Change Doesn’t Come Easyfeatured

The documentary An Inconvenient Truth offers the most articulate and disconcerting depiction of climate change I’ve ever seen, but I doubt it will make a difference.

Americans are busy with work, families, television, shopping and hobbies. Our culture encourages us to have a full life, yet we long for more free time. In contrast, consider the negative connotations associated with the idea of an empty life. If we have nothing, we are nothing. Thoughts and contemplation are not valued equally with activities and possessions. As a result we consume, schedule, and plan filling every minute of every day until there is no time left for anything else.

Making the issue of climate change relevant and raising it above other competing messages is a difficult task. It’s good to see that 100,000 people have pledged to see An Inconvenient Truth on opening weekend. But compare that to the 30 million people who watched the finale of American Idol airing the same day and we begin to see a different picture. It’s understandable in a way. Which story would you rather see? One person’s dream fulfilled today, or a hundred million dreams destroyed in the future?

This is a key challenge in communicating the climate change problem. Al Gore states the problem simply, clearly and with surprising humor, but the information can be so overwhelming that it freezes people in fear and despair. We must communicate the challenges in ways that motivate us to action, rather than frightening us into inaction.

If people can cross this chasm, they will begin to think about what they can do. Installing energy efficient lightbulbs, purchasing emission offset certificates for driving and flying, or taking public transportation rather than driving. These are all simple actions that everyone can do today that don’t take much time. But again we run into a major obstacle. It’s difficult to see how our individual actions will improve the whole, so many of us never bother. Only through hundreds of millions of individual changes, will we begin to make and see a difference.

While films like this one have the ability to lift us above our daily existence and inspire us to make changes, the result is often only a temporary state of being. Leaving the theater, the gravity of our daily lives brings us back into existing orbits and habits, and the inspiration we felt earlier fades from existence, leaving little lasting change.

People do not change often, and when they do it takes time. Barrett Brown of the Integral Sustainability Center says that “transformative communications face a major obstacle: people change their worldview rarely.” And Harvard developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan, points out that “it takes approximately five years to change a worldview if the right conditions are present.”

I think only a series of conscious-shifting events or a life-altering shock will put people on the road to permanent change. But even in this case, people must find time in their lives for reflection, considering what to change and how to change it. We also need an encouraging like-minded community to support the shift, or gravity will once again begin to do its work. So while I praise Gore’s efforts, the film on its own is unlikely to create lasting change. But if we look at it in the larger context of evolutionary change, we can see how the movie plays an important supporting role.

I raise these points not to dissuade people from seeing the movie, but to paint a fair picture of the challenges we face in moving society towards a more sustainable future. We must not despair at the difficulties facing us, but instead choose to act. Ask everyone you know to go see this film and to make one new change in their lives that will make a difference. It’s urgent that we begin the dialog on a broader scale now, but be patient and understand that this is just one of countless conversations that need to occur before evolutionary change can begin to unfold.

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