Don’t Give Up. Don’t Ever Give Up. (on trying to avert climate change)

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols runs during practice for Game 1 of baseball's World Series against the Texas Rangers Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

I spent the weekend in Portland, Oregon for the 2011 Net Impact Conference.  The conference brought together a couple thousand students, academics and professionals to discuss the latest developments in the fields of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and Sustainability.  I’ll write a post about the conference in the next couple of days, but first I want to share a few ideas which were sparked by the St. Louis Cardinals’ unexpected World Series victory.

To Live & Die with Your Team?

Growing up in St. Louis you have two choices: swear you allegiance to the Cardinals and peg your mood to their fortunes, or face the perils of ostracism.  Case in point, on the day after game 1 of the series my office was buzzing with excitement after the Cardinals first win.  The next day, after the Rangers came from behind to win in the ninth inning, a pall was cast over the same office.  Around 4pm  a co-worker noted the co-dependence the city has with the team and asked if I had heard anyone mention the Cardinals that day.  I had not.

Over the years I have attempted to divorce myself from what I think of as manufactured importance.  Whether or not a team wins or loses a game, we’re still going to wake up to a world of seven billion people and roughly a billion of them will have gone to bed hungry.

But every once in a while something magical happens, drawing me back to a game.  I still get excited when sport offers the opportunity to act as a metaphor for something bigger.  I’ll offer two examples here which I think are highly relevant to the challenge presented to us by climate change.

The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls 72-win season

Thinking back on the  Bulls’ record season, I remember how effortless they made it seem on most nights.  (Yes, I watched nearly every game.)  For me, their play was the embodiment of Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow. (Check out his TED Talk on the topic here: http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html)

In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter (Csikszentmihalyi,1990). The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored. (Source: Wikipedia)

Professor Csikszentmihalyi suggests flow (high challenge/high skill) is the inverse of apathy (low challenge/low skill), as shown in the following diagram.

Image via Wikipedia

I view this chart as a productive tool in helping us understand the public’s response to climate change.  It’s an incredible challenge which few of us have a high enough level of skill (This can be viewed as an understanding of the science, and an obvious path to directly impact the outcome in a way that feels significant.) to feel confident that we can have a positive impact.  It’s no wonder so many people feel paralyzed by fear of the subject, or outwardly deny the facts.  Fortunately, it’s not too late to make a difference.  What we need to do is move  the collective consciousness from the state of anxiety, towards one of flow.  To get there, we need a major change in tactics.  We have to stop trying to scare and berate people and start finding more productive ways to communicate.  The dangers are very really, but we need to share them in a context which suggests ways for people to engage in solutions.  If we drop the shrill tones, and start promoting opportunities, I think we’ll see the collective mindset start to shift.

The 2011 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals

This year’s Cardinals squad offers another great example.  The story already feels worn, but a recap seems worthy.  (Feel free to skip ahead if you know the particulars.)

  • As of August 25, the Cardinals needed to make up 11 games on the Atlanta Braves just to make it into the playoffs.  The Cardinals made a run from that point winning 23 of their next 32 games, while the Braves collapsed winning just 11 of their final 31.  On the last day of the season, a loss by the Cardinals, and a win by the Braves, would have sent the Cards home for the winter.  The Cards passed their first major test by winning their final game, but they had to wait to see if they would have to play a one game playoff.  The Braves carried a 1 run lead into the ninth inning, but the Phillies tied it up and then won the game in the 13th.
  • The Cards went down 2 games to 1 against the Phillies in the NLDS, necessitating wins in the final two games to advance to the next round.
  • The NLCS gave the Cardinals their only breathing room of the last 9 weeks by wrapping up the NLCS in 6 games.
  • The team’s title ambitions were on the ropes in Game 6 with the Cards down to their last strike.  David Freese delivered a game saving hit, before winning it with a home run in extra innings.  Manager Tony Larussa commented on the team’s run thusly, “And we are more talented than I think some people realize, especially as we got healthy. But you play with that urgency. It’s a little scary at times and it takes a lot out of you, but it’s really fun to compete that way.”

Eons from now, baseball historians will write about the incredible two months of 2011 when the Cards shrugged off seemingly insurmountable odds to bury Major League Baseball’s best en route to the sport’s biggest prize.

The Cardinals quickly silenced skeptics who suggested it was asking too much for them to stop the hungry Rangers in a winner-take-all Game 7 on Friday night after their draining, historic comeback the night before.

The inference was the Cards might have run out of miracles. They pushed aside five — count ’em — Texas leads in Game 6 before David Freese’s 11th-inning walk-off homer gave them a 10-9 victory, pushing the Series to a seventh game for the first time in nine years.  (Source: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20111028&content_id=25823766&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb)

How do I tie this back to climate change?  It’s simple really.  It’s getting late in the game and the odds are piling up against us, but that’s no reason to give up.  The Cardinals run shows how a change in direction can steamroll with determination and maybe a bit of luck.  It’s time to get serious with our decision-making.  As we tick past the 7 billion mark in population, we’ve got to stop acting like we’re living in a 1950’s world.  Take-make-waste linear thinking may have seemed okay when there were half the number of people around, but it certainly won’t work today.  Know one knows exactly when climate change might ratchet up to a catastrophic tipping point, but I think we need to start acting as if that moment is upon us and that our every decision matters.  I’m cautiously optimistic that we can turn things around, but it’ll take more of us playing as if we’re down to our last out.  Let’s be the change we want to see in the world and hopefully, we’ll get our atmospheric CO2 back down to 350 PPM within our lifetime.  Then we can all celebrate like David Freese did last week.

Still here?  Thanks for hanging in there.  I’ve got one more thing to share today.  The title for this post comes from a speech by the former NC State basketball coach, Jim Valvano, who guided his team to a highly improbable win in the 1983 NCAA Tournament.  Coach Valvano was battling cancer at the time of his speech and died soon afterwards.  Before he passed on, Coach Valvano created a foundation (http://www.jimmyv.org/) which is “Dedicated to saving lives by helping find a cure for cancer.”   If you haven’t seen this before, I assure you it’s worth the eleven minute investment.  If you have seen it before, you know it’s worth watching again.

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

– Jim Valvano (1946-1993)

 

Update:

I just ran across a Twitter post from Larry Oliver which suggests we’re still in the ballgame:

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