The challenges we experience today as a society are different to those we experienced yesterday or those we will experience tomorrow.


As individuals we are confronted with a variety of global issues: the effects of climate change, an ageing population with limited amount of caretakers, political instability, the inequality between rich and poor, and the availability and protection of data. We witness our life-circumstances changing. Information on these global issues is piling up while we have limited influence as an individual. At the same time, we feel the pressure to fulfill certain expectations. We are challenged to find our personal role in a world characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).


In this fourth article, I would like to share how I handle the VUCA personality of our world so that it can become an asset rather than a liability. Generally speaking, there are always two things I can influence in a certain situation: How I interpret it and how I act upon it.


Volatility

Volatility describes the nature and dynamics of changes; high volatility refers to quick and large changes. In a volatile situation we often ask ourselves “what is right way to handle this?” and “what is wrong way to handle this?”.


In my experience the most effective way to answer these questions is by returning to my personal values. Do my actions honour my values? Personally, I value the following: 1) safety for myself and my family, 2) connections with people, 3) recognition for what I do, and 4) freedom of choice.


These values act as my yardstick that I use to explore the different ways I can act upon a situation. With regards to the climate emergency the most important value I will act on to preserve is my family’s safety.


Uncertainty

If there is too much uncertainty in a situation, feelings of fear may start to hijack rational thinking. Say, for example, my partner was supposed to arrive home 2 hours ago and they haven’t contacted me. I might start questioning myself “Did something happen/are they hurt?” or “Are they seeing someone else?”. Due to the lack of information, I cannot answer these questions and that scares me.


I live in Belgium, a country that exists slightly above sea-level. The extent to which the sea-level will rise is unknown as is the way in which my country will respond. As a consequence, I am terrified of even thinking of the future of the Netherlands in the climate breakdown. To prevent this fear from taking over, I try to stick to what is certain. Once I see clearly again, I can take an active stand and explore my possible actions.


Complexity

A situation is deemed complex when we cannot recognise how different elements relate to each other, how they affect each other, and how they add up to the overall effect. On top of that, there is no clear pattern we have seen before or know about. Climate change is the most important complex situation we are currently confronted with.


The traditional approach to deal with a problem is to use the SAP method. SAP refers to 1) sensing what’s happening, 2) analysing the elements, and 3) planning our actions. In a situation of complexity, this approach is insufficient and we tend to get stuck on the analysis (A).


I would like to introduce the new and improved SIP method. SIP refers to 1) sensing with my physical senses, 2) using my intuition by listening to my gut and involving my heart, and 3) probing the situation by exploring, testing and searching with help of others and the intention to learn.


The new SIP-method does not include a planning step in the end as it is unclear when we have resolved the situation. The only thing we can do is to take one step at a time in the probing phase and see whether it has a positive effect.


Ambiguity

A situation is ambiguous when it can be interpreted in many different ways. Depending on various factors, including culture, people define the same situation in a different way. For example, in Europe slurping soup is seen as rude while in China slurping is a way of appreciating the soup. Since the way a person acts on a situation is determined by their interpretation, someone else’s behaviour might shock us.


In the fight against global overheating, we were urged to separate the different sorts of waste to make recycling possible. But recently, experts have shifted to upcycling rather than the downcycling previously mentioned. Different options are available depending on the resource material and the objective. That makes the separation of waste ambiguous. In my experience, acknowledging and acceptancing the ambiguity of a situation helps me to prepare to be flexible in my responses.


The four characteristics of a VUCA world covered above are interrelated and often appear at the same time. I now know I can handle it by creating the mental space to host the ambiguity; by using the SIP method; by focusing on the certainties to avoid panic; and by using my personal values as a yardstick. With that in mind, I can consciously decide how to act to keep us safe.

My first big career steps happened when I was in my 30s. During the next 15 years, I met my husband and became a mother of a wonderful girl. These life-altering changes had me moving away from my activist attitude. Instead I was searching for stability and growth. I experienced having a family and developing my career as super positive; my life kept getting better each year. The climate breakdown, in contrast, had taken a backseat. The very thing that had excited me in my younger years, now felt like a burden looming over me. It became a thought that was scary, depressing and incited anger. I didn’t want to carry this burden while life was so joyful and went into a state of “inaction” towards climate change.


Many psychologists, including Robert Gifford, have spoken about the reasons a person moves into a state of “inaction”. Even when the person is convinced of the seriousness of the issue. Gifford refers to these reasons as “the dragons of inaction”. Below, I expand on three specific dragons that I have fallen victim to with regards to the climate emergency. I reflect on how I could have recognised them and how I could have acted on them.


The Dragon of Conflicting Values, Goals, and Aspirations


It is not unusual that the focus on the pleasures of today conflict with the need to focus on the troubles of tomorrow. The “here&now” benefit often outweighs the future benefit. On top of that, preparing for the future can feel like a sacrifice. In the case of the climate emergency, this sacrifice is not even for my future self but for future generations; a sacrifice for people I do not know.


Looking back, I could have recognised this conflict by realising my vision at the time was short-term focussing on “today”. I saw dealing with tomorrow, including the climate emergency, as a burden. I now realise that that is just one way of seeing it. I could, for example, frame the climate emergency as an opportunity; it could lead to a bright future and healthy world.


What's important to realise with respect to this dragon is: The way a problem is defined determines the possible action. Phrasing/defining a problem in different way makes room to different actions and can help avoid a state of inaction.

The Dragon of Ignorance (not knowing what to do)


Just like many other people, I have changed my behaviour in the last decade in several ways with the hope of limiting my personal damage to the environment. I based these changes on information from various sources, e.g. news or friends. Some of my changes have been succesful, while others seemed to have a negative effect - I was not always doing the right thing.


Ever since climate change has become an important topic, we have become overwhelmed by the amount of relevant information. Besides the amount of information, its truthfulness has become challenging to determine. Different sources give different recommendations on how to fight climate change as an individual. This leaves us with an uncertainty of what is the right way to act. Taking action comes with the risk of doing the wrong thing.


I fell into this trap of inaction. I only finally got out of it once I started talking about the various actions I could take and the effect these would have. Discussions, both on social media and in real life, about flying, eating meat, and energy consumption can take away the uncertainty. It is useful to try things out and share the experiences with others; this will lead to more effective action.


The Dragon of Denial


Denial offers a way out of a problem, as it eliminates the problem in our individual reality. This obviously only works for limited time; until the problem is so big we have no choice but to face it.



Back in the day, when companies first realised that CO2 emissions would lead to a climate breakdown they responded in one of two ways: 1. They deny the facts 2. They accept the facts. Individuals would pick a side and many chose to deny the facts. In a certain way, this can be seen as an act of self-protection. At the time there seemed to be no obvious solution to the emission problem and so there was no obvious action an individual could take. Therefore, accepting the facts and not being able to act can lead to hopelessness and panic. By denying the issue, panic is avoided in the short-term.



Nowadays, the emission problem has many technical and social solutions available. Denying the issue out of self-protection is no longer useful. As a company and a person, I am better off accepting the facts so that I can explore the opportunities this new reality offers.


The dragons I have expanded on above are only three out of many in existence. Some of these may be strongly connected and reinforce eachother like The Dragon of Denial and the Dragon of Ignorance: If I don't know how to solve a problen, I'd rather deny it. Once I no longer deny the problem, what should I do to solve it?


Remember and accept that it’s impossible to avoid all of the dragons. There will be situations in which your subconscious instinct will lead you to a state of inaction. However, we can reflect on our moments of inaction. The key thing to ask ourselves is: Is inaction really to my benefit or am I fooling myself?

Should we combat climate change using laws and regulations or by trying to inherently change the individual's value-system? 


When I review my own behaviour, I notice how part of it is dictated by laws and regulations and part based on my personal value-system. In psychological terms, we often talk about extrinsic motivators versus intrinsic motivators; laws and regulations being extrinsic motivators while my personal values are intrinsic motivators. A large part of my upbringing was focussed on following instructions comparable to laws and regulations e.g. school and church. At the same time, I was trained to be critical of what was asked of me. I would ask myself “how does this serve me?” and “do I agree with the underlying assumptions.''


My level of criticality increased the older and “wiser” I got. For example, as a young teenager I started refusing the socially required dress-code; a pleated dress with a massive bow on the butt, that I absolutely despised. To me, what matters is who you are on the inside, rather than what you look like on the outside. A more important example, is my choice in education. As a young girl from my social class, my parents were expected to enrol me at the Domestic Science School- a school meant to teach young women how to be a proper Dutch housewives. My father told me: “ If you are born for a dime, you will never be a quarter”. Luckily my mother, being a rather rebellious feminist herself, supported me in deciding to educate myself according to my abilities. I ended up getting various University degrees- something I am very proud of.


The point is, when a law or regulation is not in line with a person’s value-system, the person’s value-system is likely to override the law or regulation (dependent on the system of punishment that is in place). If there is alignment between the two, the result will lead to a “positive” change in behaviour. This is easily illustrated by a driver’s behaviour. Say the speed limit on a certain road is decreased from 130km/hr to 100 km/hr. If a driver values safety and the environment over anything else, the change will not affect the driver and therefore be automatically accepted. However, if a driver values efficiency or adrenaline over safety or the environment, they will not like this change. If there is a speed camera present, the driver might change their behaviour and adhere to the new speed limit. However, guaranteed the driver will go back to driving 130km/hr in unguarded parts of the road. As soon as the expectation of punishment is gone the motivation may disappear.

Depending solely on laws and regulations allows people to leave all responsibility with the government. Trust in the expertise of the government is essential for this to work. Depending solely on the individual’s value-system, puts all responsibility on oneself. This requires the individual to be an expert on the matter. Neither one on its own is a perfect method; the first one disregards the individual while the second one is unpredictable and might disregard the common good.


In my opinion, government has two pivotal roles in guiding behavioural change. The first is to implement effective laws and regulations as a method of steering group behaviour. It can result in mass behavioural changes for the benefit of society as a whole. Secondly, government has a responsibility to provide the public with clear and truthful information. Truthful information helps people turn rather abstract values into concrete actions that have a predictable outcome. In this era of false information, we experience the risk that our actions do not lead to the expected results, thereby discouraging people to take further action. In practice, truthful information is communicated through education and public dialogue that aims to empower the people.


When it comes to the climate emergency, laws and regulations are in their infant phase. This means many changes forced upon us are yet to come. Our role, as individuals living under this uncertainty, is to be prepared to change our behaviours- a challenge we will likely have difficulty with. We can do this by being aware of and building up our own individual value-systems. What do I really care about? As a parent, an entrepreneur, a leader, and human living on this Earth.

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