Nobody likes the middle. It’s the realm of compromise. It’s pretty boring, really. The place where you might find yourself “stuck.” All the really interesting stuff happens at the edges, right? Perhaps. But the middle is also a place of great potential, especially when it comes to triggering runaway social change.
Ecological “footprint” co-creator Bill Rees recently told me that when it comes to large-scale transformational change, there are four prime movers: Price signals (oil goes up, and SUV sales plummet); Catastrophes such as war, floods, and hurricanes represent another category. Coercion is another: The power of law, the foundation of civil society. Then there’s social change, “the cumulative effect of civil society, the counter-movements. But they can take decades.”
So on this last point, I’ve been thinking about behavior change as of late. With the new U.S. administration comes a completely new aura of hope about what’s possible. What will it take, I wonder, to trigger runaway social change, one of the four arrows in the Rees quiver that could prevent runaway climate change?
How do we get to the place where vast numbers of us understand that a balanced atmosphere is the key to prosperity, security, stability. That it is not only the path out of this economic crisis but also the key to our shared future. I sense large numbers of us — those who do get it — reaching and stretching and imagining. More than a million people have signed up for the We Can Solve It pledge.
We’ve seen some once-fringe green behaviors enter the normalsphere as of late. Cloth shopping bags are a good example. They’re now de rigeur for even the Lexus RX set. Ditto bottled water, sales of Dasani are plunging, as people discover that, wait, tap water works, too—and doesn’t have the scent of petroleum.
I’ve been thinking about these little shifts as of late, these little tremors. I’ve also been thinking about the people on the “continuum of green.” Here’s a slide I put together for a recent talk I gave the Interesting Vancouver conference.
Let’s put green types into three groups: the “baseline” greens, the “keen” greens, and the “bright” greens. Here’s how we might break them down by the things they buy, don’t buy, and do…
Baseline Greens : This is the realm of normalized planet-friendly behaviors, products and actions that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most parts of North America. Here we’d place chestnuts such as recycling, composting, shopping for organic and fair-trade labels, cloth shopping bags, push mowers, programmable thermostats, re-usable aluminum water bottles, fuel-efficient cars, swirly light bulbs, bamboo pillowcases, hemp Ts, etc.
Keen Greens occupy the next level up the scale. These are folks who have made some kind of personal resolution. They’re mall averse, they love eBay and Craigslist, they have one car or a shared car, they’re avid cyclists, they’ve purchased carbon offsets, done some kind of home retrofit. They’re locavores and food gardeners. They volunteer. They shop for durability, not just price. They’re culdesactivists .
Finally, the Bright Greens. These people are simply ahead of their time. They’re revolutionary thinkers. They perhaps live in Eco-Villages, or want to. They have fashioned careers out of deep-green thinking, perhaps in renewable-energy research. They’re seed savers, and somewhat anti-fashion. They push the boundaries constantly. They’re not luddites working the farm, though, they’re very tech-savvy. All that said, they’re also somewhat socially isolated; they have trouble relating to “regular” people who don’t get what is going on in the world. In public, they are relentlessly optimistic. But privately, they are terrified that the change is not coming as fast as it needs to, and the clock is ticking.
So where will the change come from? I think it will come from the middle section of this continuum. The keen greens find inspiration in the bright greens, and “push down” better behaviors and choices to the baseline group, who in turn look up to them as models. It’s up to those who have made some changes to show the larger group just a few steps to the left that there’s nothing to fear. Now all they need to do is make it easier for them… more on that soon.