Transformation: Achieving the impossible?

Arto Marttinen 250321
Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash

Unlocking a green economy requires a transformation in everything we do. The urgency of the challenge we face gets greater and greater with every new piece of evidence. Avoiding so called ‘tipping points’ in the Earth’s climate system or going beyond a point of recovery for parts of the bio-system gets closer scrutiny every day – even though, as pointed out by Jay Leno (below), the problem has been bad enough for decades and we have yet to transform our societies in any way that meets the challenge. Indeed we are now very close, if not over, some globally significant thresholds that could have far reaching consequences for the risks that our society faces.

Behaviour and personal motivations

So what is at the heart of the transformation of our energy, housing, transport and food systems that is so difficult to change? Simple: it's us.

Industry (defined quite broadly) has scope to radically reduce its footprint on the planet. It can move our energy systems away from fossil fuel to renewables, it can insulate and innovate around energy use in the home, it can electrify almost every mode of transport (manned aviation being the only one that has yet to find a zero carbon technology solution) and it can sort out the logistics and supply chain problems that cause huge wastage in the food system. Each of these solutions should save industry money or create new opportunities for economic growth around investments in infrastructure and technology. These solutions should be unlocked through normal economic and market ‘rules’ given enough time.

“According to a new U.N. report, the global warming outlook is much worse than originally predicted. Which is pretty bad when they originally predicted it would destroy the planet.”

Jay Leno

At the Global Sustainability Institute we are very interested in the intersection between the ‘system’ (industry and politics) and personal motivations. How do we as individuals influence the system and how does it influence us? How do we create our identities and how does this reflect on our decision making process?

For energy this looks at how and why we use energy – do we understand what a KiloWatt is and what motivates us to change our energy use? For food – why do we seem unable to really engage with the concept of a food ‘system’ and how do we become more nutrition focussed (rather than just consumers)? For housing – how to we move from an ‘owner’ mentality to wellbeing (so we equip our homes to manage our comfort but not over-equip them so heat pours through the roof and ‘stuff’ falls out of the doors)? For transport – how do we move from a feeling of personal freedom defined by our ability to travel unbelievable distances whenever we like in incredibly short timescales to a system that supports our common communication and engagement across the globe while valuing our time and ability to stay in one place?

Global transformation and change

Understanding what motivates us as individuals is key to a global transformation – unfortunately we are inherently short term and find it very difficult to think in a global and long term way. Therefore we have to be more conscious about what we really desire as people, and build a new system (not tweak the old one) that starts with where we want to get to and regulate to get us there.

While price affects a lot of what we do it is not a fundamental driver of our motivations and therefore it is unlikely to be a real solution to all of the world’s problems. Putting a price on carbon, ecosystems, habitats, water, air, soil will help industry to invest in some of the reductions in its footprint but as putting a price on humans (slavery) did not make us value humans differently (in fact it had the opposite effect) there is a chance that we will think that putting a price on something has solved the problem and then ignore it until it is too late.

Our values drive our behaviour and it is our values that should be central to international agreements and global transformations. We must give more power over to a global system that is based on these shared values so we can get a global solution to this (increasingly) urgent set of challenges.


Dr Aled Jones
, Global Sustainability Institute


Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash