Clear and Present Changer

Sharpening your toolkit for change, Sharpening your knives for Halloween

For the past few months I’ve been taking a course with BJ Fogg. He’s a prof at Stanford who has pioneered a type of behaviour change work he calls behaviour design. His models are deceptively simple but do wonders when it comes to clarifying goals and audiences. I’ve fallen particularly in love with one of his signature words: crispify. (I say it while holding my daughter’s Harry Potter wand and her room tidies itself, I swear.)

When clarifying the behaviours you want to change, you have to crispify them. While I’ve always loved crispy things (hello Hawkins Cheezies), I can see that a lot of my work, both personal and professional, has allowed for too much fuzz. Fuzziness is fine in knitting and Folkways recordings but less so in behaviour design, where the more definitive you can be in the actions you want people to take, the more likely you are to achieve your desired objective — which must also be crispy! 

The systems theorist Donella Meadows talks about the many ways to shift system behaviour, like “creating taxes, regulating bad behaviour, adding incentives, or shifting power. But the most effective place to shift behaviour is at the level of mindset. The great big unstated assumptions constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. The paradigm is the source of the system.”

Great, Sarah, but what does crispiness have to with paradigms? I think you might be on too many tonsil painkillers.

Fear not, I will crisp this thing up henceforth. This week brought a flurry of shares for this article about how to halt climate change for $300 billion dollars. It’s a really clear objective. And once you start talking about it, you begin to shift your thinking: That’s roughly half the annual US military budget→Not so much money to stave off climate catastrophe→Let’s do this.

It’s easy to shift your mindset when the action or ask is salient and clear and crispy. Often I’m not able to do so because I don’t know precisely what I’m driving towards. More people caring about the planet? Justin Trudeau being betterer at climatey stuff? Getting people to support the carbon tax? These are all fuzzy actions in search of a crisper. (Not to be confused with a CRISPR.)

“But there’s nothing physical or expensive or slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing,” writes Meadows.

Meadows’ ideas are paralleled by Alex Steffen’s idea of a snap forward, a kind of mental leap that allows us to quickly imagine our new reality. It’s a bold, clear vision for the future. Something we can wrap our heads and project management software around. A new deal, perhaps! The key is that it’s immediately understandable, actionable, crispy.

I’ve been using Fogg’s method to help clarify my behaviour change goals, but in my day job, clients often come to me with an objective that is less than crispy. The question there is whether I can take that behaviour change objective upstream to make it a little more concrete. If the client trusts me, maybe! In this newsletter I’m lucky enough to do whatever I like. Which means crispifying climate objectives has been formally adopted as standard practice. 

With art, I sometimes have little more than a feeling or an idea for a line to go on when I get started. There’s no goal or objective in sight, beyond a desire to make some marks. But as I turn my art into a behaviour change practice, I just can’t abide the lack of crisp. WHAT AM I MAKING? WHY AM I MAKING IT? WHAT DO I WANT TO HAPPEN? And for the love of pizza, HOW CAN I MAKE IT HAPPEN?

I created this newsletter to satisfy my own need to think about climate and move myself towards positive action on a weekly basis. Some weeks I feel like I’m getting somewhere, other weeks I float in an emo deprivation chamber. But in the coming weeks I’m hoping to clarify my change-making objectives. Crispification commences.

If this newsletter has you craving potato chips, I apologize.

THIS WEEK
How can you clarify your objective and crispify the behaviours that will get you there?

Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world!

If you like this newsletter, heart it pls.
If you don’t like it, heart and then unheart it.

You Can Sleep When You're Dead (is horrible advice)

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never missed a week of MVP. I do not miss deadlines, even self-administered ones. But I’ve been felled by a tonsil rebellion, and it’s given me a lot of time to lie still and think about things, and not swallow. In between falling asleep to the reductionist but deeply appealing podcast Revisionist History, I’ve been thinking about the process of slowing down. How dooeees one dooooo it? For me, slowing down has thus far meant scheduling only five activities per weekend instead of six. When I was 20 and living in London, I went to Dublin, ran a marathon, and flew home an hour later. I took my high school English teacher’s dictum to heart: you can sleep when you’re dead.  Part of the logic is that life is so busy and there’s so much to do, there’s no point letting up. I’m taxed just doing the basic minimum that life demands, so why not go full overscheduled enchilada and layer in the things I enjoy? As you can see, this logic makes no sense. Perhaps that’s why my tonsils have decided they don’t want to reside inside me anymore.

But how do I reconcile the need for urgent climate action (speed is the key, all the experts say!) with the need to slow myself down? My modest goal this month has been to attend an Extinction Rebellion dance blockade, and twice I’ve found myself sick in bed when I was meant to be inhabiting an intersection in a unitard. I’m ever restless to do more, even as I’m physically able to do less. As the political stakes grow increasingly precarious — we are within the margin of error  of electing a climate denier here in Canada — I feel a palpable sense of helplessness. I want to scream climate from the top of my roof until all the racoons in the neighbourhood gather on the shingles. But my body has other ideas.

In many ways this temporary feeling of incapacity has only emphasized the powerlessness I regularly feel, but in so doing it’s reaffirmed the central thesis of this newsletter: Doing things — however small, on a regular basis, for the sake of people and planet — is important. Tautological? Perhaps, and yet I can’t repeat it enough.

As I get back to normal life, I’m trying to add back only the absolute essentials, like work, sandwiches, and dance parties. But I now realize climate action is part of my essentials list. It needs to be scheduled in, like a dentist appointment or a hip-hop class or a hip-hop class with my dentist. It needs to be there regularly, beyond the writing and the thinking and the petition signing, because it is necessary for my health. Unlike my tonsils.

My goal is to plan these actions, with slow and measured certainty. My goal is to move things around so I do less of the inessential, and more of the planetarily necessary. Unitarding my way across a thoroughfare demands strength I don’t have at the moment, but seeing this activity scheduled in my calendar gives me the inspiration to get there. Look at the lady in the sequin shorts. Just watching her makes me happy, and gives me life!

THIS WEEK
How do you remain healthfully slow when we’re bombarded with the need for Immediate! Urgent! Action!? What climate action can you schedule into your life? As always, LMK!

LAST WEEK
Did you talk climate? How did it go? Proof that we need more TALKING…Emily Atkin explores the absolute ridonkulousness of this in today’s Heated. Worth a read!

Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world! 

Thank you for reading. As always, send me thoughts on how I can make this better to sarah@minimumviableplanet.com

Talk Making Sense

This headline makes no sense, I just love David Byrne.

Last Friday I checked my Twitter feed every half hour. I was watching the pictures of global strike crowds roll in. Each wave of cities and their massive crowds made me happier. It was haaaaaappppening. Later that evening I had dinner with friends, and a smart and stylish and environmentally knowledgeable pal asked when that strike was taking place. Oof. In that instant I realized that not everyone’s Twitter feed is exclusively Greta Thunberg and absurdist comedians. We are each of us in a mediated bubble of our own design. I know this and yet it wallops me in the face on the regular, like the dab of wasabi I have never once remembered is hiding in the nigiri.

My bubble is so curated I sometimes see the same climate pieces shared 34,000 times, by friends, groups, and algorithms alike. I often don’t share things myself because I assume everyone will have already seen them. But this is nuttery! Have you ever opened a browser after a friend has failed to log out and realized the world they experience is full of no-bake recipes, or extreme sports, or ‘Archie: The Royal Baby’ albums? The long tail is a million miles long. It’s a disorientingly useful wake-up call.

And it’s why this preamble is segueing into my quarterly Talk Talk Talk climate post. I used to judge friends who posted their causes gratuitously on FB, instead favouring an 80/20 mix of ironic detachment/weird Japanese inventions and Things That Matter. Over the past few years I’ve realized that we, each of us, have to shout climate from the rooftops, off every soapbox, into every megaphone, over every death metal soundtrack. Bonus if we can be only moderately annoying while doing it.

I also realize I need to reinforce Thaler’s First Rule of behavioral science: Make it easy. When is the strike? Why should I go? How can I participate? Am I invited? All of this is clear as carbon if you’re in the climate bubble, and murky as hell if you’re in an exclusively Nailed It bubble. My deepest respect if you managed to craft a life around the latter.

My goal in getting an OpEd into the Globe and Mail business section was to get climate in front of people who generally don’t climate. I also tried to couch my carbon in business terms—it truly is good practice to support employees who want to act. My second goal was to not read the comments. My boss later included a link to the piece in our company newsletter, and was chuffed to get a response from a VP at a very large company saying he liked the idea and had given his employees the option to go to the climate strike. Baby steps. Adult marches.

THIS WEEK

Talk climate! Talk climate at dinner, talk climate at your synchronized swimming class, talk climate in places where people never talk climate. Dance while talking climate in a neon jumpsuit for super happy magic extra credit.

LAST WEEK

Hello and welcome to all the new subscribers, come by way of this amazing Substack platform. If you have ideas, questions, interpretive dances for how to make this newsletter better, I am all ears (and all nose). Thanks for reading!

HOUSEKEEPING

My partner in life and letters suggests hitting the HEART at the top of this post is algorithmically important, so if you like this newsletter, please do so!

Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world!

Sarah

Joy is Not Made to be a Crumb

Self-care for people who can't be bothered to do it

Joy is not made to be a crumb

I keep flipping this Mary Oliver line over and over in my brain like a koan. My first thought was that I loved it because it makes me think of baked goods. But that’s just extra. The whole poem is perfection. 

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty

of lives and whole towns destroyed or about

to be. We are not wise, and not very often

kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this

is its way of fighting back, that sometimes

something happens better than all the riches

or power in the world. It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant

when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the

case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

—-

Mary Oliver was anywaying before most of us were born. The message is simple, of course. The world is crap, seize joy. But I need this beautifully written reminder to not be afraid of life’s plenty. I’m good at leaving the bar before that last regrettable Jägermeister shot. Trick statement. All Jägermeister shots are regrettable.

We are always in a hurry in the morning, so what’s one more family dance party tune? Life is fickle and people are mowed down. My cousin Deborah’s wonderful Bulgarian dance teacher was struck dead by lightning, even though well-minded minders tell us such things never happen. So when the moment is full of the literal crumbs (bread and cereal all over my son’s face) of joy, I want to say yes, Teddy, we can squeeze in one more dance before school! I need this koan to remind me to do so.

So much of my climate lament has been endless variations upon the theme of ‘we are not wise.’ But seeking to rectify that shouldn’t preclude me from savouring all the joy I can soak into my bones, right? We can be foolish and still savour the crumbs. My niece Dahlia is only four and yet so wise. Walking home from dinner while eating a Kit Kat, she announced to my dad, “I’m savouring it.” She even savours the word savour, drawing it out over a few adorable seconds.

At our office my amazing friend Luke came to speak to us about accessibility. He’s the founder of Stopgap, an organization that has built over 2,000 door ramps across Canada, making businesses and amenities accessible to people who couldn’t otherwise access them. Luke uses a wheelchair after an extreme mountain biking event gone awry. Basic things are much more difficult for him, and yet he’s one of the most hilarious, positive, and generous people you’ll ever meet. 

He told us that before his accident he was eating a piece of pie from one plate. Now, he’s eating a different slice on a different plate. He’s not sure if the piece is the same size, but it still tastes delicious, perhaps even more so. And he’s enjoying every last crumb.

This weekend my sister and three of her friends (with a median age of 70 between them!) held a huge music and dance festival in Montreal. It was the culmination of hours upon hours of effort. And it was excellent. Even though we’d been there since 9 a.m., at 2 a.m. I watched my sister laughing and beaming as she danced. It was a perfect vision of a person who recognizes joy and literally leaps to meet it. There may also have been some Slivovitz involved. My point is that there are people who take Oliver’s words to heart all around me. Lightness of spirit. 

This week 

Does climate grief keep you from fully embracing joy? Are you able to find and relish joy even if we’re a deeply foolish species? Hope so. Send me your joyful crumbs if you’re so inclined.

Good reads

Bill McKibben in The New Yorker on following.the.money.

The new face of climate activism is young, angry - effective in Vox.

License to wear a unitard and dance in the middle of an intersection has been granted to me

Fer serious

I was wrong about climate art.

Mostly. 

Reader Casey wrote this, and it sums up my wrongery best - 

I like to think that creating art that is mindful of the potential for positive change may in fact evoke that positive change in more than me.

That’s it. Just entertaining the idea that something you make may inspire change is enough. Whether anyone actually take inspiration from your dance quintet is mostly beside the point. If a tree falls in the forest, at least there’s a forest that hasn’t been burned by Bolsonaro. Just this week a friend added me to Artists for Real Climate Action, where everyone from a climate mime to modern dancers are busily making climate art, or at least talking about making climate art. If Climate Mime feels empowered by his work, that’s enough. If one or two others do as well, that’s just panto gravy.

Writes Tess: 

I’m knee deep in a film about prison inmates working on a farm. It’s criminal justice meets agriculture. And after a day of listening to these inmates talk about what is meaningful to them and how this farming gives them pride when all the world has for them is shame, I read this and remembered, “what about climate change”. They work outside everyday on the shores of the Rideau which is swelling into their crops. 

Just making art through the lens of climate change means all sorts of new layers. I can’t wait to see this film. Speaking of film, Jennifer writes:

I just watched Wasted! the food waste doc directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye. It manages to communicate the seriousness of the problem, while at the same time showcasing so many beautiful ways to divert food waste at every level. It also manages to be the beautifully shot food porn we're used to from series like Cooked and Salt Fat Acid Heat, which of course is partly the point: food is beautiful and shouldn't be wasted! Also funnily enough, it's executively produced by Anthony Bourdain (RIP), and he brings his classic acerbic dark humour to it. At the very end, he even talks about how if he had his way, this whole project would have been a lot darker, but obviously they had consciously made a doc that didn't need a Big Lebowski chaser. Highly recommend. 

And then there’s the climate art that is just so epic and beautiful it can’t make me blue. Todd shared this wondrous piece on Facebook, and I keep going back to look at it over and over again.

I thought poetry about climate woe would make my want to cry/die/lie in a pool of lukewarm jello, but reader Josette sent me some poems about parenthood and planet that were lovely. This one is so good:

I loved this piece from The Nation on XR and hope not despair. This para in particular: 

The lesson here is not that any one strategy is particularly efficacious. It’s that collective action is the surest antidote to solitary despair. This is something that Americans have largely forgotten. When I asked Clare Farrell, another founding XR organizer, how she managed to keep afloat despite the ever-rising tide of apocalyptic news, she answered by recalling an early XR slogan: “Hope dies, action begins.”

I love the art of good climate writing (not looking at you, Franzen), and the by turns wry and earnest language of planetary sloganeering. Hope dies, action begins. It’s equal parts bad Bond film title and perfect climate cri de coeur. Lord knows, we need both.

THIS WEEK

You don’t need to like climate art to make your own. Make a Global Climate Strike poster or graphic, wontcha, and share it somewhere PUBLIC.

LAST WEEK

I did ask my boss if we could close for climate, and I am so happy to report that he said yes. I wrote a piece about it for our company blog, and am hoping I can get more Canadian companies to hop on board. You? Any luck?

This newsletter now has 500 subscribers (wtf!). If you like it, tell a friend. If you hate it, tell two!

Have a wonderful week! 

Oh right, the unitard thing is here!

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