Does ignorance of numbers help people defend against their impact on the climate?

June 27, 2013 § Leave a comment


I meet a lot of people who tell me they are ‘hopeless with numbers’ or ‘useless at maths’. There seems to be little shame in the admission. I’m not brilliant at maths either. I struggled in the remedial ‘O’ level class and was relieved to be allowed to drop the subject in the sixth form. I associated it with dull blokes who tucked their trousers into their socks when cycling and earnest girls who preferred the chemistry lab to sexual chemistry.

The environment world sometimes seems full of the same dullness. People who think that telling me that the UK produces enough rubbish every hour to fill the Albert Hall, will change my mind about where to drop that aluminium can. Or that the way to my ecological heart is to stun me with the news that a tonne of CO2 would fill my house.

It’s easy to mock, but staying ignorant of numbers can also be a way of defending against the gravity of one’s impact on the climate. Here are some of the things I’ve been told in groups and interviews where we calculated people’s actual carbon footprints:

  • “I think one’s spiritual connection to the environment is more important than the actual numbers.”
  • “Is 15 tonnes really worse than 10 tonnes?”
  • “I think numbers can distract you from the politics.”
  • “Numbers are so abstract – they make my head ache and they don’t motivate me.”
  • “I’d rather live an ethical life than get obsessed by numbers.”

Each of these people was struggling with the news that their carbon footprint was above average. Some of the statements contain interesting truths. Some are nonsense. Behind them lies the anxiety of being a poor environmental citizen, being asked to make changes that are hard or being accused of selfishness. Believing that numbers don’t matter is culturally acceptable and allows people to segue easily away from their discomfort.

As a teenager passing my maths GCE exam involved facing anxieties about self-image and about failure. Only then could I drop my defence that numbers were stupid and unsexy and enjoy my limited ability to use them creatively. Some people face a similar task when confronted with their environmental impact. They can’t grapple with the realities that the numbers reveal unless they can also find a way to cope with the anxiety and discomfort. So instead of realising that they have the power to make a real difference they hide behind the belief that the numbers are too difficult, boring or stupid to concern themselves with.

If you can bear it, here are just three numbers to think about.

  • 15 tonnes – the average personal UK footprint – the one you are likely to have if you have an average UK income.
  • 4 tonnes – the average world footprint.
  • 1.5 tonnes – the level of a sustainable footprint.

If you visit the WWF website, you can make a rough calculation of your own footprint. Or you can join a Carbon Conversations group and discover, in the company of others, that it is possible to make changes to your life and that the numbers are not as frightening as you thought.

35 British Standard Objections to Change

January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

Workplace resolutions about sustainability can easily dissolve in the face of uncooperative colleagues or a recalcitrant manager. Are people just being pig-headed, or is there more to it?

’35 British Standard Objections to Change’ is a list I first came across in the 1980s while preparing training materials for the Local Government Training Board. The list starts ‘Our work is different,’ and ends ‘We haven’t got money for this at present’. On the way it covers such gems as ‘We’ve been doing it that way for 25/15/10/5 years’, ‘We’ve never done it before’, ‘We tried it once before’, No-one’s ever tried it before,’ ‘Nothing new about it. We’ve been doing it all the time,’ ‘It’s so completely new to us,’  ‘The boss/committee/staff/clients/Treasurers/Personnel won’t like it’…and so on.  The list captured the culture of local government bureaucracy at the time and produced wry smiles from anyone who had tried to shift the entrenched attitudes of people who were accustomed to their routine ways of doing things. You can see the full list here.

Resisting change

The idea that change is resisted through cultural attitudes and social systems is an important one, first suggested in the work of Jacques and Menzies-Lyth where they identified anxiety as the key factor driving resistance. Most people are made anxious by demands for change. The demands may:

  • imply criticism of the status quo or suggest that work is not being done efficiently or effectively;
  • call into question people’s ideas about their core purpose and tasks. In relation to sustainability, business people may be faced with questions about the morality and viability of their business area. Is it inherently destructive? Does it have a future in a changing world?
  • threaten loss – of familiar tasks and goals, relationships or responsibilities;
  • have practical implications such as redundancy, heavier workloads or additional responsibility;
  • touch more primitive anxieties. This seems particularly true of climate change where fears of having done irreparable damage or guilt about greed can easily be stimulated.

Relying on the system

In the face of such anxiety, defensiveness is natural. What is unique about organisations however is the opportunity to frame the defence in terms of the organisation’s culture and systems. In each of the ‘British Standard Objections’ recourse was being made to some aspect of the culture or workplace system that was seen as part of the natural order or beyond the individual’s influence. In 1980s local government, this tended to be the well-established routines, roles and hierarchies of an inward-looking bureaucracy.

Modern business culture is quite different of course but the process is the same. Where 1980s local government employees fell back on the idea of an inevitable and unchanging bureaucracy, modern, private sector employees invoke the structures of the market, the attitudes of the customer or the arcane practices of the IT department to explain why – although they might like to – they will not be taking action. Do any of the following sound familiar?

Contemporary standard objections

‘It’s not competitive’, ‘It won’t be profitable’, ‘There isn’t a market’, ‘It will inhibit innovation’, ‘The board/customers/IT department/sales department won’t like it’, ‘We can’t afford it’, ‘We haven’t got time for it’, ‘It will reduce efficiency’, ‘It’s not viable for a small company’, ‘It’s not viable for a large company’…and so on. The full list can be found here, along with the original 35 British Standard Objections to Change. Often such responses conceal an underlying anxiety. This may be about climate change itself or about the process of change and the threats that it brings.

Making space and time to address these anxieties is essential. Although systems have to be reviewed and new procedures or technologies initiated the anxieties stimulated by demands for change must also be understood and dealt with. If they are not addressed, they will fuel resistance to change, usually through a strong defence of the existing system and culture.

(This piece first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business site)

See my chapter in the new volume edited by MaryJayne Rust and Nick Totton Vital Signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis, due from Karnac in February 2012.


Community, anxiety and security: how do these play in work on climate change?

July 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

A sense of community is almost universally regarded as valuable. It is like motherhood: a general and unquestioned good. Activists feel they should be embedded “in the community” while governments hope “the community” will deliver services they no longer wish to invest in. But what exactly is “the community”? What is its psychological and emotional meaning and how does this impact on its possibilities as an arena for change? Who owns and controls it? Who are its gatekeepers and guardians? Who defines its boundaries, rules and membership? « Read the rest of this entry »

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