2280 days until 2030 -
 Regeneration starts now.

This blog is a work-in-progress, sparked by ongoing conversations with serious, concerned, committed citizens who want REAL climate action.

Again and again some key "everybody knows" assumptions come up - assumptions that (from my point of view) are as limiting as "the earth is the centre of the universe".

I see the world from the factory floor and the warehouse - not from the supermarket aisle. My view is the result of 30 years of problem solving in the world of industry.

An environmental perspective from the factory floor

While I was studying my first degree I had a summer job in a metalware factory - as a production line worker - making refrigerator shelves and electric hotplate elements.

A few years later I ended up back in manufacturing - as an analyst programmer for a pharmaceutical company making headache tablets and acne creams. Next move to a software house working with companies making everything from icecream to power tools.

What do you see differently inside the supply chain?

You have a very different view of the world from the average consumer AND the average politician - especially when your job is to analyse systems.

First, you see the massive amounts of resources used to design, produce, ship, store and deliver the products and services we use every day.

Then you see the massive amounts of "waste" happening throughout the system - human effort, materials waste, energy waste.

And you see the massive disconnects and tensions between the human system elements, including conflicting goals between:

  • Production and sales
  • Engineering and safety
  • Inventory and accounting

And you also get to see the massive energy that human systems expend to maintain their status quo.

(Try putting a computer on the desk of an inventory clerk who's spent 30 years using paper systems, or getting an accountant to write off the value of 10-year-old spare parts for a de-comissioned printing press.)

What I saw was:

  1. The massive social and environmental impact of that intricate, complex set of global material and energy flows called "the supply chain".
  2. The massive challenge of delivering business innovation inside human systems biologically wired to preserve and protect the status quo.
    (The human race is seriously weird.)

So when you get hooked on "this environment thing" you don't think like a "normal"environmentalist.

How do I think differently from traditional environmentalist?

Firstly, when you realise that the antiquated, 1-way supply chain that delivers our products and services actually delivers 99% resource waste, you stop believing that "the thing we need is for consumers to use less" or that "the thing we need is for governments to make better policy".

Whether it's 5 tonnes of mis-printed confectionery wrappers dumped to landfill at a packaging factory or the massive heat shimmer coming off the production line at a tomato cannery, you see the overwhelming reality of resource consumption.

When you understand the real creative thinking and problem solving power of the engineers that design and build the products and services you use every day, you stop believing that "the thing we need is government policy change".

When you look at the amazing ability of human entrepreneurs of the last three centuries to build everything from affordable motor cars, open source 3D printing to crowd-funded community energy coops, you stop believing "the solutions we need have to come from the top down".

Our innovation delivery challenge is inconveniently human

If would be nice if humans were a rational, sensible, pragmatic species. It would be nice if we were in control of our thinking and our actions.

But we evolved as tribal hunter gatherers who succeeded by ganging together to share resources. Our focus was on surviving for the short term future, keeping the group together to enable that survival and conserving the scarce resources we managed to accumulate.

As we've come to understand ourselves better in recent decades, neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists, philosophers and even marketers have started to catalogue how our perceptions and behaviours have limited our results.

Inconveniences I have known...

These are some of the ongoing human inconveniences I'm exploring. They're the ones that seem to blind good people to greater levels of opportunity and influence.

If you'd like to add to them, let me know.

There's a whole other knowledge revolution happening

After years of watching the creative ways that the human systems around me resisted (and sometimes accepted) innovation, I started studying it.

What I found was a growing knowledge base that rivals the "hard" technology revolution we see around us - the one that is re-inventing products, services and systems that we use every day.

Now we can access another powerful revolution - a revolution in understanding and working with human systems to deliver a whole new level of adaptation.

This revolution can give "citizen innovators" better tools for delivering substantive innovation DESPITE the self-conserving tendencies of the human systems we call "business" and "the economy".

“While we were finishing the book [Drawdown] I spoke with three of the best-known international climate change experts—professors and authors who have been leading this field for the past 25-30 years. I asked them to write down their top-5 solutions for global warming. It took them a long time.

Moreover: They were all wrong.

Their top solutions are not the top solutions according to the data of the leading institutions as we have researched those.

Here’s my point: We are 40 years into global warming. It is the most serious problem humanity has ever faced. We have created it and the authorities in the field cannot name the top-5 solutions. That’s an astonishing anthropological fact. There is no plan…” (emphasis added) 

Paul Hawken in The Optimist Daily, 2018

Most problem experts on global warming are academics and scientists. - meteorologists, climatologists, botanists, hydrologists and the like. They know a lot about their chosen field and the politics within their academic silos - but how much do they know about the worlds of business, including manufacturing and distribution?

Business matters!

The multiple planetary boundaries we're challenging all have their roots in the 1-way mine/make/use/dump design thinking that industry inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Academics and scientists often operate in very traditional organisations and specific silos. So they can sometimes have suprisingly mainstream "solutions" ideas collect from what "everybody knows" - thinking like:

  • "government controls business"
  • "government can deliver effective supply chain innovation"
  • "innovation happens AFTER the populace agrees on the need and votes accordingly"

So it's not surprising that they would automatically look to "the authorities" for action.

"We've got to get the people to tell the government to tell business that its alright to take action"

Famous environmental campaigner

What's focal becomes seen as causal

Unfortunately, human perception automatically designates the focus of a message as the causal factor.

If "everyone knows" that the environment is a government responsibility, then many of our more traditionally-minded experts are all to likely to act from that mindset.

So what happens when you tell the average consumer or business person about the environment and the need for government action? They worry - and then get on with doing business as usual.

So you never get beyond "everybody knows"

Who changes industrial design? Who delivers economic innovation at scale? Who designs, constructs and delivers the vast majority of the products and services we use every day?

Look at the smartphone in your pocket or bag and think about its history? Whose idea was it? Who paid the engineers who built the factories that manufacture them at scale?

To reverse the harm we've caused, we need to get our best and brightest business innovators scaling the design solutions of the last 40 years into practical, regenerative solutions. We need to accelerate smarter, more efficient, more profitable models like Circular Economy and Biomimcry and turn them into globally scaled industrial practices.

Government policy change isn't the only - or best - option for accelerating an industrial revolution.

I absolutely agree that governments can - when they choose - create supportive environments for sustainability innovation. I absolutely agree that government policies can be counter-productive (at least).

I know from 20 years of my own observation that there are many, many, many national, state, regional and local governments doing amazing things - and they have been doing them for decades.

Still, the most powerful, immediate leverage point for reversing global warming probably ISN'T voting for a government to make policy changes.

Vote, lobby AND go industrial...

Getting in to an entrepreneur's head is seriously powerful

One of the world's most sustainable businesses is Interface, and their approach has consistently been to "do well BY doing good". They take a strategic, longer term view - but they're about "good for the environment, good for the community AND good for our bottom line".

They have proven that strategic sustainability - like quality and safety in previous decades - is an innovation driver that offers trillions of dollars in business opportunity.

The Interface journey started when a series of events put sustainability front and centre in their CEO's head.

So arm yourself with information about the wealth of design solutions and the massive business opportunities. Then go out and start some solutions conversations in your local business community.

Deer are hunted by lions and wolves. Great white sharks hunt tuna and seals - and in turn are hunted by killer whales.

Over the millenia, humans have learned to form packs and defeat external predators. We no longer (mostly) fear rhinos, tigers or wolves.

There are still predators we need to be wary of - and learn to deal with. They are the psychopaths, sociopaths and Machiavellis of our own species.

"We have met the enemy and he is us"

Walt Kelly (Pogo)

Machiavelli - a name associated with manipulation mastery - wrote The Prince in the 15th century German writer and politican Ludwig von Rochauhe coined the term "realpolitik " in the 19th century.

Centuries earlier, The Art of War was published, a military text with a focus on:

how to outsmart one's opponent without actually having to engage in physical battle.


The Dark Triad

Today, Machiavellism has been identified as one of the "dark triad" of personality traits along side psychopathy and narcissim. The "dark triad" concept originated in 2002 and in 2013 further work began to better understand the patterns behind inter-personal harm.

These are three key sub-clinical personality traits that are involved in anti-social behaviour.

All three are socially malevolent, with tendencies towards being emotionally cold, duplicitous and aggressive. All of them are callous and manipulative and don't care about a) the "truth" or b) "other people" and there is a lot of overlap between them.

However understanding their patterns and distinctions is useful.

Psychopathy adds impulsivity and a tendency towards anti-social, reckless behaviour to the basic traits of callousness and duplicity. It is thought to have an inherited genetic component.

Narcissism has the additional aspects of entitlement and grandiosity, with a tendency to over confidence.

Machiavellianism is a habit of manipulation, a cynical world view, a lack of trust and willingness to exploit others to achieve personal goals at all costs. It's more pragmatic, strategic and rationalised pattern than psychopathy.

Machiavellians can control their impulses to do harm. They are flexible, adaptable and work strategically to get what they want.

The three traits overlap - but are distinct.

Machiavellism is the most prevalent pattern in the general population, though not in its extreme form (1-3%). However, at sub-clinical levels estimates are than something under 10% of the population has these tendencies (which is a disturbingly high number).

"A narcissist will insult you, a psychopath will hit you, a Machiavellian will invade you."

Dr Daniel Jones

Machiavellism is thought to develop through life experiences. As a learned pattern, it can can create a cynical, duplicitous environment where more individuals become Machiavellis. Work is ongoing towards understanding how to reverse Machiavellian patterns.

In the meantime - if you want to increase your success as a sustainability change agent - it's worth studying how Machiavellianism works - that way you will:

  • Have a better chance of spotting them
  • Being inoculated against their tactics.

Machiavellianism is a survival trait

It would be really easy to externalise and start labelling and blaming individuals - but part of the human race's ability to develop comes because of them.

They are immune to "everybody knows" and "doing the right thing". So "six drops of the essence of Machiavelli" probably contributed to developments from cosmology (when the Catholic Church was burning astronomers for blasphemy) to personal computers (the world will never need more than 12 computers - IBM).

It's also worth remembering that humans are social chameleons - with brains hard-wired to blend into whatever environment we enter - from the kindergarten playground to back room party politics.

Human systems are naturally self-conserving UNTIL something better comes along

So if our objective is to create "an economy that is regenerative and restorative - by design" then it's probably going to be useful to:

  • Acknowledge that the status quo is entrenched - and will naturally have a sub-population of Machiavellian types who will fight to the death to stay at the top.
  • Develop our own capabilities to recognise Machiavellian behaviours (including in ourselves).
  • Study the strategies and tactics developed over centuries to build our skills to "win the war with fewer battles".
  • Construct offers that will attract Machiavellian types - offers too good to refuse. (You might get a whole lot more done if your offer helps them meet their objectives.)

Sources and resources

Radio National's program All in the Mind discussed this human reality in a program called Machiavellianism, and the 'dark triad' of personality in June 2020 and prompted my further exploration and this article.

It included reference to science communication website on Machiavellian personality traits.

And for a more humourous twist:

Most of us, most of the time operate on "rules of thumb" - mental shortcuts that simplify complex decision-making processes.

These shortcuts are necessary in daily living because our brains have a limited energy supply and rational thinking is a high-energy, time-consuming process.

The brain runs on about 40 watts of power (a lightbulb!)

Greg Berns, Iconoclast

The idea that human beings take all relevant information into account all the time - making their decisions thoughtfully and rationally - is a piece of 20th century marketing fiction.

Over millennia, the human brain has evolved to rely on quick decision-making tools in a fast-moving and uncertain world and in many contexts those heuristics lead us to make better decisions than exact calculations would do.

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics

But our heuristics aren't ALWAYS helpful - and they can often get a) dated OR b) over-ridden by our unconscious biases.

Anxiety rules

Combine this limited energy supply with millenia of evolution as tribal hunter-gatherers - being hunted ourselves by bigger, more dangerous predators - and it's not surprising that we act first, automatically avoid "risk"- and think later.

Part of our biological inheritance is a pre-disposition towards anxiety and risk aversion - because those of us who worried that the rustle in the long grass was a sabertooth tiger lived longer.

So, by default, we worry far more about what we could lose today than what we might enjoy or suffer tomorrow. Our decision-making is NOT always logical - just count the smokers gathered outside any hospital.

Future existential threat does NOT change human behaviour!

Paul Hawken, founder of Project Drawdown

Social factors loom large

There are 6 social heuristics that influence our behaviour, according to psychologist and bestselling author Robert Cialdini. They happen automatically and can strongly influence

  1. Reciprocity - if someone gives us something, we are wired to give them something back.
  2. Scarcity - if something becomes less available, we want it more.
  3. Authority - we listen to people who we believe have credible experience and knowledge.
  4. Consistent - we like to be consistent with things we have previously said or done.
  5. Liking - we say yes to people we like, who are like us, and who have similar aspirations to us.
  6. Consensus - we are more likely to do what other people have previously done, and use other peoples' action as our guide.

(See an introductory video on Cialdini's influencing principles here)

How something's framed changes how we respond to it

Any time we face a complex problem, our response is heavily influenced by what's happened in the lead up to our response.

This is another piece of wisdom from Robert Cialdini, explained in his recent book Pre-suasion.

Extensive research has demonstrated that the "frame" that you create before you put your case, request or offer is probably MORE important than what you actually pitch. (Video summary here.)

Pre-suasion provides a wealth of insight. One that's particularly useful is:

What's focal is perceived as causal.

Robert Cialdini, Pre-suasion

If every message you're presented with on global warming bemoans the lack of government action then guess what? Despite the evidence of:

  • The smartphone in your pocket or purse (delivered by tech entrepreneurs)
  • The social platforms you're reading this on (delivered by tech entrepreneurs)
  • The cars outside your house (first delivered to the masses by industrial entrepreneur Henry Ford).

The chances are you're never going to think through issues like:

  • It's mostly industry that build and deliver the products and services we use every day
  • Our industrial design is based on degenerative 1-way mindsets.
  • Disruptive industrial innovation at scale is generally delivered by radical business entrepreneurs.

Framing is powerful - and can be compellingly mis-directing. (If you don't know about it, you're probably being trapped by it.)

Humans are powerfully, unconsciously influenced by our heuristics and HOW something is communicated

That's the current human operating system.

It's probably less than ideal for our complex, post-industrial operating environment.

We probably don't have time to do some miracle upgrade.

AND we want a better future - a cleaner, smarter, fairer safer future.

So how do we work better with what we've got?

How could you capitalise on what we now know about human neuroeconomics, heuristics, framing and cognition?

How could you work smarter in reversing the urgent environmental and social issues that degenerative 20th century systems have created?

Where could YOUR heuristics be leading you astray?

Firstly, how will you apply this awareness to check whether your own heuristics are working for you?

  • Has "what's focal is causal" caused you to believe that government action is the fundamental, necessary solution for reversing global warming?
  • Has fear of looking gullible contributed to limiting your action?
  • Are assumptions about "rational human behaviour" limiting your persuasive capacity?

How could YOU be a smarter influencer by leveraging the heuristics of those around you?

If you want climate action, a regenerative "Doughnut" economy and fairer society then what are you prepared to learn to do differently?

What could you apply from what we know about perception and influencing to get more action with less effort, frustration and despair?

(Is it ethical? Ethics is about HOW you do what you do and HOW you align your actions with your values. Any powerful tool can be used or abused. What you can be absolutely sure of is that you're surrounded by human beings - who operate heuristically. So someone's heuristics - intentional or not - are always at play.)

Sources and resources

This ABC Hot Mess Podcast on Human Frailties is an interesting discussion with an Australian perspective.

Andrew O’Keeffe’s book Hardwired Humans could be an useful introduction to help you think about human wiring in the corporate world.

George Marshall's climate-specific book Don't Even Think About It is issue-specific analysis of why engaging on global warming is such a challenge.

I keep a list of some of the other tools, insights and understandings I find powerful here.

Fear and anxiety were great for human survival when we wandered the plains of Africa as hunter gatherers 20,000 years ago.

We needed to be afraid of the world around us - so we'd be ready to RUN or FIGHT when a rustle in the long grass turned out to be a saber tooth tiger.

Fear and anxiety have a place - and back then the body chemistry involved in them was balanced by physical activity. Running away from that tiger (or ganging up and killing it) burned off all the stress chemicals.

The psycho-social impacts were appropriate too - blame and shame kept the tribe together, story-telling cemented social bonds and spread wisdom (as well as juicy gossip).

Fear, anxiety, shame and blame WILL NOT HELP change the 21st century world we live in.

(You just need to look at the groups of smokers outside cancer hospitals to recognize that fear alone is not enough to change human behavior.)

Fear has been the methodology of the communication about climate change. You mix fear with doom and gloom and stir well with shame and guilt and you have apathy.

Paul Hawken, Founder of Project Drawdown https://www.optimistdaily.com/2018/12/solutions-thinking-climate-change/

(If fear REALLY changed human behavior, then 40+ years of warnings about looming, accelerating "environmental collapse" would have generated a whole lot more action.)

Anxiety sucks - and it makes us suck

However scared you are about the future, IF you want to generate action instead of helplessness then don't JUST use fear.

Don't JUST talk about horrible futures and irresponsible governments and the need for policy change.


Constant, unrelieved fear - fear without access to immediate personal action creates HELPLESSNESS. It shuts down our brains and primes our bodies to run, fight or hide.

AND when you add shame and blame and guilt to your message it gets even LESS effective.

Think about it....

When someone comes at you with accusations about being "greedy" or "stupid", isn't your first reaction "NO I'M NOT!!!" Regardless of how valid their point is, how likely are you to REALLY listen to what they're trying to tell you?

The recipe for helplessness...

This is what the experts have to say about making a person feel helpless:

Tell them that their problem is:
1) permanent;
2) pervasive; and
3) personal

Dr Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, researcher in Learned Helplessness

Yes, we face massive environmental challenges. Yes they're multiplying and accelerating. Yes, we're late to action.


We have the technology to solve them.


Millions of people around the world are busy doing that.

There are scores of viable, scalable solutions that don't need "government policy change" in order to succeed - and the world's entrepreneurs are out there making them happen.

Are you creating action - or helplessness?

Much as it might feel good to complain about the people you think are guilty of inaction, it's worth thinking carefully about what you're saying and how you're saying it...

Is the WAY that you complain complain about a lack of government/ industry/ consumer action actually limiting the potential for that action?

When you loudly demand "national government action" - and especially when you complain about its absence - is this what you're implicitly telling people ?

  1. The environment is collapsing around us.
  2. The only group who can fix "the environment" is national government.
  3. National government is NOT taking the necessary action.
  4. Thirty-plus years of vocal environmental campaigning hasn't achieved action.
  5. They're still not listening.
  6. We have to campaign harder and MAKE them listen.
  7. In the mean time we have to consume less because we're making things worse.



So if the communication strategies that environmental campaigners have been repeating for 30+ years don't work, what do we do instead? Here are some starters:

  1. Get informed about the solutions - especially the existing, scalable, no-government-required solutions.
  2. Learn how to bust helplessness and spread the word about the solutions.
  3. Understand the CONTEXT that the problem is occurring in.
  4. Shift from shame and blame to holding people accountable for their actions.

Do YOU know the solutions we already have?

If you're serious about solving global warming, ocean plastics or species loss - how much do you know about the solutions?

NOT the problem - but the SOLUTIONS!!!

(REMEMBER: Government policy change ISN'T a solution! It's just one channel - among many - for delivering solutions to the root cause issues.)

If you can't list the top 10 existing, scalable, evidence-based actions to reverse global warming, then how can you effectively "campaign for climate stability"?

So once you've picked your issue - whether it's global warming or ocean plastics - then get informed about the solutions.

(If it's global warming then download the latest Project Drawdown update - NOW!)

How to tackle helplessness

Professor Martin Seligman researched helplessness for years - and also how to overcome it. One of the outputs of years of teamwork (that led to Positive Psychology) came this ABCDE of helplessness-busting:

  • Identify a situation of Adversity
  • Identify the underlying Belief about the Adversity
  • Identify the Consequences (fear, depression, inaction) of holding that belief
  • Learn to Dispute that Belief
  • Learn to evaluate the Energization possible from debating the belief.

If you're a book junkie like me, then Seligman's classic Learned Optimism is a must-have reference. In the mean time, this summary of the ABCDE of helplessness-busting is a useful start.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over

Since (at least) the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, environmental campaigners have been pushing pretty much the same line:

"We've got to tell the people to tell the government to tell business to action on sustainability."

Various respected figures

Despite what they know about who and how smartphones, cars, social media and Internet business were commercialised at scale, they're still massively addicted to "government policy change".

Don't just be a fear-monger

The most powerful anti-smoking campaigns are the ones that start with fear and end with a call to action and immediate contact details for QUIT programs.

We're an Inconvenient Species - so if you MUST use fear, then make sure you finish with immediate, personal, beneficial ACTION.

Immediate constructive actions on climate

For overwhelmed citizens, the movie 2040 is positive and accessible.

For anyone in industry - or with an entrepreneurial bent - the Project Drawdown list of 80 existing, commercial, no-government-required business and community development opportunities. These are all solutions that people can start action on immediately.

There are lots of other solutions, from systems-level design such as The Doughnut Economy and The Circular Economy to detailed product/process design approaches such as Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation.

You can explore further Regenerative Business solutions at Balance3.com.au

For millennia, people lived relatively short lives in small groups, learned from quick feedback (put your hand in the fire: it gets burned) and had little impact on their wider surroundings.
Hence our brains evolved to cope with the near, the short term and the responsive, while expecting incremental, linear change.

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics (p. 112). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Putting our own needs for comfort, prestige and connection ahead of social and ecosystem well-being isn't something unique to Industrial Era humanity. We've probably been doing it since we moved into cities and away from the evidence of our impact.

Pliny the Elder was complaining about destruction in the 1st century AD - a time when Romans pillaged shellfish beds to dye their clothes and "barbarian" communities to provide the slaves to build their cities.

If it's important, embed it

When city buildings decided to get serious about water and energy conservation, they embedded in their buildings. They installed automatic doors and created airlocks. To conserve energy and water, they built in automated lighting and taps - controlled by sensors.

Long term sustainability isn't primarily going to be delivered by regulation and consumer frugality! (That will help - but the endgame is an intentional economy designed to regenerate ecosystems and communities - not "willpower".)

It's going to be delivered by regenerative design and systems upgrades. It's going to be delivered by Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation and Circular Economy supply chains and Doughnut Economics.

It's going to be delivered by biomimetic production techniques where renewable products are made at room temperature using renewable materials and renewable energy.

It's going to be delivered by a regenerative economy that operates WITHIN its planetary boundaries.

The Embedded Economy. Graphic by Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich
The Embedded Economy. Graphic by Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

Sustainability is an engineering opportunity, not a consumption problem

"Engineers can't NOT solve problems - it's in our nature"

Kathleen Davies, Ekkremon.com.au

The world's best and brightest innovators, biologists, engineers, architects, yachters and chemists have been busy for decades on smarter, cleaner, safer systems.

Radical industrialists have been turning their concepts into proven, profitable products and (increasingly) services.

Real sustainability will be the result of systems that are more than "sustainable" - systems that are actively regenerative.

We know how to do it today - and the world's innovative businesses are working on it.

Where to look for solutions?

The Natural Step first defined an industrial system that would respect the ecosystems. In a sustainable society, nature is NOT subject to:

  1. concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust (such as fossil CO2, heavy metals and minerals)
  2. concentrations of substances produced by society (such as antibiotics and endocrine disruptors)
  3. degradation by physical means (such as deforestation and draining of groundwater tables)
  4. and in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning.
    Source: The Natural Step Approach

Principles for products, services and businesses that regenerate by design were further described in Natural Capitalism in 1999:

  1. Radical resource productivity (Translation: use 10 times less, at least)
  2. Biomimicry (Translation: Nature is smart, let’s copy it)
  3. Service and flow economy (Translation: Sell the ends, not the means)
  4. Invest in natural capital (Translation: Treat the environment as a source of wealth).
    Source: Have you always mean to read Natural Capitalism?

Doughnut Economics integrates economics, design and systems, using 7 strategies:

  1. Change the goal - from GDP growth the finding the sweet spot.
  2. Seeing the big picture - business within communities and ecosystems.
  3. Nurture human nature - social adaptive humans, not rational economic units.
  4. Get savvy with systems - understand and leverage dynamic complexity.
  5. Design to distribute - distribute well-being by design in a generous economy.
  6. Create to regenerate - design systems that regenerate rather than endlessly grow.
  7. Be agnostic about growth - break the addiction to "yes" or "no".
    Source: Doughnut Economics

"A bad system will beat a good person every time."

W. Edwards Deming, pioneer of continuous improvement

One of the reasons that our Inconvenient Species is so slow to respond to global warming has to do with the power of the systems we live and work within.

20th century thinking about human behaviour considered individuals as rational, consistent and relatively unchanging.

21st century thinking acknowledges that - overall - humans are heavily social creatures evolved to operate in groups.

Most of us, most of the time want to look good and not look bad - because we experience rejection in the pain centres of our brains.

(Myers-Briggs suggests at least 75% and Diffusion of Innovation suggests 85%)

This isn't just a hypothesis - it has been backed up by substantial and substantive neuropsychology research.

It also isn't "conniving" or "cowardly" - the physiology of our perception in group situations is neurologically wired to peer behaviour.

Outside of the research lab, this need further backed up by investigations into institutional abuse of children, the disabled and the elderly.

As Kate Raworth wrote recently in The Doughnut Economy, humans are more like octopus, with their behaviours and opinions changing to match their social settings.

It's not the WHOLE human race

Thanks to our neurodiversity we have a sprinkling of "under/non/anti social" individuals in our species - enough to see the world differently and design new solutions.

We have always had weirdos exploring "the whichness of the why" - from the flinty innovators who chipped the first stone spearheads to the 19th century's top-hatted balloon pioneers and to the 21st century's first biomimicry practitioners.

But while they can be world-changers, they are in the minority. Most of the people, most of the time, are heavily influenced by their immediate social contexts.

The implications for climate and environmental campaigners

Einstein is said to have defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and expecting different results".

What do you do differently when you know that the majority of the human race meets their social needs FIRST most of the time?

Create a context, not just a message

In updating his initial work on influencing, Cialdini added a 7th principle of persuasion - Unity.

What creates most influence for the most people is being a tribe member.

"Sending out a message" isn't enough.

Be careful about how you use blame and guilt

Overall, blame and guilt do great harm - they create resistance and denial in their targets as well as victim-hood in their user.

All too often, we aim them at the person in front of us - NOT the person in power.

Remeber how, in the early days of COVID-19, retail workers were attacked for situations totally outside their control?

Don't over-focus on "broad agreement"

Use the insights of Diffusion of Innovation - and especially of Crossing The Chasm

Aim to win over a powerful, innovative member of the Early Majority - then let their testimony work for you. A (gradually) increasing number of campaigners know the names "Ray Anderson" and "Interface" - but few have heard of Jim Hartzfeld.

Identify a need that is immediate and pressing. Find the most sustainable solution. Deliver your solution to that niche.

Work on the system, not the behaviours

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

 - Richard Buckminster Fuller

Start with the hypothesis that "the system is broken". Then you can work to understand and change the system.

Way too many environmental campaigns have been all about symptoms. It's understandable, human - and horrendously incomplete.

Yes, if someone is bleeding to death you apply a tourniquet. But then you look deeper. Bandaging a compound fracture without setting the bones and cleaning the wound is a recipe for gangrene, amputation and death.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

Skill up in Systems Thinking and Human Behaviour - and apply them to delivering new systems that make the old ones obsolete.

Some starting points that I like are:

  • Stroh's handbook Systems Thinking and Social Change
  • Cialdini's Pre-Suasion on the science of influencing
  • Raworth's Doughnut Economics for a discussion of 21st century system requirements

Human systems are actively self-conserving - so changing the fundamental design thinking behind them can take a revolution.

That's where we're most likely heading, led by the likes of Germany and China - towards a Third Industrial Revolution.

You wouldn't think it to look at the latest sexy, leading-edge technology products - but the design thinking underlying the systems s that deliver our smartphones and EVs is still largely stuck in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today's supply chains are still largely 1-way mine-make-use-dump based on extracting natural resources and exploiting human systems. They've left us with challenges from ozone depletion to species loss.

Planetary boundaries

Jeremy Rifkin's take on this is fascinating:

“How do you grow ... when your businesses are plugged into a second industrial revolution infrastructure of centralised telecommunication, fossil fuel, nuclear power, internal-combustion transportation for roads, rail, water and air transport, and we know that the productivity in that infrastructure peaked, and all the major industrial countries over the last 10 to 15 years?”


Rifkin proposes than a Third Industrial Revolution is on its way - one where we’re moving toward a planetary digital interconnected platform. He sees three global "internets" developing and converging: the communications internet, an expanding distributed "energy "internet", and a "mobility internet of Electric and Autonomous Vehicles.

At it's best, we could be heading for a complete transformation of our economic models - one where everyone connected could potentially engage in social entrepreneurial networks to form a global economy.

But the problems with revolutions tends to be that they sneak up on the majority of us. The existing status quo with its existing power structures fights for survival, and lots of assets, businesses, careers and individuals get stranded when the dam breaks and the flood arrives.

A model for the next economic re-evolution

Economist Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics provides a great visual explanation of smarter economics, where the economy is more accurately sited as a circular system supplied by both the communities and the ecosystems it inhabits.

Doughnut Economics - Kate Raworth

A quiet mindset revolution is underway

The most powerful place to change a system is in the mindset that created it - and whether the label is Doughnut Economics or Cradle to Cradle Innovation, Circular Economy or Biomimicry, the mindset shift is the same.

The shift is in the fundamental paradigm - that business exists outside ecosystems and communities. The fallacy that "the environment" is the domain of governments and charities is increasingly glaringly obvious.

The paradigm shift - which as been happening since the 1970s - is to re-designing the human systems we call "business" and "the supply chain" so that they protect and regenerate the ecosystems and communities that business needs to flourish.

We have the solutions - catalogued by Project Drawdown. They're actionable today - in all levels of human systems - through action lists such as those of Project Regeneration and WorkForClimate.

The solutions are scaling, their efficiency and their financial benefits are increasingly quantifiable - to all sizes and types of organisation.

There's much more fun to be had delivering solutions - along with business, career and community development opportunity.

Are you missing out?

"...as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself".  NUDGE, 2008. Richard Thaler with Cass Sunstein

Richard Thaler's 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics "nudged" me into finally reading the New York Times Bestseller NUDGE on the illogical nature of many default human behaviours.

Nudge - Richard Thaler

Thaler proposes that those of us interested in changing human behaviour and systems should learn how to re-engineer them so that it's easier to make good choices - a process he call "Choice Engineering".

Many of our choices are engineered

Supermarket designers apply choice engineering all the time, from putting chocolates at the checkout to displaying high-margin items at eye-level while budget brands languish at floor level.

Subscriptions that automatically renew and using a habitual parking space at work are other examples of automatic behaviours that we simply repeat without conscious consideration.

We're humans, not "econs"

Traditional economics regarded humans as logical decision-makers, who make the best possible decision on the information they have available.
A more up-to-date understanding of human perception, human decision-making and human emotions is that we are busy people struggling to cope in a complex world - a world in which our brains cannot afford the energy to think deeply about every choice we have to make.

For example:

  • We operate on rules of thumb, using what we know to estimate what we don't know.  In a bargaining situation, the setting of a high initial price sets a scale for the end price.
  • We assess risks on the information that's most available and most recent, not on the actual level of danger.   Flood insurance gets a boost just after a flood - but that drops over time.
  • We hate losses more than we love gains.  So an operation that has a "90% success rate" sounds a whole lot better than one that has a "10% failure rate".
  • We're generally over optimistic about our capabilities. Most of us think that we're "better than average drivers" - regardless that "average" is a statistical measure.
  • We find it easier to stay with the status quo than make a change.  Which is why automatic subscriptions work - and an automated savings plan works better than one that requires an active decision each month.

Choice engineering for a sustainable future

Thaler's books offer examples of systems changes that can ethically nudge people in the direction of choices that will improve their lives.

For anyone interested in sustainability, it's worth asking how we can ethically nudge people toward better environmental and social choices:

  • "What are the choices that we could engineer to increase sustainability?"
  • "Where are there powerful targets for choice engineering?"

In one NUDGE example, food waste in canteens was reduced simply by removing trays - so people were limited to what they could carry on a plate.

In a recent UK trial, initial studies indicate that buyer behaviour is changed more when a small extra fee is charged for a disposable coffee cup than when a discount is offered for BYO mug. (Loss avoidance trumps benefit.)

Recycling rates are substantially improved by matching the shape of lid of the recycling bin to what's being recycled, such as small circles for cans and bottles, slits for paper.

What would nudge global warming solutions forward?

Project Drawdown published the first ever research into reversing global warming and shifting to an economy that consumes greenhouse gases using current technology in April 2017.

How could we engineer better choices that shift us towards more beneficial Drawdown actions?  What would contribute to better refrigerant gas management, reduced food waste, educating girls, the take-up of silvopasture or eating more vegetables?

WIIFM - or would WAIMOO be more powerful?

If economic decisions were rational, the financial benefits of being sustainable (such as Interface's $393,000,000 savings) would have started a major industry shift to a regenerative economy decades ago.

Maybe it's time to try:

ON    (W.A.I.M.O.O) instead ?

After all, there are savings of $74 trillion over 30 years identified by Project Drawdown and private sector opportunities of $12 trillion estimated from delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals.  But "look at the opportunity" could be less powerful that "what are you losing in 'status quo' thinking?"


Read Nudging: A Very Short Guide for a quick introduction to the subject.

Watch Thaler speaking on the subject here:  Richard Thaler on Behavioral Economics: Past, Present and Future

Talking TO someone is just so much better than staring at myself in a video screen.  (Great change from writing, too).  When they ask real questions too – so I have a better sense of what interests THEM and what THEY want to know about – it's even more fun.

It’s much easier to explain what you do / why you do it  in an audio recording where you're talking TO someone – especially with a good listener like Mark Spencer of Climactic.fm   His questions get me out of my habitual patterns, reminding me what a crucial communications skill LISTENING is.

I sat down to talk with Mark about "the how of the how" of reversing global warming - getting smarter at innovating the human systems that underpin the delivery of the products and services we use every day.

Despite what 20th century thinkers will tell you, global warming is something we can all act on. Our individual actions compound into worthwhile results when they’re based on good information – especially when we multiply them with skilled innovation delivery.

Listen in to the conversation...


Hacking human systems for climate progress