The annual rhythm of the United Nations year peaks with the General Assembly in September. One month on, it’s a good time to reflect on this year’s gathering which was remarkable for its focus on fighting climate change, the transforming effect of one 16 year old girl telling it like it is, and the way people heard her words in a way they haven’t heard before.
“People are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing, we are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” – Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist
The world has heard many comprehensive scientific explanations of what we need to do to combat global heating. All of those were many times longer than the 495 words that Greta Thunberg used in her speech to delegates, and yet her words had a galvanizing effect on everyone who heard them, and she is spurring more people to act with a sense of urgency that was never triggered by thousands of pages of carefully argued science. Why are so many people hearing these messages as if for the first time?
The reasons behind this are important to explore and should cause us to think about how we try to bring about change in the world. They are embedded in human psychology and can help us learn how our messages are received by those we would wish to influence. Understand these human foundations, and we will understand why sometimes our climate change arguments hit home, and sometimes they seem to hit a wall. It’s all to do with calm, clear messaging, which can arise from within, as it seems to for Greta, or for the rest of us through the use of mindfulness techniques to calm ourselves before we speak.
We need to light a fire under the seats of decision makers. Greta has sparked the flame but we must learn how to keep it burning brightly. Extinction Rebellion, a movement that began in London last year and quickly went global, is certainly fanning the flames. But what can we do to keep up the momentum?
A calm and direct voice helps us to hear these messages better than a high volume argument. Research has found that the human ear closes down to reduce the volume of strident speech, so a measured approach cuts through more effectively than raised voices. Note how Extinction Rebellion, though determined to get their point across, are unfailingly polite and forever apologizing for the disruption they cause. Getting the tone of voice right and using techniques such as meditation to build audible compassion and empathy with our audience helps people to feel safe and truly hear the message.
How can we do this? In UNDP’s Green Commodities Programme we have developed a series of carefully designed processes that bring all the stakeholders together into carefully curated safe spaces where people can explore differences, find common ground and build sustainable commodity solutions. We call it Multistakeholder Collaboration For Systemic Change. It instils trust, builds resilience to external shocks, and produces a community that can calmly hear each other’s ideas and problems. Sytemic change involves working with complexity, to help people see the whole system, and to recognise that change will often be unpredictable and surprising. A couple of examples include our work, just begun, to produce sustainable cashmere and connect Mongolian herders to international markets, and in Costa Rica where we are making pineapple growing and fisheries beneficial to people and the environment.
If we are to take the action we must take to combat climate change, we need not only to change what we do, but also consider how we think and speak. And we must create collaborative spaces where we can be calm and feel safe if we are to truly hear each other’s solutions.