The challenge of change
Bestselling author Simon Sinek shares his thoughts on how we as humans can address the environmental challenges we now face
1 Feb 2023

Simon Sinek’s voice reaches millions of people across the world. Not only is he a bestselling author of 5 books but his TED talk is also one of the most watched talks of all time on TED.com with 60 million views.

Let’s refer to your bestseller book “Start with Why”. Shouldn’t taking care of the environment come first before anything else, the main “why”?

Philosophically, of course, but the problem is that’s not how human beings work. We’re neither very good with abstract concepts, nor things in the distant future. It’s why people are generally pretty bad at saving money as well. We’re very tangible-driven animals. At the end of the day our short-term stresses will easily drive our behaviour more than any long-term idea. I think that in the climate narrative there were some bad words chosen like ‘global warming’ and people said, “global warming? This is the coldest winter we’ve ever had”, thereby confusing the public’s understanding of the difference between climate and weather. There is also the debate about whether it’s man-made or not man-made. This issue became such a distraction from doing the hard work that needed to be done. That’s like debating whether you got cancer from smoking or genetics; it doesn’t matter, you have cancer, and maybe you should treat the cancer instead of fighting about where the cancer came from. We have a problem with our climate, and it doesn’t matter if it’s just a general cycle or whether it’s man-made; the point is that we have to act otherwise something catastrophic will happen. Maybe we should have called it ‘climate cancer’ from the very beginning.

How can we all come together to fix part of these climate-related issues?

First of all, it has to be translated into terms that people understand, and even if it’s not comprehensive, talking about small things and how they affect our lives is valuable. So almost everyone across the planet, whether they believe in it or not, or whether they’re contributing or not is noticing more drastic weather. You don’t have to understand where it comes from but if you’ve noticed that things are worse than they have been, in terms of our weather, things will continue to go this way unless we intervene. I also think we need to do a better job listening. The people who are chopping down the forests, the people who are working in the mines, they’re trying to provide for their families, and when we come along and say, “No, no, no, we have to stop all this”, all they hear is, “And you won’t have a job.” And they’re not bad people but they are concerned about their families and food and I think one of the things we have to do is sit down and listen, as opposed to coming in and talking.

How can we create a system where we can start acting?

I do actually think that we have to make short-term metrics. The metric that we all understand is money. I’m a great believer that, on every light switch, every single plug, every socket in every house and office there should be a little digital readout that tells you how much money you’re spending while the light switch is on or when something’s plugged in. On every single faucet, on every single tap there should be a little metre that says how much money you’re spending when the tap is on. And when people turn the tap on and leave it on while they’re brushing their teeth and they’re watching that little metre, and can see the little pennies being spent whilst it’s running, everybody would be turning off their lights, everybody would be turning off their faucets. The question is, where can we put money metres on show? For example, in Times Square they have the national debt metre that’s counting up all the time. If we can show these figures more transparently, I think that people will understand the problem better and we will start to see a lot of changes in behaviour. Imagine what happens when we put a metre on a washing machine that shows how much money you’re spending each time you run it. All of a sudden half loads are gone, it would be little things like that, you start looking for more efficient ways to get clothes clean.

I also believe that one of the symptoms of wealth is waste, whether I have too many pairs of sneakers or something didn’t work out, so I just throw it out and I buy another one. I love this concept of throwing it away. There is no way we’re just moving things. It’s like blowing your leaves off your lawn onto your neighbor’s lawn, they don’t go away and neither does the waste. I went to Dharavi, the slum in Mumbai, which is 1 square mile and has between 750,000 and a million people, compared to Manhattan, which is 26 square miles with 1.5 million residents. It’s a big difference. And they are the best recyclers in the world because they have to be, because nothing can go to waste, they have to reuse everything. In the West we flush potable water, that’s how much excess we have.

When you make things tangible it becomes easier to understand. We’ve done it before. In the 80s we got rid of aerosols because we could look at one thing, the hole in the ozone, and it was scary and we could explain in very simple terms that this is the thing that protects us and should be closed. Public pressure was critical because policy reflects the public’s opinion; it was public pressure that helped to close the hole in the ozone because it was dangerous. In our modern day the messages are all so diffused and disparate that we don’t have a single thing we can rally around to fix. And at the end of the day, there are so many things, but this is like eating an elephant…we should start with one thing at a time. 

* Alexis Issaharoff is Chief Renewable Energy Officer at Jubaili Bros.
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