What is our competing commitment?

24th February by John Hill

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What is our competing commitment?

I remember a time, not that long ago, when the topic of climate change was not part of the public narrative. If you looked hard enough you could find reference to it and it was being taught in schools, still it had not infused the public debate in the way it does today. Back then, I was becoming increasingly perturbed about it and finding myself having at times vexed and tense conversations about it with family and friends. As a nature lover and a bit of an idealist, it started to dominate my thinking and create all sorts of personal conflicts and challenges about my lifestyle.

However, in the past four years, mostly thanks to a Swedish schoolgirl called Greta and a British national treasure and knight of the realm called David, climate awareness has marched into the forefront of our not only our national narrative but our global consciousness. It is here to stay and it isn’t going anywhere. So much so, that it is hard to think of anything new to say that hasn’t already been said and it is being written about by people much more educated and qualified than me. The big narratives have been well established.

Almost irreversible climate change is happening.

Us humans are at least partly responsible.

We are destroying our non-human cohabitants of the planet at a horrifying rate.

We are the first generation to recognise the impact of climate change and the last generation who can do anything about it.

What is stopping us? The world’s scientists and governments have rallied to produce a vaccine for a new disease in less than a year, something that would normally take 10 years. It begs the question, why can’t we apply the same ingenuity and effort to our climate crisis?

Some readers may be aware of the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey and their ‘Immunity to Change’ model, the underlying concept being that each of us has within us an “emotional immune system” that exists to protect us but can often cause us to get stuck when it comes to change. This immune system is designed to keep us safe from fear, anxiety, and emotional discomfort. To give an example, I want to be physically fit, but my emotional immune system is telling me that the restful feeling I get when I plop into my sofa at the end of my busy days of higher value to my wellbeing than pulling on my trainers and experiencing the discomfort of stepping out my front door. I am more committed that that feeling than I am to being healthy!

In the Immunity to Change model, this is known as ‘the competing commitment’ - the thing I am more committed to than the thing I am trying to achieve.

Discomfort is crucial to bringing about intentional change, like we need to with climate action. The resounding question is, “When it comes to climate change, what is our competing commitment?” What is the thing that prevents us from going through the discomfort required of us to tackle it?

When I think about it, I believe it is our very legitimate human desire to simply have a nice life. Along with a very legitimate human ambition to succeed and our natural human tendency to impress each other. This is hardwired into us because it is part of our survival DNA. We impress to win a mate, our potential mates are impressed by our ability to provide and earn, it makes us desirable. Yet, in so doing and with billions of us doing it at the same time, the inevitable is happening. Our competing commitments, those safety-net beliefs and coping mechanisms that guide our thoughts and actions are preventing us from attaining what we really want. A life of ease and enjoyment, pleasure and pursuit of happiness is getting in the way of saving our planet home. At the same time, we have to bear in mind that many of the world’s population have anything but a nice life and seeking equality for those most in need also plays a big part in bringing about climate justice, as it is them it impacts on most immediately.

And yet, something is stirring.

We can all feel it. The world is waking up. This awakening is irreversible. Otto Scharmer, in his book Theory ‘U’ witnesses “a new form of presence and power that starts to grow spontaneously from and through small groups and networks of people”. It is something that wants to emerge, rather like a growing plant just before it breaks through the soil. I am starting to believe the human race is connecting with its emerging future, a future in which we reintegrate with the living ecosystem that we all belong to.

I invite us, as the coaching community, to look for the signs and to work with our coachees and clients as we evidence these issues becoming an important part of our coaching engagements. The non-human stakeholder is now firmly ‘in the room’.