Why we will not reach a critical mass, and what we can do to change that

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If you are reading this article you are likely interested in change. Chances are you are also interested in sustainability and a better future.

As if it were a close-up shot in a film, imagine yourself, myself, and other people you know, on a boat, rowing. We are all rowing in the same direction, all of us mobilized for a sustainable future, despite small disagreements we may have on what that future looks like or how to get there.

Almost constantly — and more and more — people get on the boat and start rowing with us. These are the people we have mobilized with our awareness campaigns, with our marches, and now they also want to row towards more sustainability and well-being. A few people suddenly get off the boat. Rowing is hard, and some people row non-stop and end up getting too tired, burning themselves out. Most of the time, however, (and without taking away the seriousness of burn-out) there are more people getting on the boat than getting off, and as a result, we are always more numerous, and we row faster than ever.

Now imagine that the camera slowly pulls back, little by little. The camera zooms out, similarly to what a systemic approach allows us to do. And in fact, as the camera pulls back, we start to realize that we are rowing in a swimming pool, inside of a big cruise ship that is going in exactly the opposite direction from the one we are rowing towards. The big cruise ship is the system that we want to change, but because our focus is on mobilizing, on increasing the number of people that jump into our small boat, we rarely take the time to observe and understand it, and we thus likely fail to change its direction.

Illustration: Colombine Majou

So, should we stop mobilizing and raising awareness? No ! Mobilization and awareness-raising efforts are fundamental for a transition towards a more sustainable future, as they allow drawing people’s attention to the fact that the cruise ship is going in the wrong direction. When people see us in the pool — i.e. our marches, our articles, or lobbying efforts — we catch their attention, we trigger questions they would not have asked otherwise, they get introduced to alternative narratives, to alternative ways of seeing the world that were not available to them before.

But it is not enough. Mobilizing people will not change the system, for at least two reasons.

Firstly, we do not get to redesign a system by being “more” people. We need to understand why the system behaves as it does and what needs to change for the system to push for — rather than resist — the laws and policies we need.

Secondly, the system fiercely defends itself, and part of that defense is to avoid anyone aiming to radically change its functioning to reach a critical mass. Hindering us from becoming a critical mass is a logical result of the system, and there is no reason to think that it will stop doing so. What we observe is actually the opposite: it gets better at it (think about, for example, how repression increases as soon as a movement gets momentum).

With problems such as the sustainability crisis, where systemic resistance to change (the direction of the cruise boat) is so strong, mobilization efforts, alone, are doomed to fail as they leave the structure of the system that resists the changes we aim to bring forward intact. And this structure is stronger than us.

But, precisely, the system in place is stronger than us because we are not coordinated enough, not united enough, not aware enough, some of you — including myself in the past — may react. The reason why the structure is still so strong is that we are still not numerous enough.

After over 50 years of sounding the alarm, the question is why. Why do we still not have a critical mass? Why do people still do not see the urgency of the environmental crisis? Why do people not revolt against a system that is stealing the future to its own children?

Responses that may come to mind include that mainstream media is responding to corporate interests (likely because its revenue depends on ads?) and thus not correctly informing the population. That social media and ads are pushing us to consume rather than to pay attention to our ecological footprint. That politicians prioritize economic growth over the resolution of the environmental (and social) sustainability crisis. That people do not have the time or are simply dumb.

Apart from the last reason (more on this), all of those answers make a lot of sense. Today the population is indeed being deceived and distracted, mainly by the promise of economic growth. Corporations’ resources and political support are selling us the idea of a future in which there is nothing to worry about: economic growth, combined with human ingenuity and technology, will allow us to keep our lifestyles while reducing the environmental impact on the planet. This future is not real, but that is not important if people cannot tell it is not.

Do mobilization and awareness efforts solve any of the reasons listed above? If those causes are not solved, why would we be more numerous in the future?

Technology changed”, you may say, social media did not exist back then. The situation is different than 50 years ago, we can now reach many more people than before. Indeed, but others do as well, and one may question whether social media contributes to more awareness or if it may be the ultimate tool for deception, accelerating a “race to the bottom” at a pace never seen before.

The impacts of climate change are more and more visible, you may say. People will soon react. A nice and comforting thought, but a very unlikely one. We know that, in industrialized countries, the impact of climate change will become visible enough for people to react in masses when it will be too late. The wake-up call strategy could, indeed, bring a critical mass, but that is unlikely to happen before critical tipping points have been surpassed irremediably.

The key point of this article is that we cannot count on a critical mass to “change the system” as the current system design hinders us from reaching that critical mass in the first place. We cannot count either on social media (in its current form) or a “wake-up call” strategy either.

We need a new strategy. Mobilization should be a means to an end, rather than the place where we put all of our efforts. The end is a (political and economic) system that produces better results. Mobilizing is important to catch people’s attention, but we need to make sure that as many people as possible jump out from our small boat and — despite the urgency — stop and reflect, together, on how to change the direction of the cruise boat. Because that is what will ultimately determine our destination.

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This article is part of a series, available here.

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