‘How to Change the World’ by John-Paul Flintoff

A dear friend of mine, M., recommended this book to me when I asked him for feedback on my project in the summer of 2017. A couple of years earlier, when I was looking for a completely new job, he had recommended another title ‘How to find fullfilling work’ from the same series called ‘The school of life’. Since that was such a success I couldn’t wait to read ‘How to change the world’. The read was definitely worth my while, but I finished it with mixed feelings, which I will briefly explain in the first section.

Besides that I realised I can read it in two ways: On the one hand, it offers a lot of practical help for the phase of my project where I feel I know what should be done to get more people doing more things that our planet and humanity need. On the other hand it also implicitly and explicitly gives some answers to my question, which are the topic of the second section.

Mixed feelings

In short, the book is set up quite well, contains tons of insights and wisdom from various sources and for me contained a bunch of eye-openers. Perhaps the biggest is: you’d better make it fun for the people you try to influence or your efforts are doomed.

The second biggest take-away of the book is that in the end, if you want to change the world, it means it is changing your own way of living. It is not the goal that you are trying to achieve that matters most but the activity of doing it yourself: be the change.

Fair is fair. I could have seen it coming . The book ends where it begins, with the question how to overcome defeatism. “How can I, one individual in a world of billions, hope to change anything?” (p. 7) The answer is easy: “we are all making a difference all the time.” More often then not, this is how big things change: many people participate in it a little bit. So, we just need to get going, or as Flintoff puts it “We need only believe that something is seriously wrong … and to resolve that we are not willing to put up with it any longer.” (p. 15). Others may follow if you try hard and work with some suggestions that the book offers. But at the end of the concluding chapter, the author argues that changing the world is a state of mind, something to work on continuously, rather than a job.

That gets me back to square one. I’ve tried that, and I have seen a few people follow my example, just as I have been following others’ but it seems not to be enough. Oh, … but hold on, perhaps I have been too passive about it. Just living the way I feel is best for humanity and  the planet is not drawing a lot of a attention to the view (really, I hope it is a view rather than a fact) that many others should do the same before it is too late.

Why is too little done too late?

Sticks don’t work as well as carrots

Flintoff (p. 91) argues that environmental groups often present their solutions to problems as duties and as things we need to give up. This may be counter productive, he points out. His alternative is a challenge: how to make duty coincide with personal interest. Perhaps this has indeed been lacking. Perhaps the strategies of environmental and human rights organizations have been stressing the necessity and downsides too much.

In my memory of reading the magazine of ‘Milieudefensie’, the Netherlands’ biggest environmental association, there was indeed a lot of doom-talk back in the ’90s and public actions against things that were wrong. There were of course more constructive ways offered, but mostly to the members/readers … who already were convinced. Perhaps my memory is wrong but it is something to investigate. Perhaps someone already has.

No appeal to the social dimension of joining in

In the same pages, Flintoff points out that we should never underestimate the value of people’s desire to be with people. He provides the example of the Green Belt movement in 1977 Kenya. The action was about planting trees to prevent desertification, but what the participating women remembered most was the confidence and stature that doing the work with other women gave them in a strong patriarchal society. (p. 92-93).

Okay, yes, maybe that has been lacking in the past as well. Too little attention for the fun and  benefits of joining a movement and making new friends. Again, something to investigate.

Distance is a bad motivator

‘The’ planet and ‘humanity’ are not just abstract, they are far away. Most of what is going wrong with both is not around the corner and feels like it does not concern us. And if they are not far away in space, then they are distant in time: future generations and the planet in another 50 years. Flintoff argues that although humans care about other humans, this only works on short distance – in space and time. (p. 92) This would mean that if we can shorten that distance, we will care more.

John-Paul Flintoff (2012) How to change the world. London: Macmillan