“System change not climate change” is the motto in some places on Fridays at climate demonstrations in Germany. And I’ve heard that phrase too many times. Because the words “system change” and “transformation” usually go hand in hand. I recently caught myself talking about the necessary system change with great conviction – only to ask myself: What does that actually mean in concrete terms? What does such a process look like?
Transformation means a fundamental change, the change from the current state to a desired goal. In this case: a climate-friendly world. One thing is clear: if we continue with our current behavior, we will not be able to get climate change under control. Luckily, according to the psychiatrist and economist Stefan Brunnhuber, people have one very essential quality: the ability to tell stories and thus influence and change the behavior of millions of people.
a better world
So for our purpose, this is the story of a world where sustainable and plant-based foods are cheaper than those that use more CO₂ to produce. In which cities are built in such a way that we can reach everything we need for our daily needs in 15 minutes. A world in which there are enough alternatives to cars in the countryside. A world where renewable energy is the norm and waste in the energy sector is not rewarded by politics. A world where health and the right to education has a bigger lobby than the car industry and coal-fired power plants. So far, so theoretical.
But the vision of a better world alone is apparently not enough to get people to change their behavior. And practical necessity, i.e. the knowledge of the need for change, is not decisive either. Instead, as Silja Gruber, a professor at the Cusanus University in Koblenz, discovered in a comprehensive study, people act in crisis situations particularly because they want to take on responsibility. This is pleasingly concrete, because we can all take responsibility. How exactly?
Less is sometimes more
For example, by distributing opportunities and goods fairly, even if that inevitably means that part of society has to give up privileges. After all, the lifestyle of the richest 10 percent of the population is responsible for almost 50 percent of individual CO₂ emissions. Taking responsibility can mean critically reflecting on one’s own consumer behavior.
Without a doubt, there will be people who, for very individual reasons – be it excessive demands or power – cannot or do not want to take responsibility for the necessary changes. So there will also have to be new rules, some of which will force us to reduce our excess in the right places. Transformation is therefore both active transforming and passive being-transformed.
What certainly helps is the idea that taking away, loss, and change is not a bad thing per se: a child cannot play creatively if they have too many toys; Adults regularly declutter their drawers and clear their minds through minimalist living spaces; Apps help us limit our social media consumption: sometimes less is more. We can transfer this thought to the necessary transformation and the associated renunciation.
Insa Thiele-Eich is a meteorologist and researches the connections between climate change and health at the University of Bonn. She has been training as a scientific astronaut for a two-week mission on the International Space Station as part of the “Die Astronautin” initiative since 2017 – and would thus be the first German woman in space. Here she writes every two weeks about space travel, climate change and the fascinating world of science.