Transition is hard.
On 9th March 1998, after an impressive, record-breaking run of six consecutive Number 1s, Spice Girl's 7th single, Stop was released, recording during filming of Spice World. A catchy song with a great hook in the chorus, the run looked set to extend to seven. However, Run DMC and Jason Nevins had other ideas. The media leapt upon it as sign that the group was peaking and then on 31st May 1998, Geri Halliwell announced her departure. The four remaining band members were adamant that they would carry on as a group. Ultimately they went their separate ways. Transition is hard(1)
Last Sunday we talked about how preparation for a triathlon is a series of steps which mirrors the transition to a more sustainable world.
From an energy perspective, Michael Liebreich talks about the 'Five Horsemen of the Transition' or the key challenges currently standing in the way of the transition. The good news is that he thinks these challenges are not insurmountable.
"With the right leadership, focus, innovation and resources, however, I’m sure the Five Horsemen can be turned into nothing more than the Five Speedbumps."
Michael Liebreich, Liebreich Associates
For sustainability professionals, understanding that sustainability transitions more broadly require a series of steps, and what those steps are for a particular area or industry, will be crucial in engaging investors and other providers of capital as well as those running businesses both strategically and operationally.
Where solutions to improve sustainability are behavioural, often wholesale changes are so overwhelming as to be rejected outright. Professor Alex Edmans, in a lecture for Gresham College talked about status quo stemming from inertia.
It's often too easy to say 'stop right now, thank you very much'. But we do need to transition.
Let's take a look at some of the barriers that transitional steps can face.
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As Voltaire wrote in La Bégueule, "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien" which roughly translates as "the perfect is the enemy of the good" - the 'nirvana fallacy'. This is where a solution is dismissed, particularly a stage in a transition because it has some drawbacks.
As content length is getting shorter it forces debates to be binary - something is either good or bad. That also tends to encourage the hunt for the 'silver bullet' solution or the one-size-fits-all. The truth is that some solutions are appropriate in some situations, but not in others. Hydrogen is a good example of that. I even wrote a H2aiku about it:
Hydrogen is good.
is good for all things.
Hydrogen is bad.
It's bad for all things.
Actually, it is not good or bad. We need it for certain chemical processes including manufacturing ammonia and in making steel, but it is not suitable for home heating.
Another problem is bias, or rather the lack of bias. The trend of mainstream journalism to avoid bias has, in some cases, unintentionally presented scientifically compelling conclusions as open debates.
For example, researchers from Towson University and the University of Wisconsin, studied more than 200 articles published between 2018 and 2020 in 29 different U.S. newspapers, comparing coverage of two issues: the need to reduce food waste and the need to shift to a more plant-based diet. Despite there being strong consensus amongst scientists on the latter issue, newspapers were covering it as an open debate.
The researchers compared this with media coverage of human-caused climate change ten years ago where a similar open debate approach was taken with "climate deniers quoted in the media often [having] financial ties to industries that were trying to avoid efforts to address climate change." More recently public perception has driven that 'openness' of the debate down.