Photo by miyukiutada
Once upon a time there was a Buddhist master called Ajahn Chah, who lived deep in the forests of Thailand. He and his monks lived a frugal life of discipline and meditation. Although seemingly cut off from the world, his fame as a teacher spread so widely that he attracted pupils from the ‘Western Paradises’ of the United States, who donned the saffron robe and studied side-by-side with the local monks.
One day the monastery was visited by a group of US Marines. During the course of their stay, there was a certain amount of friction between the American monks (who included some former Marines) and the American soldiers.
A group of them were sitting together in the sun. One Marine, irritated by the insects swarming over him, started swatting any that landed on his body. One of the American monks took exception to this, and told him “We don’t kill any living creatures in the monastery, we regard all life as sacred”. The Marine was scornful. “You don’t seriously believe that, do you?” Just as they were locking horns, Ajahn Chah looked up and smiled at the Marine:
Do you think you can kill all the insects?
This stopped the Marine in his tracks. “I guess not,” he said. Ajahn Chah smiled and carried on drinking his tea.
(Story from Venerable Father, a Life of Ajahn Chah, by Paul Breiter)
As the Abbot of the monastery, Ajahn Chah might have been expected to take the monk’s side, to lay down the law to his visitors and instruct them in the teachings of the Buddha about compassion and nonviolence. But he didn’t do that.
The monk got stuck because he believed that he was right and the Marine needed to come round to seeing things his way. He tried to tell the Marine what he ‘should’ do, and got frustrated when the Marine didn’t get it.
But Ajahn Chah wasn’t interested in being right, only in being effective. So he sidestepped the debate and spoke to the Marine’s self-interest. Instead of asking the soldier to consider the insects’ predicament, he prompted him to reflect on his own actions, and whether he could realistically get what he wanted.
Now, the story doesn’t end with the Marine abandoning his gun for a saffron robe and begging bowl. He wasn’t fired with enthusiasm to learn about the Buddha’s teachings. But the insects were spared. And the chances are that guy thought twice before swatting insects in future.
This is the story that came to mind when I thought about what to write for this year’s Blog Action Day, on the theme of Climate Change.
Now, given that this is a blog about applied creativity, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude I should write something about the urgent need for creativity and innovation on a massive scale, to tackle the environmental problems we face. But what could I write that wouldn’t sound glib, compared to the enormity of the challenge?
The Problem with Problem-Solving
When I thought of that story, it reminded me of some fundamental conclusions I’ve come to about creativity:
- A. Solving the problem is often the easy bit.
- B. The hard bit is getting people to recognise that there is a problem.
- C. The really hard bit is getting people to recognise that there is a problem that affects them.
In my experience, people who are completely stuck for ideas at A and B suddenly become incredibly creative and productive when they reach C.
Sometimes, you don’t even need a lot of creativity. When the Marine reached C, he simply stopped what he was doing. Right now, there are plenty of us who could make a big difference to the environment by simply reaching C and stopping what we are doing.
We tend to focus on problem solving (A) as being ‘the creative bit’. But a lot of the time, the real creativity is about getting people to C.
This is the kind of creativity Ajahn Chah used with the Marine. The kind of creativity Al Gore uses with his Inconvenient Truth presentation and feature film. The kind of creativity sites like Do the Green Thing and Treehugger use every day to inspire people to change their behaviour. The kind of creativity bloggers all over the world are using today, to get the message out that these are issues that affect us all, and that all of us can affect.
Because solving the problems at A really is the easy bit, even when we’re talking climate change and global warming. I’m not saying it’s easy, far from it. But it looks to me as though we’re stuck trying to get everyone – or even a majority – to C.
The Challenge of Changing Minds
Supposing we got everyone to agree that this is a problem that affects us all, and that we’re committed to solving.
Supposing the Europeans and Americans and Indians and Chinese and the rest of us stopped pointing the finger at the others and how much they were getting away with, and instead agreed to bring our own emissions down – and stuck to the agreement.
Supposing the vested interests were to stop campaigning to maintain the status quo, and started using all their time and effort and energy and money and political influence to come up with creative new options for the future.
Supposing our politicians were able to step outside the short-term re-election game for long enough to implement programmes of change that would safeguard our environment in the long term.
Supposing each of us were able to rise above our daily worries long enough to see the impact of our daily actions, and started making new decisions about where we work and what we do and where we shop and what we buy and where we live and how we treat our surroundings.
If that sounds like pie in the sky, then it gives you an idea of how much creativity is required to get us to C. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that if we can get enough people to C, then it will demonstrate how much creativity we really have. And with all that creativity and all those people on board, who knows how much we could achieve at A?
So how can we get to C?
I hope you won’t be too disappointed if I don’t pull a rabbit out of the hat at this point. All I can do is point out what definitely won’t work – and highlight a few things that have a chance of working.
Things That Won’t Work
We’ll never get most people to C by acting like the monk. He had good intentions, but he got stuck because he felt he was right, the Marine was wrong, and it was up to him to tell the Marine what he ‘should’ be doing.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of well-intentioned environmentalists out there acting just like the monk, i.e. telling people they ‘should’ become more environmentally aware and they ‘should’ change their behaviour as a result.
I don’t know about you, but the minute someone tells me what I ‘should’ be doing, I get an urge to do the opposite. I suspect the Marine felt the same way. As well as all those people who ‘should’ be doing something different to save the environment.
Albert Ellis, the founder of rational-emotive behaviour psychotherapy, had a word for language like ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘have to’. He called it musturbation, and told his clients it was a bad habit. 🙂
Objectively and logically, of course, the scientists and environmentalists are probably right. But if you take a random sample of human beings – say, your family, friends, colleagues and customers – you may be forced to conclude that human beings are not objective, logical creatures. So objective, logical arguments are unlikely to be effective on their own, no matter how ‘right’ they are.
Things That Might Work
One of the most moving sections of An Inconvenient Truth is when Al Gore tells the story of his father’s tobacco farm, and how his father stopped farming the crop after the death of his daughter, Al’s sister, from lung cancer. Whatever your views about smoking, a story like that gets straight to the heart of the matter. It’s hard to forget – and hard to resist.
Takeaway: Stories reveal the human dimension of a situation. They are engaging, persuasive and sticky. Marshall your facts and your arguments – then ask yourself ‘Who does this remind me of? How can I tell their story to best effect, for my audience?’.
Reframing is the art of taking a set of facts and changing their meaning while leaving the facts intact. It’s what Ajahn Chah used to stop the Marine killing insects.
For example, there are lots of energy adverts doing the rounds with the same theme: cutting down your energy use = cutting down your energy bills. They usually involve the story (see what I mean?) of a family in which the eco-conscious teenager is for once in agreement with the penny-pinching father: Dad proudly proclaims his commitment to saving the planet while winking to camera about the real ‘reductions’ he has in mind. Same outcome, different meaning.
I came across another clever reframe in a documentary about climate change, where environmentalists were making their case to governments by calculating the monetary value of the ‘services’ provided by natural pheonomena. E.g. If we chop down this forest, how much would it cost us to build and maintain a facility capable of transforming the same volume of carbon dioxide into oxygen? Or if we allow this coral reef to be destroyed, how much would it cost us to recreate the biodiversity of species it sustains, many of which provide us with food? Eco-purists would probably condemn this as an example of the commodification of nature – but supposing the argument proves effective?
Takeaway: Look at the facts objectively. Forget what they mean for you, with your value system. What could they mean for the other person? How can you frame your desired outcome so that it appeals to their values?
The art of reframing consists in finding ‘hidden benefits’ that persuade someone to pursue a previously unattractive goal. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. It may be easier to introduce a new benefit, in the shape of a reward. Free parking and showers in the office for cyclists. No congestion charge for electric cars. Grants for installing solar panels on your roof.
We’ve seen before that there are limits to the power of rewards. We aren’t going to bribe our way out of this situation. But sometimes they can play their part, especially when we’re asking individuals go forego their short-term convenience (driving to work in your 4×4) for the long-term convenience of us all.
Takeaway: You can’t buy buy-in, but sometimes adding a perk, treat or other reward can make the whole process easier. What’s in your power to offer?
Punishments are the flipside of rewards. Perks for cyclists go hand-in-hand with penalties for motorists.
The big danger with relying on punishments is that you end up with compliance, not the creativity demanded by climate change. But sometimes you need a minimum standard of compliance to get anything done.
Takeaway: Ask ‘What will happen if they don’t stick to our agreement? What consequences can I enforce – or invoke – to ensure compliance? And what’s the downside of using the deterrent?’.
It’s easier to resist drinking with your AA peers than with your old drinking buddies. That’s the point of AA. It recognises the social pressures that influence our behaviour and makes it easier to do the hard thing by banding together for mutual support.
It may sound silly (i.e. not objective and logical) but one of the biggest barriers to a greener lifestyle is being the odd one out. The weirdo in cycle clips eating a vegan packed lunch in the corner of the canteen. But snazzy cycle racks at the front of the building and a ‘fashionable’ vegan menu could make all the difference.
A site like Do the Green Thing makes it easier to change ingrained habits, by sharing stories and examples from like-minded people. When they invite you to ‘JOIN UP with people from 202 countries’ they recognise that social proof is a powerful influencer. Following them on Twitter, you may reflect that ‘8.376 people can’t be wrong’.
Takeaway: What trends and fashions are most influential among your target audience? How can you align your cause with them? How can you make it easy – and safe – for people to proclaim their allegience?
This may be the most powerful option of all. Feedback is what happens when you join the dots between your actions and their consequences… and find them leading straight back to you.
The Marine realises he’s wasting his effort. The tobacco farmer realises the damage he’s doing. The polluter realises the cost to his reputation and future prosperity. At this point, we don’t need to be told what to do. We know it and do it.
A device like the Wattson shows us exactly how much energy we’re using – and how much money we’re spending – in our homes, right now. More than that, it can turn energy-saving into a game, as you flip switches and turn down dials to bring your ‘score’ down. Much more fun than being lectured at. Who knew saving the planet could be so addictive?
We need Wattsons for transport, for shopping, for business, for government. When we have them, we’ll be able to see the difference we’re making, moment by moment, day by day. Maybe that’s all we’ll need in many cases.
Takeaway: Show, don’t tell. Instead of lecturing me about what I should be doing, find an easy way to help me to join the dots bewteen my actions and their consequences. And trust me to draw my own conclusions. I may surprise you.
This article is our contribution to Blog Action Day 2009, on the theme of Climate Change. Visit the Blog Action Day site to see what you can do to make a difference today. After all, 8,638 blogs can’t be wrong. 🙂
Over to You
This is a long post, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of the issues. What did I miss?
Do you agree that our biggest problem is agreeing that we have a problem?
What can you add to the lists of what works and what doesn’t?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.