Climate Change is a mental problem
The map of the world is a lie. The version most people know was designed by sailors in the 17th century, so they could draw straight lines across the ocean. But to achieve this they had to stretch the size of continents. The Earth is a ball and drawing it as a flat map is impossible without distortion.
Maps are a simplified form of reality to serve a specific purpose. A map that is great for sailing is less useful for an accurate view of the world: Greenland looks as big as Africa, while in reality, Africa is 14 times larger.
In the same way, we also have mental maps; simplified forms of reality to help us navigate the world.
One of those mental maps is GDP. The world is messy and complicated, so to get a sense of how a country is doing we can calculate all the goods and services produced there. It’s a way of knowing where we are and making decisions about where to go next.
But often our mental maps become outdated just like a 17th-century sailing map. Rutger Bregman says GDP was a great idea when people were trying to rebuild the country after the war, but today it makes no sense: “If you were the GDP, your ideal citizen would be a compulsive gambler with cancer who’s going through a drawn-out divorce that he copes with by popping fistfuls of Prozac and going berserk on Black Friday.”
If our perspective of the world is a map, then the words we speak are the signs. So let’s look at some climate change language to identify our mental climate change map.
Climate change seems to be about nature
A lot of people tell you to ‘save the planet’ or avoid things that are ‘bad for the environment’.
When we talk about climate change that way, it sounds like we have to sacrifice good soldiers to save a far-away forest from destruction. It’s a noble goal, but it’s risky and expensive.
Our focus on dying polar bears and bleached coral reefs hides the much scarier reality: Climate change is about the risk of human extinction.
The Paris agreement defines an average world temperature increase of two degrees Celsius as the limit we must avoid. Two degrees warming means 150 million more people will die from pollution alone compared to a warming of 1,5 degrees. That is 25 times more than the Holocaust.
Two degrees is one of the most optimistic scenarios. The worst case of 6-8 degrees warming validates the word ‘extinction’: Being outside in the tropics would kill you in minutes, the world’s most important foods wouldn’t grow, tropical diseases would spread to the Arctic, and cities like New York and London would be swallowed by the (mostly dead) ocean.
This is not about a far-away forest, but about our forest. Forget the sad polar bears, this is about us.
Climate change seems to be about reduction
Besides talking about the planet, sustainability often uses the words ‘reduce’ and ‘avoid’. We have to reduce our CO2 emissions, avoid toxic materials, reduce meat consumption, etc.
It sounds like we live in a beautiful world but now have to limit the negative side effects. It’s like a road where we have to drive more Teslas (better technology) and lower the speed limit (reduce carbon dioxide emissions) because there is a cliff ahead (climate change).
I think that’s why sustainability often seems so unattractive because nobody wants to drive slower and better cars are expensive.
What we forget is that better cars and driving slower don’t matter if you’re on the wrong road. The real problem is that our mental maps are totally outdated (linear economy and consumerism). We don’t need better cars and slower drivers but maps that don’t point towards a cliff.
Climate change is about building a better system
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – R. Buckminster Fuller
MIT professor John Ehrenfeld says that most of our efforts are about “reducing unsustainability, which is not the same as creating sustainability.” He thinks sustainability is meaningless without defining the goal. That’s why he provides his own definition as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever.”
The keyword is ‘flourish’, which means growing healthy, prospering, and thriving in a favourable environment. What would ‘sustainability-as-flourishing’ look like?
The farms don’t look like endless yellow plains but more like forests, with happy animals grazing underneath delicious trees. You can ride your bike to work through the park that used to be a concrete lane full of angry drivers stuck in traffic. Your office building has no uncomfortable airconditioning but natural ventilation that creates a pleasant breeze during the hot summer months, while providing natural insulation during winter. Your company serves a healthy free lunch with vegetables fresh from the rooftop. During your 24-hour workweek, you have enough time and money to enjoy the good life in the park with friends and family.
These are not wild dreams but scientifically proven solutions to reverse climate change.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine we do all these things but then find out that climate change doesn’t exist. Are our green cities, farm forests, happy animals, and healthier diets all for nothing? No, we have created a better world in the process. That means they are win-wins. Not only do they produce less carbon dioxide, but they also create a flourishing world.
The transition to such a society will not be easy but it will be worth it. Maybe not every problem has a positive alternative, but most problems do. Even if we are slow to act and climate hell is upon us, those new systems will help us deal with it better than the old ones. To deal with the future there is no other option than a sustainable society, so we better get there as fast as possible.
The way we talk about climate change sounds like our life is perfect and we have to reduce the negative side effects. But our lives are far from perfect and adjustments in our current system are simply not enough. Instead, we have to reimagine what the good life looks like. This sounds like an impossible task, but so many win-wins are already available.
What is to gain is not only a more secure future for ourselves and our children but a more fulfilling way of life. Those are big promises, but big promises are necessary for the biggest problem humanity has ever faced.
 Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There – Rutger Bregman
 Quantified, localized health benefits of accelerated carbon dioxide emissions reductions – Drew Shindell, Greg Faluvegi, Karl Seltzer & Cary Shindell
 The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells
 Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability – John Ehrenfeld, Andrew J. Hoffman
 Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming – Paul Hawken d.