I’ve had two conversations this week where someone expressed their view that the world is just falling apart and based on the news, everything - economy, the border, the war in Ukraine, climate, politics and culture wars -is an unmitigated disaster. While I do not want to minimize the challenges we are facing on any of these topics, it’s Memorial Day weekend. That has me thinking a lot about what the world must have felt like in World War II. Would remembering what we were facing then put the problems we are facing today in perspective?
Perspective from the Past
So I started searching and discovered an award-winning interactive show called The Fallen of World War II. It’s a narrated set of primarily infographics that demonstrate the scale of global military and civilian deaths during the War, compared to conflicts that came before and conflicts that have come since. It takes about 18 minutes, you learn a ton, and it feels like a very fitting activity for the weekend that honors the sacrifices made by so many. It absolutely puts where we are in perspective.
Since World War II, we have been living in a period known as “the long peace”. The chance of dying in any sort of conflict is the lowest it’s ever been in human history. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the first significant disruption of that long peace in seventy five years, but for now, the scale remains small relative to previous wars. Based on the numbers, life on earth at this exact moment is anything but an unmitigated disaster. As the narrator says in the final line, “So if watching the news doesn’t make us feel hopeful of where things are headed, watching the numbers might.”
Behavior Change to Systems Change
I attended a presentation this week that took a similar data-first approach, but this one was about climate and presented by my friend and agency leader extraordinaire, Solitaire Townsend from Futerra. She started the presentation showing what she and others who have been in the climate movement thought would happen in terms of climate action - a steady line up and to the right over time. Based on that expectation, there is a giant gap between where we thought we would be and where we are.
But then she showed a stunning array of exponential curves that we are experiencing right now - from electric vehicle ownership to renewable energy capacity. And when you overlay the impact of those curves, her point was that we are actually at the beginning of an exponential curve for action. Her perspective is that we are all in for the most exciting, impactful 8 to 10 years as we drive that climate action curve up and to the right at a breathtaking pace.
Her theory is that large-scale change starts with behavior change and personal actions. Those behavior changes lead to attitude changes which in turn drive local changes which in turn drive culture changes which drive political and systems change. The exponential curve really only comes once you get to culture, political and systems change, but to get there takes each of us doing our own part well in advance. In other words, all this work is finally beginning to pay off.
The Journey of WeSpire
Her theory also explains, in part, perhaps why it took so long for what we do at WeSpire to scale. We inspire behavior change, actions that happen at the beginning of the curve. But as an enterprise software company, we are generally enabling a system to change - a workplace - who unless they are a very early leader, isn’t “ready” until the end of the curve, i.e. now. I wish I’d known this theory twelve years ago!
What I take away from these experiences are two recommendations. First, turn off -- or at least turn down a lot -- “the news”. Most of it, a few outstanding organizations excepted, is designed to sensationalize and polarize. It rarely puts individual stories or perspectives into historical or numerical context. Second, when you are doing anything that requires large scale change, it is not a straight line. It takes a lot of effort, often with very little visible return, until you reach the “curve”. But your work is critical to getting there. So stay hopeful. That curve will come.