The only constant is change

May 13th, 2019

Sunday morning for me means going to the gym. I say “going”, where I really mean “getting up far too late, eating breakfast, rushing to the gym class which has already started, and where I feel nauseous due to eating too much breakfast in the first place”.

OK, enough about my gym woes. The point that I wanted to make is regarding what I saw in walking out of the gym. The city centre had an impromptu Extinction Rebellion protest. A huge banner was being unravelled and there were many makeshift protest signs held up.

I don’t live in London, so this relatively small protest won’t make the news in the same way that taking over Waterloo Bridge did. However, XR seems to have galvanised and motivated people across the UK in a way perhaps not seen since the Iraq War marches of 2003, and maybe before then, the Poll Tax marches of 1989/90.

What are the patterns here? There seem to be two. The first is that there seems to be a tipping point as to when organised civilian mass action occurs, every decade or so. The second is that in each of these three cases, there is a bottom-up approach. Uniquely, perhaps, XR has crystallised itself around one person, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

However, there is one difference in XR to many of the actions that precede it. In the Poll Tax and Iraq War actions, as well as many others (1978 Winter of Discontent, 1984/5 Miners Strike, and so on), the action is specifically against the government. With XR, the action is against everything. There is only so much that the government can do in order to mitigate climate change and foster environmental stewardship, but it must also be a problem dealt with by organisations, think tanks, businesses, brands, and ultimately, ourselves. Making a conscious choice to take a reusable cup to the coffee shop, rather than opt for a disposable plastic one, is a personal decision that, at least at the moment, government has no direct control over (rather than behavioural “nudges”, as is the case with charging for plastic carrier bags).

Critical to this is the way in which brands and businesses respond to the challenge. Whilst some FMCG companies have launched biodegradable cleaning products in recycled bottles, they represent old thinking in a new context. The products should be also be available in large refill bags (to prevent more bottles being made) with home delivery (to cut down on transportation costs). Whether we like social media or not, we now have the power to put brands to the test in terms of their intent. KFC’s current “Try one before you turn vegan” campaign, from Mother London, is a thoughtful, though humorous, response to how political, social, and consumer attitudes are changing. Perhaps more fundamentally, Philip Morris International has publicly vowed to end cigarette production in favour of e-cigarettes. This is the sort of organisational change which will be needed more and more in coming years, as macro (climate) and micro (consumer preference) challenges rapidly and fundamentally alter markets. Companies have to work out how to move faster.

The maxim “Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis”, or “times are changing, and we with them”, dates back to the Protestant reformation started in 16th-century Germany. The reformation itself was a fundamental response to traditional thinking from large organisations (in this case, the Catholic Church). In mass-printing the Bible into German for the first time, Martin Luther used technology to address this existing and rather dormant way of thinking and way of life.

We know that the use of new technology and new thinking to change society is as old as time itself. But, right now, changing society starts with and in ourselves. There are so many questions that we need to explore. There are so many questions which need answers. Those answers need to be worked on. We need to start working on them… right now.