Early last month, Moncton city council declared a climate emergency, with a commitment to report back with an action plan by May 1, 2020. In doing so, Moncton joined over 20 other Canadian municipalities (including Halifax, Mahone Bay, Edmundston and Charlottetown) and over 450 municipalities worldwide in responding to a global campaign focused on mobilizing local governments to tackle climate change at ‘emergency speed’.
It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of declaration. Formally recognizing the need to act is one thing. Driving real change is another. Depending on the city’s communications approach, we may not know what will come of it until a year from now. Now a year may seem like a long time to wait when we’re talking about an emergency, but I’ve spent enough time in government to know that this timeline is probably quite ambitious – not because governments are hopelessly slow or lazy, but because governing with the public purse is far more complex than most of us appreciate.
The whole idea behind the global campaign is that it is easier to affect change at the local level. Local governments are often the first to feel the effects of, and respond to, climate change – notably when it comes to extreme weather events (floods, droughts, snow storms, ice storms…sound familiar?). They are also more nimble and flexible than provincial or national governments. But they are still governments.
Local doesn’t just mean local government. We, as citizens and local business owners, have a role to play in determining whether the city’s declaration is a symbolic act or a commitment to real change. The private sector can move much faster than government, and as New Brunswick’s own David Alston has both argued and demonstrated (through the creation of Brilliant Labs), it is so much easier for governments to take risks when they can build on a movement that is already rolling and that citizens have already bought into.
So what can we do? Where do we start? Very simply, by making better choices and telling better stories.
Most of us recognize that we need to change things about the way we live for the sake of the planet and future generations. In other words, we need to make better choices – where ‘better’ is defined through the lens of environmental impact. Depending on your situation and what matters to you most, this could mean buying local, reducing your consumption of single use plastics, investing in solar panels or electric vehicles, or choosing products that last longer even if they cost more.
You don’t have to be an activist or a radical environmentalist to care about the planet. Not sure where to start? Have a look at Quebec’s Pact for Transition or the New Brunswick version and commit to two specific things that you will do to reduce your footprint on the environment this year. Here’s one of mine – I commit to walking half way back across the parking lot when I’ve forgotten my reusable grocery bags…even if I do have three grumpy kids in tow. If you want it to take it one step further, sign the Pact and start living it.
It is easy to talk about making better choices. But the reality is that they can be expensive, confusing, inconvenient, or time-consuming. Sometimes the choices we’d like to make aren’t accessible, or we don’t know what our options are. But this shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can. One person’s daily efforts might not be enough to save the planet, but if we all do nothing because we don’t think that we, individually, can do enough, the outcome is pretty clear. And it’s not pretty.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of looking at what we’re giving up when making better choices, rather than what we’re gaining. I’m guilty of it, certainly. So how do we, as a local community, shift this mindset?
By changing our story.
Telling better stories.
As one of my favourite local marketing companies has taught me, stories are incredibly powerful. They are at the heart of why we do what we do. At a personal level, the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves have a powerful influence on the decisions that we make – where we shop, what we buy, how we spend our time, how we connect with the world around us. These stories reflect our priorities, but they also shape them. If I tell myself (as I too often do) that I am a busy, overworked mother of three who is doing her best to make it through each day without collapsing of exhaustion before my work is done, then I am going to make choices that prioritize convenience and minimize effort. But if I shift my story to one about a woman who cares about the environment and wants, above all, to live in a way that not only ensures a sustainable future for my children and grandchildren, but that also sets a positive example for them to make good choices of their own as they grow up, then the lens through which I make decisions changes considerably.
Rewriting our own personal stories is a powerful means to start shifting our habits for the good of the planet. But, when it comes to purchasing decisions, there’s another side to the story. Businesses also have a story to tell, and these stories – intentionally crafted or otherwise – are at the very heart of the business-consumer relationship. In the same way that we feel a connection to someone who’s telling a story about an experience that we can relate to, we are drawn to those businesses that share our values, that ‘get’ us (where ‘us’ is defined as the way we choose to see ourselves). And how do we know what a business’s values are? Through the stories that they tell us about what’s important to them and why they do what they do.
Don’t believe me? Think Notre Dame. There has been outrage in some circles over the amount of money raised almost overnight to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral, while we can’t even provide for the basic needs of so many of PEOPLE around the world. But just think of the stories, the amount of connection that people around the world have with this building, whether they have actually been there or not - from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, to tourist visits, weddings, funeral, masses, architecture, art history. It wasn’t just a building that burned down. It was the backdrop to our stories.
There are so many businesses in our community and beyond that offer knowledge, services and product offerings that have the potential to support the growing desire of citizens to make better choices. Think local farmers; furniture or shoe repair companies; interior design firms that work with their clients to minimize material waste and promote timeless design; homebuilders that proactively educate their customers about energy-efficient options; second hand clothing stores, and the list goes on. How are these businesses evolving their stories to connect with customers who are changing their own stories about reducing their impact on the planet? How are we, as business owners, using our stories to help our community think more broadly about what it means to make better choices for our local environment and the planet writ-large? To understand the options before them and make those options accessible? This presents a business opportunity, yes, but more than that, I would argue that it’s a moral obligation for those sustainably-minded companies – and there are many of us – that are in business not just to make profit, but also to make an impact. Tell your story. It doesn’t make you unprofessional. It makes you real.
A call to community action
I talked earlier about the power of grassroots movements to pave the path for governments to institutionalize positive change. Individual efforts by citizens and businesses are a start, but the government doesn’t have the capacity to respond to thousands of voices, even if they are all saying the same thing. A community is more than the sum of its parts. So how can we, as a community of citizens, businesses and organizations, take our individual stories and knit them together to start shifting our collective story toward one of empowerment and motivation to act in the face of climate change? There will always be dissident voices and competing needs. There will always be activists and those who prefer not to get involved. But is there an underlying narrative that we can collectively embrace around our commitment to respond to the climate emergency that is not on our doorstep anymore, but pushing into our home? How and where do we have the conversations to make this happen? What role can bloggers play, or organizations like Excellence NB and Huddle, industry associations or the Chambers of Commerce? What about schools and community organizations? I don’t have the answers. But together we can figure this out. We’ve got a year to do it. Who’s in?