Fix it, Don't Nix it

Even if you just want to flip a table

I was at a gala for an environmental organization last week. Two markedly different speakers gave talks during the dinner. Both were excellent people doing great work and both were eloquent, passionate orators. One garnered polite applause while the other received a standing ovation for her work. Why the disparity? Our bias towards the dramatic. And the fact that the latter speaker took the stage after people had consumed much more wine.

The former speaker writes on the topic of climate capitalism, the basic gist of which is that we need to use the tools of capitalism to tackle the crisis, turning grey hats into white ones. His entirely accurate argument is that we have huge infrastructure and tools to leverage, at speed and scale, and our most economic and expedient course of action would be to do so. Yes! It’s actually the only argument. But no one wants to hear that the current system just needs a few tweaks and we’ll all be on our way. It’s not a story that you can passionately rally behind. When we think of systems change, I think we actually think of one system being tossed out for another, which is dramatic and looks like it would be messy and heavy and exciting. We think of switching out one system for another, and not the deep, regenerative loop of change that must occur within the system itself. The idea that we are on a cyclical path doesn’t get people crushing beer cans on their foreheads and pounding their chests. No one wants to feel that human existence is just a Mobius Disney ride.

The second speaker of the evening shared the actual Davida and Goliath narrative of her organization’s amazing efforts to halt big corporations from drawing gazillions of gallons of water from our province’s aquifers. It had everything you could want in a story —evil hegemon with a war room full of spin doctors trying to take what belongs to the public for pennies; scrappy band of activists with no money and less power: needless to say, the crowd ate it up.

Since this newsletter is nothing if not an opportunity for me to toss out generalized behavioural science ideas, I’ll say these two narratives map rather perfectly to our System 1 and System 2. Our impassioned, slightly irrational self feels our pulse quicken at the visualized injustices of a big corporation stealing water and selling it in plastic bottles. Our System 2 can probably appreciate that an incisive rearrangement of our current structures is the most expedient and least wasteful way to tackle the crisis. 

Of course, I’ve played with our desire for narrative myself here, deliberately positioning two perspectives against each other, when in fact we need a marriage of both to tell the best story, and drive to the strongest action. We need to make expediently repairing what we have priority number one, and we need to tell a better story about why we should do that.

As the world’s worst mender (watch as my children recoil at my hand-made iron-on patches), it’s natural that I’d espouse a fix-capitalism mentality. It feels like the least wasteful thing we could possibly do. And it takes much less time to fix a tilted and somewhat dented but functional system than it does to build an entirely new one. Throwing out an entire system is inherently wasteful, and even if that were justifiable, it’s not likely to meet the punishing deadlines the whole planet is facing. We just don’t have the time. In an interview with the Behavioral Scientist this week, economist Robert Frank said:

The planet is burning up. We need to spend trillions of dollars in order to build the green energy infrastructure that’s going to prevent that from happening. The stroke of good luck is that there are just enough dollars being wasted under current arrangements and just the right instruments in the policy space to rechannel those dollars into the investments we need to make. All of that could happen without demanding any painful sacrifices from anyone.

I know that many of my heroes say that capitalism is what wrought this. But I think they'd all agree that a rapid consensus is the best way out of it. Climate capitalist Tom Rand and Climate disasterist Naomi Klein agree on 90% of things. It’s in the hairy confines of this 10% of disagreement where we have to figure out where we all feel comfortable.

Fix-it-don’t-nix-it solutions are everywhere, but they often fail to land. Elizabeth Warren was fixedly logical and wonderful, but her campaign is over. Fixies of the world, unite! We need to show that systems are fixable. We need to tell a really emotional story about how incentivizing business leaders to do better might just save the world we love so dearly. Maybe it can star Timothee Chalamet in a perfectly rumpled linen shirt, bringing some wistful emotion to the pragmatism that we need now.

Of course, I get that resetting the table will never provide the same satisfaction as flipping it over. Why does this feel so good?


What is your system theory? Fix it up or blow it up? LMK!


I wrote about waste as the way in to climate convos, and got a great comment from University of Florida scholar Dr. Katie Stofer:

I wanted to comment on today’s post and the need to find common ground – I think you are absolutely right, that using words like “climate change” may not be the common ground, but topics like waste are exactly where you need to go. As a communication scholar, Thanks for helping us make this clearer for everyone! Also, it’s totally fine to try to have a convo and if it’s not working, go away and try for a more productive one. We also know there are some people who are totally entrenched in a different direction and a single conversation may not help. However, there are some people in a “moveable middle” who are the ones who you will find common ground with. Another tip – you should ask any convo partner what they are concerned about. Listening is a great place to start from in order to find things like waste where you do agree.

Katie has tons of interesting work to check out, particularly a series on stakeholder engagement.

And heart if you like, heart twice if you don’t.

Have a beautiful week!