Citizen Action Monitor

William Rees: We need a mass social movement but time is not on our side

No 285 Posted by fw, September 22, 2011

So unfortunately we seem to be stuck between having to recognize that new information isn’t the way to get people to move, and having to be very uncomfortable about waiting for change to be so dramatic that they’re forced to move. But we seem to be caught in that web. Mere persuasion doesn’t seem to do it at this point, not for the mass social movement that we need here.” William Rees

In the following brief video clip, UBC biology/ecology professor William Rees responds to this question: Barring global cataclysm, what do you think are effective ways to convince people to face the reality of the situation?

Rees considers three change mechanisms, refers to another without explaining what it is, and gets muddled with his numbering halfway through his snapshot review. Nevertheless, when this accomplished scientist and educator says “we seem to be caught in a web”, political leaders should sit up and take notice. Will they? Of course not.

My transcript follows the video uploaded by postcarboninstitute on August 31, 2011. Post Carbon Inst. Ecology and Resilience Fellow, William Rees, offers some insight on what can motivate people to fight for our future.

WILLIAM REES: How to Convince People to Face Reality, August 31, 2011

TRANSCRIPT

I think there are four ways to convince people that there is a problem. You’ve already mentioned the first. For the most part societies change most rapidly when forced to do so by some catastrophic situation. It’s interesting that information – I’ve been an educator all of my life – and it’s taken me a long while to realize that new information per se very rarely changes the behaviour. There’s always a few people who respond and are able to move forward, but if I talk to an audience of 500 people who tend to believe what I’m saying it doesn’t mean they all go out and change their lifestyle. We tend to be propelled more by catastrophe than by new information.

The second thing is other forms of coercion – the gun to the head is a fairly prominent way in our planet, unfortunately, of getting people to change their ways. But more mild ways are just the legal system. We really ought to be recognizing that our whole culture – society is really a set of laws to force us to do things we otherwise would not do because they’re good for the culture as a whole. So I think there have to be new rules and regulations around consumer behaviour to make this a more sustainable system.

And one of the ways to do that – and this is a third mechanism — is through the price mechanism. If you think of energy for example, the only time that energy use per capita has declined significantly in the developed world is when prices have risen very steeply and unexpectedly. So in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the, I guess the Iranian war and the Arab oil embargo – and then of course about two years ago when energy prices spiked around the world, and in effect stimulated the crash of the finance market. I think there’s a very tight relationship between high energy prices and this sense of insecurity that then led to the financial crash of the last couple of years.

So rising prices will change behaviour very substantially. We saw the collapse of Detroit. We’ve seen now a great reduction in US energy consumption. People do respond – it’s another form of coercion of course, it’s not voluntary, but if you can’t afford to buy a lot of stuff because the prices are now reflecting true scarcity then consumption goes down.

The third mechanism is what we’re doing now, I guess. It’s called social learning. But it takes 48 years for a new idea to sort of penetrate to the point where it has mass appeal – maybe a little less — 20 years in some cases. But if you think of the great struggle for such simple things as the right for women to vote or female liberation and civil rights – these are long-term struggles that – and it’s a very slow way to change the people.

So unfortunately we seem to be stuck between having to recognize that new information isn’t the way to get people to move, and having to be very uncomfortable about waiting for change to be so dramatic that they’re forced to move. But we seem to be caught in that web. Mere persuasion doesn’t seem to do it at this point, not for the mass social movement that we need here.

RELATED POSTS

  • Is humanity inherently unsustainable? A series of 13 posts based on a video recording of Rees’ April 2010 address at a conference. Click on the linked title which will take you to Part 1 of 13. From there you can easily locate the other posts in this series, which continues to be the most popular set of posts on this blog.
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This entry was posted on September 22, 2011 by in climate change, evidence based counterpower, social movements and tagged .
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