Start where we are

posted in: Social innovation | 2
Plastic bag environment pollution with iceberg of trash.

20 August 2018. A 15-year-old girl steps up – and out of school – and goes on strike. Thousands follow Greta Thunberg’s example, collectively shaming older generations for inaction or ineptitude in the face of climate crisis. For Thunberg, even Sweden, with its relatively ambitious carbon policies, is halfhearted and too little, too late[1]. Doing too little, too late may well be our species’ epitaph; or, ‘must try harder’.

Change, what is it good for?

Dr Neil Stott, co-director of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation, and course director for the MSt in Social Innovation.

We are not good with change. Many a change management strategy has faltered in the face of passive resistance, disinterest or collective inertia. Not to mention personal change plans collapsing as they become too difficult or inconvenient to sustain. Perhaps with enough cajoling (or the ‘nudges’ policy makers are so enamoured with[2]), or a financial or legal stick, we may shift. When we do – I am thinking about the multitude of bins outside my house – it often just becomes ‘a thing’. We have forgotten why we never did such a sensible thing in the first place.

We are quite good at sudden change. We mobilise rapidly in a family emergency or at an accident. Catastrophes often bring out the best in people, organisations and states. Sudden and violent, they suppress animosities and prejudices. We empathise, rally round, fundraise and deliver humanitarian aid. We have systems. We have thought it through. Unfortunately, we tend to get bored with the longer-term processes of reconstruction or become blind to the systemic problems that have caused the disaster in the first place.

We are terrible with ‘change in the making’: the brewing crisis of change we perceive to be someone’s else’s responsibility, or at least beyond our control. Often, we cannot agree on the problem – let alone solutions – even when robust evidence is staring us in the face. Perhaps we are just overwhelmed by what we imagine is coming.

Catastrophes in the making

Perhaps we are overwhelmed with good reason. During lunch with a colleague from the cheerfully named ‘Centre for the Study of Existential Risk’,[3] images from science fiction films floated by as he fretted out loud about ‘catastrophic pitfalls’ facing the globe due to human activity. How will society be organised if robots do all the work? Elysium. When Cambridge is a seaside town? Waterworld. How do we control superintelligent AI? Terminator. Or biotechnology? I am Legend/ Omega Man.  Apparently, there is no shortage of apocalypses through shooting our own feet. Clearly, it’s time, as graffiti displayed in 28 Days Later proclaimed, to ‘Repent, for the end of the world is f******g well-nigh’.

A problem with the apocalypse – or how we imagine it – or these ‘catastrophes in the making’, is the numbing feeling that what we do will not make a jot of difference either way. Winter (or summer if we are talking climate change) is coming.

We may daydream about our strategies to survive. I have kept a supply of old prescription glasses since being traumatised by the BBC’s Survivors in 1975 – without them I would be easy pickings. In popular culture the end of the world is rarely the End, rather a new world devoid of traditional government and social institutions[4]. Dystopias, as well as utopias ‘may well be a sensitive indicator of where the sharpest anguish of the age lies’[5].

So, what next?

So, how do we overcome the inaction such anguished numbness creates? Should we wait for others – for governments or business – to come up with solutions? 

Actually, as you will be aware, there are no end of suggestions to ’solve’ climate change. Try a quick ‘Google’ search. Apart from international efforts, such as Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement[6] – recently undermined by the USA – there are calls for a ‘Green New Deal’ (modelled on the US New Deal in the 1930s[7]) and ‘climate mobilisation’[8] (modelled on WW11 mobilisation), as well as a multitude of campaigns and community groups. Some emphasise technological or product substitution such as petrol for electricity or coal with wind power.  Others emphasise sacrifice to a greater or lesser degree – fewer people, less consumption, less red meat. Others emphasis time – for instance a creeping series of intensifying, imminent or reassuringly outside our lifetimes, catastrophes. Of course, some deny climate change altogether, or claim it is exaggerated and business should continue as normal.

Change is inevitable. It is better to choose change than have it forced on you. Then it tends to be more ‘sticky’. I have the unpleasant feeling that if we wait much longer the changes needed to stem, accomodate or halt climate change will have an acutely authoritarian flavour – and not just a mildly annoying ban on petrol vehicles or plastic bags. Going green, like many a revolutionary moment before, may well lead to deeply unpleasant politics where the ‘too many people’ or ‘meat eaters’ or ‘climate refugees’ become the problem. Unfortunately ‘eco-fascism’ is already lurking [9]. Algorithms, AI or robotics are clearly not necessarily benign and political decisions will be required to frame the future.  

Butterfly effect …

In choosing to change, I would urge start where we are’ [10]. In other words, with the countless micro-decisions we take every day and in the places we live. A conscious shift from instant gratification or willful ignorance. Or from the mental gymnastics required to justify our Victorian London re-creating log burner, Uber ride or Amazon delivery. The problem is that we perceive a lack of alternatives – just as companies with monopolisation tendencies like Amazon would like[11]. I confess to be an Amazon addict. I am a sucker for shiny Apple products. I, like all of us, perform numerous activities that spew carbon, rely on work done by workers in precarious situations or on products which cause harm across the globe. Clearly, I have to take more personal responsibility.

Small actions can amplify harm or positive change. They are part of a solution. Small actions can become a tsunami, as Greta Thunberg has demonstrated. If nothing else, they can sting the pockets of corporates, or shame our politicians into thinking how to do things differently.

What is required is a different mindset. One that understands our frailty and penchant for eating the wrong thing, accumulating tat or being fashionable. One that enables us to imagine how to move to a more sustainable future which reduces social and environmental harms. One that involves personal and collective responsibility – and solidarity – starting where we are: our homes, workplaces and communities. One in which we can start to experiment with – or prefigure – alternative ways of thinking and delivering the food, goods and services we need to sustain ourselves, but not at other people and places’ expense. Or our own, as climate change will certainly come to roost in everyone’s home. A mindset for the future that takes Raymond Williams’ wise words to heart:

“[…] it is often forgotten that the most widespread and most practical thinking about the future is rooted in human and local continuities. We can feel continuity of life to a child or a grandchild. We can care for land, or plant trees, in ways that both assure and depend on an expectation of future fertility. We can build in ways that are meant to last for coming lives to be lived in them…all these ways have been weakened by particular kinds of society and economy, which set alternative priorities of quick satisfaction and return.” [12]


2Halpern, D. (2016). Inside the nudge unit: How small changes can make a big difference. Random House.


4 Yuen, Wayne, (2012). ‘Philosophy for the Dead’, In, Yuen, W. (Ed.). The walking dead and philosophy: Zombie apocalypse now (Vol. 68). Open Court Publishing. Page xiii

5 Manuel, F. E. (1965). Toward a psychological history of utopias. Daedalus, 293-322. Page 70.





10 Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2008). Diverse economies: performative practices for other worlds’. Progress in Human Geography, 32(5), 613-632.

11 Srnicek, N. (2017). Platform capitalism. John Wiley & Sons.

12 Williams, R. (1983). Towards 2000. Chatto & Windus.

Neil Stott

Neil Stott

Neil Stott

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2 Responses

  1. Crispin Wigfield

    Inspiring, unnerving, depressing but a great article all the same

  2. Ali Bailey

    This is a great read. So relevant also in the NHS. We responded well to the Covid crisis, but the longer term endemic Covid response and recovery is so much harder and needs everyone to change their countless micro-decisions in the face of a challenge that seems insurmountable.

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