Making the Change to Sustainability!

Andrew Martin



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Recently I read a frightening article by Bill McKibben on the state of play in the climate change debate. The article outlined how we are on track for catastrophic climate change (a 4 to 6 degree increase) if China’s planned one thousand plus coal fired power plants come online in the next few years. He also outlined, since 1990 greenhouse gas emissions have risen by more than 58%. It strikes me as very strange that we have known about climate change and the risks associated with it for many decades, yet individuals, politicians and business leaders are doing so little.


With such overwhelming evidence why do we find it so difficult to change? Change is perceived as hard. It is something that might hurt or push us to a new level. This new level, the unknown, frightens us. It is like opening a door to another dimension, we don’t know what will happen. We may be worse off than before, so why bother opening that door? But what if we changed our paradigm and by making change we opened ourselves to a new realm of possibilities and potential?


It appears we are in a period of transition, be it human induced or otherwise. Thebill mckibben ecological disturbances that persist present opportunities for change and growth.  It is a malaise that human systems are seen as separate to the ecological systems that support all life upon earth. Our economic social and political systems are merely subsets of the broader ecological system that enables us to extract, harvest and utilise resources to develop societies rich in goods and services for human use.


Our inability to act and make change lies in the fact that humans crave a state of permanence. We want things to stay the same, we want certainty. We want good things to last forever and painful things to end quickly. We have created institutions that help us to deal with this fear (economic, social, political and religious), to help us maintain our security and safety. Our fear of loss seeps through and we are scared that everything we have accumulated, jobs, homes, possessions, our lifestyles and our accomplishments may all be lost.


brain Another reason people find it difficult to change is because humans are responsive and tend to react to short term stimuli. We are bad at planning for the longer term and seek short term gratification. We become fixated on the past and how things are and have been. We assume things will be the same and remain unchanged and fail to see gradual changes in our environment and surroundings that will eventually impact us. Our fear of change and the consequences it may bring lures us into a false sense of reality and we find pleasure and comfort by separating ourselves from the possible cause of conflict. We compartmentalise and separate things so it is easier to manage and handle problems, this is a form of denial as it allows us to minimise and avoid any change. A classic example of this can be seen in our use of language, the term “the environment” as opposed to ‘our environment”. If we take ownership of something the chances are we will make the effort to make change, if we fail to recognise that something is connected to and a part of our world we struggle to be involved with the necessary shift needed to move forward positively.


So how do we instigate change and get others motivated when it comes to sustainability?


Bob Doppelt outlines in his book The Power of Sustainable Thinking how the trans-power of sustainable thinking theoretical model (TTM), a model developed by 24 major approaches to cognitive and behavioural change condensed into a single framework and developed by James Prochaska, can be used to understand the process of change that occurs within individuals. The 5D model outlines five stages of change. The first being Disinterest. 


Stage 1 - Disinterest


At this early phase of the process there is little interest and awareness in a specific topic or cause (climate change) and often denial that their behaviour has any effect on the issue at hand.


Stage 2 – Deliberation


At this stage of the process the individual enters the “might change” phase where they begin to acknowledge that there might be a problem and start to consider changing their thoughts and behaviour. People begin to collect information relevant to the topic or cause that they can potentially use in the future. Information and facts are weighed up as the individual tries to make sense of the information. Although people at this stage of the process are more open and willing to make change they still overestimate the disadvantages of change and remain ambivalent about making a shift.


Stage 3 – Design


transition This stage of the process is classified as the “I will change”. At this point individuals have decided that the benefits of making change overshadow the costs of not making change.






Stage 4 – Doing


change button This is the “I am changing” stage of thinking whereby individuals, groups and teams act upon the already established plans. Tangible actions are taken at this stage such as downsizing, non- consumption, reducing reliance on fossil fuels etc.


Stage 5 – Defending


“I have changed” is the last stage of this transformational process. At this stage people defend their approach and continue to grow and solidify their commitment to making a difference.


Doppelt goes onto to explain that once we have identified the various stages of change we must use the appropriate forms of action to help people transition to the next stage.


thinking The first key to successful change is to understand what stage of the process individuals, teams or organisations are at. Trying to influence or persuade people in the disinterest stage may inhibit movement to the next stage of change. The second key to successful change is through building tension and fostering self–confidence. Doppelt writes, “Sufficient tension must be established between some deeply held values and aspirations and current conditions. Tension can relate to a potential risk that an individual or group want to avoid. Action to reduce the risk thus achieves the goals of safety or comfort. Tension can also result from the awareness of important internal or externally established goals or standards that are not being met. Resolving this tension allows people to feel good about themselves, to feel successful, and in other ways to feel high self-esteem. Tension, however is not enough. Sufficient confidence must also exist that the change required to close the gap and reduce the tension can be achieved.”


The third key to change is by emphasising the benefits of change early on and dealing with the downsides later. One important pattern TTM researchers found while investigating how people move from the initial stage of ‘disinterest’ to the advanced stage of ‘doing’ is that it is imperative that the individual sees two benefits for each downside of change. Benefits can include things such as: personal safety, cost savings, personal wellbeing, increased self-esteem and support and affection from community members. The key to facilitating change is helping people increase their perception of the benefits of new patterns.


One -a survival guide There are many mechanisms for change that can influence and determine individual and group decision making. As a change agent it is important to keep in mind that change is not linear. People can progress to the next level of change then return to the previous stage, then make dramatic shifts to a higher level of the change process. In essence, people oscillate between the various stages of thought and action. Underlying the change process for climate and ecological systems is increased mindfulness of the connectivity of the natural world and how our current ‘Western’ paradigm of ‘take-make-waste’ economic systems need to be reworked to encompass an holistic approach that understands natural systems are complex and are not merely a resource for humans to plunder and exploit for economic gain.


For those interested the book The Power of Sustainable Thinking by Bob Doppelt is a great read if you are wishing to learn more about the psychology of change when it comes to climate and other environmental causes. It is also worth checking out some of Doppelt’s presentations on You Tube as he is an excellent presenter who makes for interesting viewing for those interested in facilitating change.


Andrew Martin is author of ‘One ~ A Survival Guide for the Future’ and publisher of a sustainability blog that covers topical stories from around the world in relation to trends and sustainability. For more information visit:


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  • Posted on Feb. 4, 2013. Listed in:

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