. That is the reason why science can tell us all day that we moved beyond the point of no return already (e.g. with ocean temperatures in 2014) and yet we still do what we did.
So keeping those two insights in mind, I concluded that science does not matter that much really in the sustainability worldview. (This worldview being: “I would like to live peacefully and comfortably for a long time to come and wish my offspring the same privilege. Oh yes, others too.”) Science tries to predict and explain the gritty details of changes that are underway or need to happen. However, this does not motivate my behaviour to change. Where I found motivation to change behaviour is in moral, build upon absolute directions.
Let me explain those two terms:
- “Moral” is the perception of what is right and what is wrong. Keeping it simple like this makes it simple to apply as well. It is your inner compass to good and bad. That compass is quite different to each person and my conviction is: it will always be different in different people. Subjectivity is an essential aspect that you need to take into account if you ever want to get behaviour change going.
- “Absolute direction” means to translate a goal into a black and white definition. Take climate change as an example (please allow me to be simplistic at this point to make my argument). The absolute direction is zero (not net-zero) fossil CO2 emissions to stop adding to the problem. It is not 50% or 99% but 100%. Absolute. This way, you do not have to doubt your progress because you don’t ask about that ‘when is it enough’ threshold. You will be able to quite simply establish whether you reached your goal or not. Black and white really. Makes it easy to grasp.
So, if you have established your goal in absolute terms, your moral will tell you the speed with which to achieve it. If you feel morally obliged to move faster, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. E.g. having kids of your own might cause you to move faster if you feel they will suffer a troublesome future otherwise. But old people might feel they have to make the best of their time left, no matter what. And politicians might fear loss of constituency if enacting what they think is right, and hence won’t do it. Everybody moves within ones own moral.
What did that insight do for me in the past 15 years in the business of sustainability and change? The acceptance that I am the only responsible person for my own actions. And that goes for everybody else too. So I stopped feeling guilty of not making others moving fast enough according to my own moral speedometer. Now, I try to help them understand absolute directions and facilitate their moral development if they allow that to happen. If someone does not want to, it ain’t happening only because I start jumping up and down in a mad fashion. It made me stop crying when someone choose to interpret the world in a different way than I do. That must be worth something.
Secondary benefit: if you try to influence others (that is I believe the main task of every manager, politician and what have you kind of positions), absolute direction is a real treat! No discussion about course after agreement on that direction. And the discussion about speed all in a sudden becomes a moral discussion: no hiding behind others, no ’the systems demand…’. Just plain old: “I want to do this or that because I think it’s the right thing to do”.
By all means, if scientific insights help you to influence others, to adjust your absolute direction or speed up your moral compass, don’t hesitate. Just stop justifying what you do with science that lies outside yourself. Because science and moral have quite different speed limits (yeah, science is the slow one).
And given that science comes to the conclusion that we already missed the boat with climate change, we might want to speed up our efforts to go as fast as our moral commands. Good luck to you, I hope this thought piece can offer you some novel insight or trigger a meaningful question. I feel that we will see a renewal of spirituality and believe systems before the dust settles.
*(There is a movement called ‘Science based targets initiative’ – #SBTi – which embodies that slogan, but I am speaking in general terms here)