Let’s take The Jump, before the planet goes over the edge

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Are we as individuals responsible for the Earth? It’s a lot of responsibility looking after a planet. I can just about handle a few houseplants – you’re telling me I’m responsible for 6.6 sextillion tonnes of rock hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour? I only have my provisional.

Yet our politicians, our businesses, and our media are all failing us, so it’s a responsibility we must accept. Nobody else is owning up to it. I, for one, don’t want to treat climate change like a phone call from an unknown number, even though I’d love to just ignore it and hope it goes away.

The numbers aren’t unknown, they are very clear: 1°C of warming since the late nineteenth century already, a 30% increase in the acidity of Ocean surface waters, 416 ppm CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (a 50% increase since the Industrial Revolution).

This is how the planet communicates with us, desperately pleading for help.

There’s a common refrain that we, as individuals, are not responsible for climate change. Instead, the likes of ‘big oil’ or ‘corporations’ are blamed. These arguments are persuasive in the face of the disillusionment many of us — particularly the younger generation, who are strongly united against climate change — feel about how the world is run.

It’s a valid argument that highlights the power imbalances inherent in our societies, shifts blame to those who most deserve it, and is an important rebuttal to those who would rather blame things like overpopulation for the climate crisis.

But it also makes us more comfortable waiting for someone else to solve the problem while we continue to live as usual. Sat watching the planet die, increasingly desensitised to the horrific consequences the climate crisis is bringing, until the consequences come for us, and it’s too late.

Faced with the horrors of flooding, drought, extreme heat and so much else … we begin to think less of humanity

Implicit in the ‘blame big oil’ argument is the idea of fairness; normal people shouldn’t have to change our way of life while the super-rich continue to fund their lavish lifestyles by exploiting a system which is making the Earth uninhabitable, so we won’t.

It’s a seductive argument. We all want the world to be fair. But believing that it actually is fair can have awful consequences. The ‘just-world hypothesis’ is a psychological bias that explains how when faced with evidence of injustice and no way to fix it we will instead contort our view of whatever horrific thing we are seeing so that we no longer see it as quite so horrific. This can lead to perversities, like Holocaust memorials increasing antisemitism and rapes being blamed on their victims.

In the classic experiment demonstrating the just-world bias, participants watching live images of a woman being electrocuted thought less of the woman when they no longer had the option of halting her punishment. I worry that something similar is happening with the climate crisis.

Faced with the horrors of flooding, drought, extreme heat and so much else, without any option of stopping it, we begin to think less of humanity. How often have you seen people say that humans are a plague on the planet? A cancer? That the world will be better off when we are extinct?

But we are part of nature. Our decline would doom billions of intelligent, compassionate, empathetic humans, and doom the rest of the natural world too with the sixth mass extinction that we have already put into motion.

We have the duty and the privilege of keeping perhaps the only planet with complex life in the Universe alive. While governments and the private sector continue to move too slowly (according to the latest IPCC report global emissions must peak by 2025) it, sadly, becomes up to us to precipitate change.

The good is that we can make a change

The good is that we can make a change. An added silver lining is that while this may mean less material possessions, it could mean more fulfilling lives.

What do we need to do? According to The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5° World, a collaborative project by the University of Leeds, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and engineering consultancy firm Arup, there needs to be a two thirds reduction in the impact of consumption in wealthy parts of the world.

The Jump is a grassroots movement that has developed six lifestyle shifts that would achieve this. They include holidaying locally, eating a plant-based and making at least one shift to ‘nudge the system’, like moving to a greener bank. While the steps may seem restrictive to some, they would constitute an increase in consumption for most of the world, including those from industrialised countries left behind by economic development.

For an example, let’s look at air travel. Research suggests that less than 1% of people emit 50% of CO2 from commercial aviation. In 2017, the then Boeing CEO David Muilenburg claimed that less than 20% of the world’s population had ever taken a flight. Hence, for the vast majority of the world The JUMP’s shift to air travel once every three years would be a shift to more flying.

The Jump asks people to ‘take The JUMP’ by signing-up to try the six shifts for 1, 3, or 6 months, stressing that just trying your best is enough, and there are many tips on their website for how to best approach The Jump. Vitally, cutting-back doesn’t have to mean living worse; the organisation emphasises that the shifts are positive changes that can improve wellbeing.

The science as to whether climate movements should focus on gain-framing (focusing on the positive outcomes of behavioural change) or loss-framing (focusing instead on the costs of inaction) is “muddled”, according to Jack Hughes, PhD student in Behavioural Science at Durham University.

Nevertheless, there are positives to The Jump’s positive approach. “The avoidance of discussing the climate crisis specifically is, I think, a good move,” says Hughes, explaining that the climate crisis has become a “deeply polarising issue” with many people turned-off from pro-environmental behavioural change by the “perceived financial, temporal, or social costs.”

However, some pledges, like stopping using private vehicles, are difficult for many without governments investing enough in things like better cycling infrastructure and cheaper public transport (just look at train and bus prices compared to the price of driving). In The Jump’s view that’s why it’s enough to just try the pledges, doing what you can in your own situation will encourage others to do the same, eventually leading to system change.

Maybe people just don’t have the time to change their lifestyles without government help

While The Jump recognises the importance of government action, they also point to research they commissioned which shows that “people and communities can directly deliver 25-27% of the changes needed by 2030 to avoid ecological breakdown”. We are not powerless.

Hughes isn’t convinced. “One criticism I will say is that there is no call for pressuring governments or businesses to also change their behaviour,” explaining that, “The problem with individual behavioural change is that when people take on one sustainable behaviour they can use that to legitimise other unsustainable action.”

The example Hughes gives is of carbon offsetting of flights making people perceive flying as more environmentally friendly, leading them to take more flights “despite the most environmentally behaviour being to simply fly less”.

“The worry with this initiative is that if you don’t also promote the need for pushing for wider systemic change you may cause people to, if the initiative is effective, believe they are doing enough despite not being involved in one of the most crucial actions individuals can take.”

You could argue though that The Jump is filling a niche, with many other environmental movements (Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, and many more) already focusing on pressuring governments. These movements also tend to focus on the threat of climate change rather than the benefits that pro-climate behavioural change can bring.

As Hughes puts it, “Whilst these work for some they are also off putting for others because they ask people to face up to the impending danger. Focusing on positivity and individual power does have a place. Ideally we need both initiatives in the world.”

Indeed, the main problem with movements advocating for behavioural change might be more prosaic than the idea that they should be encouraging people to glue themselves to banks or shut down oil refineries. Maybe people just don’t have the time to change their lifestyles without government help.

While the information and resources The Jump supplies may be helpful (Hughes cites the statistic that while 83% of people in the UK are worried about the climate crisis, just 22% realise changing their eating habits could be an effective way of combatting climate change), most people are just too busy. “The reason for a lot of failed behavioural change initiatives is that people just don’t have the time or cognitive capacity to engage with forming new habits.”

Clearly, having the time and energy to commit to large changes to your lifestyle independently, with little support from the government, is a privilege. If we can, we should continue to pressure governments, big oil, corporations until these changes become easy and available to everyone. Making the world a little bit fairer.

Thankfully, a wealth of research shows your individual actions can have a profound effect

But if you are privileged, you have to act. To misquote an ancient adage (yes, it’s not originally from Spiderman) with great privilege comes great responsibility. This means making big lifestyle changes, that may also improve your life. Thankfully, a wealth of research shows your individual actions can have a profound effect.

In particular, life transitions, like moving house, can be important ‘windows of opportunity’ to start more sustainable behaviours. While your life is turned upside down and replaced by boxes, deposits, and tears, your usual habits are disrupted, making it easier to adopt new ones. You are (maybe literally) opening a new door.

In life, these transitions tend to come disturbingly regularly – especially for students and young people – but at least they can be seen as a positive opportunity. That plant-based you’ve been considering might even help you afford the rent.

Hughes agrees that this ‘Fresh Start Effect’ could make The Jump an “extremely effective initiative” for students first arriving at university, with the new context the transition to university provides allowing “new behaviours to become associated with the new environment”.

Many thought the Covid-19 pandemic would provide such a fresh start to the fight against climate change, a chance to reset our economies and refocus on climate goals. Instead, emissions returned to normal more quickly than our lives have done, even as our time for climate action continues to evaporate.

Initiatives like The Jump might not be perfect, but the world clearly needs all the help it can get. As those in power continue to run down the clock, as the mercury continues to rise with the sea, we must remember that – at the risk of sounding like an inspirational wall décor quote – our actions are powerful. Living more sustainably might even help us to ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ a little longer.

Illustration: Rosie Bromiley

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