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5 lessons from COVID-19 that will help us build a sustainable future

As one global crisis begins to end, we still face another: What can we learn from our response to the pandemic to improve the fight against climate change?

5 lessons from COVID-19 that will help us build a sustainable future
[Source Images: Tabitazn/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, slav/iStock]

COVID-19 has forced us to change our ingrained behavior, for the well-being of ourselves and the wider community. But where the pandemic has affected immediate action to deal with clear and present danger, climate change has not. Despite having long predated COVID-19, and triggered more than 100 world disasters since the beginning of the pandemic alone, the climate crisis still receives inadequate action.

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While a vaccine has been discovered for COVID-19, there is no vaccine for climate change. The pandemic has taught us that moralizing is not enough to provoke real shifts in human behavior. The problem is further compounded when those at the helm of power and influence may deny the problem even exists, deriding it as a radical leftist agenda fronted by lunatics against prosperity and progression.

And there have been many barriers to progression. Like responses to COVID-19, immediate climate action will not come from pontificating and lecturing. It doesn’t work. And even when the messages of fighting climate change might resonate with the many, often it is the messenger that is rejected. You only need to look at the kind of loathing Greta Thunberg seems to evoke within a certain section of society to see how efforts can be counterproductive.

So how might such barriers be circumnavigated?

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Taking lessons from COVID-19 as designers and innovators, unpicking what drives behavior change is part of the job. Can design “change” people, or do people “change” design? It’s a chicken-and-egg debate. Yet, in the quiet of lockdown, five things have crystallized our thinking toward a considered and effective climate response.

We must design to appeal to our selfish nature—our individual need for self-preservation. We must pull at the heartstrings to humanize complex, abstract sustainability concepts. We must amplify the message without lecturing and get people to buy into the “bigger picture” of the future. And we must create new, positive behavioral rituals that reinforce impactful change for the better.

[Source Images: Tabitazn/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, slav/iStock]

Simplify the complex

In a populist, post-truth world where scientific opinion, on both COVID-19 and climate change, has often been discredited, we must appeal to the complacent side of our brain in order to engage. Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman theorized that the human brain possesses two different processing systems: the first, experiential—emotive and instinctual—geared toward survival; the second, analytic—requiring slower, more cognitive effort to make a rational-based judgment. It is the former that often leads us astray, resulting in worldly views rooted in impassioned feeling rather than reasoned thinking. Scientific jargon compounds the problem, making complex concepts inaccessible to the man on the street.

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Environmental campaigns and the sustainability movement are steeped in scientific terms, leading to misunderstanding and confusion. And while COVID-19 could have easily been tied up in scientific language, media outlets, government initiatives, and brand communications have all strived to simplify key messages to ensure that these are universally seen and understood.

For example, the U.K. government’s “Hands, Face, Space” messaging used the rule of three and rhyme to simplify three interventions people needed to employ in order to limit viral transmission. The same mechanics must also be employed for climate change initiatives in order to appeal to our lazy system-1 processes and convert this into positive action.

[Source Images: Tabitazn/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, slav/iStock]

Make the invisible visible

COVID-19, like a greenhouse gas, is invisible to the naked eye. But owing to saturated media coverage and emotive communications, the hidden threat feels omnipresent. This hand-hygiene campaign by the U.K. government used an ultraviolet effect to remind people to fear what they cannot see.

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There is comparatively less fear of the invisible pollutants catalyzing environmental changes. We need to make the causes of climate change tangible in order for the threat to be taken seriously.

[Source Images: Tabitazn/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, slav/iStock]

An urgent call to action

Due to the sudden and severe emergence of COVID-19, the pandemic has been viewed as an acute global condition demanding immediate intervention. World leaders took decisive and radical action overnight. In contrast, the chronic condition of climate change fails to elicit the same instinctive “drop everything and focus on this” response.

The human brain isn’t designed to react to threats that are seemingly in the distant future. In order to create a sense of immediacy and urgency, we can take learnings from communication tactics employed in the pandemic that have worked,

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For almost a year now, national broadcasts and dedicated websites have kept a running tally of COVID-19 infections, hospital admissions, and deaths. These morbid scoreboards have become a global obsession and have filtered through into our daily thoughts, actions, and conversations.

To help advance the sustainability agenda we need to take a similar approach to information design. By visualizing a set of critical numbers, we can communicate the planet’s deteriorating vital signs and spur immediate collective action. Together, we can observe the numbers trending up or down in response to choices by government, industry, and individuals. These numbers provide essential motivation by closing the feedback loop. Through COVID-19 we have been encouraged to comply with government restrictions because every lockdown has resulted in a reversal of rates of infection and hospitalization. Similarly, with sustainability we need to use the numbers to inspire action and applaud progress.

[Source Images: Tabitazn/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, slav/iStock]

Paint a picture of the promised land

The current environmental reality is apocalyptic; the scene evokes frustration and anger. These powerfully negative images can be overwhelming. How many times have you avoided watching the news because it’s so depressing? It’s a well-known defense mechanism in psychology to avoid what is too emotionally difficult to process, particularly if the barrage of ongoing negative messaging is sustained and relentless. Yes, we must evoke emotion, but hope and optimism are more motivating than fear and guilt.

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While Greta Thunberg’s assertion that our house is on fire is wholly true, we need to use a positive agenda to drive engagement and action at the individual level. Sustainable living can no longer be positioned as a worthy, righteous “sacrifice.” It has to be presented as an aspirational leap forward. As a more pleasurable, gratifying, and sophisticated way of life.

Consider motivations around the COVID-19 vaccine. As rollout begins, people eagerly await the opportunity to protect themselves and their community, but there is also a strong appeal to our pleasure-seeking nature with the suggestion of an “immunity passport” that could grant freedom of leisure travel. We need to find similar ways to delight people with sustainable life choices that deliver both rational and emotional benefits. You have to inspire people to make meaningful personal changes that affect the bigger picture.

Second, we need to appeal to the capitalist mindset of industry leaders and governments to promote a vision that, as Hawaiian senator Brian Schatz tweeted in 2020, positions a sustainable future that results in “more wealth, more fairness, and better jobs.” Moralizing angers and divides. But we can leverage a universal desire for prosperity to affect an outcome that benefits all.

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[Source Images: Tabitazn/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, slav/iStock]

Future-proofing the world

It is said that great personal growth does not come from dwelling in a position of comfort but by learning from adversity. COVID-19 has presented to all one of the biggest existential crises of our lifetime, and yet it also presents one of the richest learning opportunities in modern history—to improve the world and our social conditions and to safeguard its future. We have seen innovation borne out of our present difficulty; businesses have had to pivot in order to survive. We now have a valuable chance to redesign with both health and environment in mind so long as we remain attuned to the ingrained strengths and faults that make us human, and use this for the better.


Tashi van der Waerden is director of innovation at brand and innovation design agency Echo.

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