Finn it to win it

On climate hope and the pace of change (and Finnish findings)

In 2015 I got to go to Finland. My group of journalism fellows was somehow invited to the national broadcaster on the eve of their election night, where we got to chat with the leaders of all the political parties. It was a wild and worrisome evening, as the country was bracing for a rise in seats for the far-right parties. If you look at all the candidates that ran for office in that election, you’ll notice one thing: they all have nice glasses. If you notice two things: they’re all men.

The election proved not as bad as expected (though the populist Finns did get the second-most seats), and we were able to enjoy the rest of our trip, becoming completely Findoctrinated: Don’t ask me about their amazing educational system unless you want a four-hour ramble on the merits thereof.* I also managed to stay in a hotel right on top of a Marimekko and Cos store for a week and a half and not purchase a single thing, so I considered the trip an abstemious success, except for the day where I drank a million beers and yoyo’d between an icy lake and cozy sauna.

Four years later, and everyone is meme-ing the all-female Finnish political contenders (and youngest world leader victor, Sanna Marin!), and holding the country up as a model of gender equity, among other merits. This is great for a number of reasons, but namely because it’s a fintastic example of my favourite narrative: quick change.

When we’re at our political, planetary, or social nadir, it feels as if things could never possibly change for the better. Each successive disappointment pushes us further into the hole, and the light grows dimmer as we descend. We imagine clawing at packed dirt for years, never getting out of the dark. But then someone tosses a rope and pulls us up with an instantaneous yoink, the speed of which often eclipses the lethargic pace of the languid descent, and all is ok. We’re loss-averse people. We fear losses much more profoundly than we anticipate gains. And the gains get normalized and forgotten all too quickly, while the wounds and setbacks of loss take longer to heal. But Sanna Marin shows me that positive change can happen, quick. And while I do fear that she’s getting glass-cliffed by being handed a debilitating strike as a welcome to office...she’s there. Kippis!

And now my Finn fandom is back full force. Do you want to know a great Finnish word? It’s raventola. Isn’t that so much better than restaurant?

*Or about district energy, which I can talk about for 37 hours. Here’s an ad for Helsinki’s district energy company.

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Cool Art for a Hot Planet

A few weeks ago I wrote about climate art and my vague distaste for it. Suddenly there’s climate art everywhere, and it’s bloody great. 

From a great Guardian piece on Art Basel climate art by my pal, Nadja Sayej.

This one needs no story, the visual alone is so striking, but here ya go:

Not art per se, but here’s a podcast with a talk I gave on overcoming existential climate dread if you have twenty minutes and some existial climate dread to do away with.

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Wishing you hope and strength and a constant reminder that situations and humans can pivot very quickly when they need to. Some can pivot in a millisecond, while offering up positive vibey typography, like my dance crush, Donté Colley.

THIS WEEK

Do you have a bad-to-great quick change story? Please share so I can share!

If you have ways to make this newsletter better, I’m all ears. If you enjoyed this letter please heart it below so the substack deities will shine kindly down upon me.

Have a beautiful week!

Not Buying My Own Bias (Or BS)

two short hot thots

It’s Buy Nothing Day. I’m Not Buying My Biases. Here are two that have recently tripped me up.

Proximity Bias

On Monday I went to Strange Weather, a fantastic conference at the University of Toronto about reconciling art and science. It was a busy week at work so I almost bailed. But the wonderful Katherine Hayhoe was giving the keynote, and I didn’t know when I would get the chance to hear her again. I was surprised to arrive at the conference to discover that Hayhoe was a no show...in the physical sense. She was teleconferenced in from Texas via some magically good tech, and used digital tools to close the gap in proximity, and engage with us through instant polls and questions. Even the Q&A was devoid of glitches. I found it inspiring that the conference organizers didn’t announce that some of the speakers would be teleconferenced in. It normalizes the idea that you don’t need a speaker to be physically present to have a great conference experience. As for my bias towards physical presence, I hope it’s now dispelled. Why was I gauging my decision to attend on whether Hayhoe was in TO? I had no need to meet her. It’s my fellow participants that I usually want to chat with, anyways.

Of course I recognize the flipside of this is not as appealing. Would I want to sit by myself and watch a live feed of a conference occurring in a faraway city? Perhaps not. Or maybe I would? If I could chat live with other attendees, submit questions, or even host a local meetup for the conference. All to say, we’re going to have to figure out how to be together without being together (Bring on the AR!). And conferences and business travel are the low-hanging frequent flyer fruit. We’re also going to have to figure out how to change the conversation. From the website of a conference I’ve long wanted to attend, but never been able to justify taking a flight to:

The most popular aspect of BECC year after year is the chance to meet and engage with thought leaders, sustainability advocates, funders, program developers, technical experts, policymakers and ever growing BECC family.

Great, but what about the talks, panels, delayed flights, lost luggage, and mediocre hotel buffet food?

Narrative Bias and Buying

Sustainable products suck us in because they tell a better story. My husband makes fun of all the bad ‘Dear Customer’ copy on our product labels. Dear customer, My grandmother started making (insert product) fifty years ago on the very same farm where I now live with my wife, Mae, and our children Hudson and Forsythia. Yes, we are all beautiful and kind and barefoot, and our animals are beautiful, too. We source only the finest, all-natural, small-batch, artisanal (product) because that’s the perfectly calibrated story we’ve designed to make you buy our thing. Love, People You Now Feel A Deep Need to Support

Obviously it’s better to support good companies than bad companies. But a great, sustainable story can entice you to buy something you still don’t need. The behavioural science term for it is moral licensing. I’m guilty of it on occasion. I quasi-need something and tell myself a sustainable story to rationalize a purchase. I know it’s all a hot pile of duh, but my brain can craft the most intricate justifications. Maybe yours does, too? More on Green Materialism in last week’s Behavioral Scientist.

This Week: Bias Cuts

Any biases cramping your style and precluding you from MAKING SHIFT HAPPEN? LMK.

Last Week: Talkin’ About Your Generation

Got lots of neat feedback from people. Some around my age felt the same way, but others (thankfully) did not. Writes J:

As a Gen Xer, it was in the 90s that I went vegetarian due to learning about "global warming" and animals rights. I was deep in zine culture, punk rock, and hip hop, ready to fight the power. This was a time in my life where I discovered riot grrrl and feminism, my university's queer collective, as well as lost a second-cousin to AIDS. Adbusters was one of my favourite magazines. It was where I first read about culture-jamming and a "buy nothing" Christmas, inspiring me to shift my gift-giving habits. If anything, I find today's music and pop culture not political enough.

I love this. From another reader comes the idea that many have watched their generations’ proclivities to action wax and wane, which I’d never thought about. Writes S:

Dob 1954.  Demonstrated and worked to change world, stop war, liberate women, AIDS crisis etc.  were seen as dinosaurs, dropped up to working jobs, quit caring out loud. Now am truly dinosaur, wish I had stayed woke.  

Whether your generational attachments gave you headwinds or tailwinds, hoping you’re flying high this week (though not in an actual plane)!


Housekeeping
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If you read this in the next hour, meet me at the Climate Strike on your lunch break?

Happy Friday!

Sarah

What Alicia Silverstone Can Teach Me About Self-identity

Or, how to abandon a generational stereotype

(I didn’t have time to do a comic this week, so here’s one from the archives.)

My husband says I’m not GenX, but I’ve always identified as a youngish member of the cohort. I watched Reality Bites, I listened to REM, I said ‘whatever’ a billion and a half times. What else do I need to get my official membership card for the generation that would never have an official membership card? Writes Janan Ganesh in the FT about this indifferent demographic:

The analysis of generations can sometimes verge on pseudoscience. Each one is too internally diverse to characterise with generalities. In America, the X-ers are associated with a bleak dropout culture in the 1990s. In Britain, they stood for a hedonistic materialism. The big bands of the time rather embodied the contrast.

But whether they admired Nirvana’s insularity or the Everest of cocaine that Oasis hoovered, X-ers were united in the things they were rejecting. Big ideas. Noble causes. Political zeal.(emphasis mine)

Ganesh’s column was a superlative take on the same ideas lovely Lindy West unearthed a few weeks ago over at The New York Times, where she opined that “’90s pop culture convinced a generation of would-be earnest activists that caring was uncool.” She writes: 

In the 1990s, activism — particularly student activism — was stigmatized as tedious, silly, self-important and, most damningly, ineffectual. Student activism was Paul Rudd smirking behind designer sunglasses in the 1995 movie “Clueless”: “I’m going to a Tree People meeting. We might get Marky Mark to plant a celebrity tree.”

Though I bristle a bit at being so accurately typecast, I see a lot of myself in these descriptions. At age 9, my friend Jenny formed a group called Earth Troop, where we dutifully snipped 6-pack rings and picked up beach trash. But somewhere along the way I became that 90s GenX stereotype of a human. I don’t think I thought much about the environment between ages 15 and 30. I just thought everything was fine. Which was precisely the time when it wasn’t fine:

Over the past years I’ve been whittling myself into the shape of a person who acts, redefining myself against the person I’ve always felt I was: a corduroy-wearing, paint-covered twerp who didn’t think she needed to care about anything bigger than herself. When will I finally accept that I am not carving myself in opposition to a relic of myself, but instead am this new self? We generate entirely new cells every seven years, right? I am my own Ship of Theseus: the same, but different.

I wonder if others of this generation feel similarly fraudulent in new, politicized skins? It is hard to slough off our formative selves, even as it’s more necessary than ever to mobilize our intermediary generation of it’llallbeokayers into let’seffingdothisers. Our generation is literally defined as an X, a negation of efficacy. Worse, the appointed spokespeople of this generation persist in championing this ambivalent detachment. Writes Ganesh further down in his column - 

No living generation has shown less interest in changing the world. As a result, no living generation looks wiser today.

Goodness knows no one look wiser for their apathy in a world roiling with disaster and inequality. Humanity very much needs everyone with a pulse working towards this great shift. Even GenX can’t sit this one out. At the time in life where it becomes ever more difficult to do so (hello impending middle age!), we need to change.

And yes I know we are all much more than Ok Boomers or Karens or Avocado Milquetoasts, but social norms are powerful and inform so much of who we are and how we see ourselves and how we think the world sees us. Which explains why I feel sheepish when I write something earnest, or worse, impassioned. And yet we need hope and passion and vim and vigour and moxie and momentum.  We need to slough off our generational identities and dance like the world is on fire. Or at least like Winona and Janeane:

THIS WEEK

What is your generational baggage and how does it affect your climate action? LMK if you please!

AMAZING STUFF

I’ve never been into sailing but am so interested in La Vagabonde sailing Greta Thunberg across the Atlantic in treacherous waves! Very cool to watch.

The Overton Window on climate is shifting. Yes!

Like this newsletter? Consider hearting it.
Hate it? Consider hearting it twice.

Sorry for the blip in newsletter service, I needed some time to take deep breaths and explore the restorative powers of garlic, ginger, and hours spent listening to Chilly Gonzales on my couch.

Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world. And Happy Friday!

Sarah

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!

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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

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