Change and live

Humanity has a choice: do we want to change and live – or not?

Peoples’ attitude to change is paradoxical. On the one hand, we live in a socio-economic system where change is ubiquitous, fast and enormously hard to cope with and yet people seem more than willing to keep up, even though they are severely disadvantaged by the change. These sorts of changes are outlined in our ‘The Winds of Change’ post – they include technological, societal and economic changes.

To be fair, the produce-and-consume lifestyle is a rat race that no sane person would choose for themselves. People do it because it is inherent in our socio-economic system and is expected for the simple reason that everyone does it; conformism is compelled by the natural human need to fit in and be socially accepted. But the produce-and-consume system pits people against each other in a race to the cliff.

On the other hand it seems that people don’t want to change in order to have sustainable well-being – even though they will benefit tremendously by doing so. Econation’s message – that most people must change in order to get sustainable well-being – is therefore unpopular, and that puts Econation at a severe disadvantage. Whilst we want to encourage people to change for the better, the problem is as Woodrow Wilson said: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

The good news is that we believe that through change, both people and our shared planet will be considerably better off.

The question we need to answer and understand is: why don’t people want to change? By answering this question we might see where we are going wrong and do something about it.

Change or die

There is a serious problem with trying to get people to change – and it is a rather unfortunate quirk of human nature – sometimes people would rather die than change.

‘Change or Die’ is the title of an article in Fast Company Magazine1 (December 19, 2007) by Alan Deutschman. In the article Deutschman reports on a speech about cardiovascular patients by Dr. Edward Miller, who at the time was the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University.

Every year in the USA about 600,000 people undergo bypass surgery for serious heart disease, and a further 1.3 million patients have angioplasties. These procedures temporarily relieve chest pains but rarely prevent heart attacks altogether or prolong lives very much. However, many patients, by switching to healthier lifestyles, could avoid the return of pain and the need to repeat the surgery, not to mention arrest the course of their disease before it kills them. Yet very few do – only about one person in ten.

“If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle,” Dr. Miller said. “And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t. The small minority who changed their ways live significantly longer on average than the majority who don’t change.”

Is this going to be the story of the planet? Are we going to change to help the well-being of people and planet – or are we not going to change, and thereby ruin everything.

Unwillingness to change

Everyone has to change. However, there are four types of attitudes which get in the way of meaningful change, namely, habits, denial, apathy and passiveness.

Habit and belief perseverance

People smoke because it feels good. Fairly quickly it becomes an addiction they can’t give up. I don’t think consumption is much different. It is an addiction. Habits are very hard to break for individuals and very slow to break when they are cultural habits.

When you say to another smoker, I am going to try and give up smoking, they will not support you (I know this because I gave up smoking for good 30 years ago). By giving up smoking you are undermining the other smoker’s choice to smoke (or rather, to not give up).

Similarly, if you say to your friends I think that consumerism is bad for people so I’m going to live simply you will get a lot of eye-rolling, if not out-and-out push-back (I have experienced this a lot, too!).

Belief perseverance

People want continuity, not change, even if continuity is bad for them and change is good for them. The so-called ‘backfire effect’ is what happens when you make a compelling and true argument for someone to change their thinking but instead of it convincing them to change it further entrenches their beliefs.

“The impulse to defend the predictability of life is a fundamental and universal principle of human psychology” – Peter Marris2


Denial is simply denying that problems exist. Denial presents in a variety of ways. One is to deny there are any problems at all and that everything is just fine. Another is to deny that some problems exist whilst others don’t; this cherry picking seems even more irrational than the first. Another is to deny that one does not contribute to any possible problems there might be and therefore one is completely innocent. 

Denial is irresponsible at best but it is also likely to be cowardly, weak and selfish. 

Conspiracy theories can be another form of denial. One denies the obvious truth and puts the blame elsewhere. The real conspiracy is the one that runs most people’s lives. It is the produce-and-consume system that says consumption is the same thing as well-being, and that more and more consumption leads to more and more well-being. This couldn’t be any more wrong.


Apathy is the attitude when one accepts there are problems but one doesn’t care. It is the disinterested attitude that the systemic problems of our modern economies don’t matter and things are what they are. Like denial, this is a selfish and irresponsible attitude with a touch of defeatism. In a psychological sense, apathy describes an absence of feeling or emotion; this indifference can leave you feeling detached from the world.


Passiveness is when you know there are problems, and you do care about them, and you want change, but you do very little or nothing yourself. This is the type of person who wants the world to change for the better, but doesn’t change themself. Passive people expect others to make the change for them. 

There are those who think that there is not much they can do, so they don’t do much. They believe that a single person or household cannot change the world. This type of passiveness is an error in thinking. There is a lot you can do yourself, and by doing it you can be an example to others.

How much evidence do you need to change?

Facts don’t seem to matter; people want their beliefs to persevere.

Even daily news of storms, floods, blizzards, coastal erosion, heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, record high temperatures, desertification and extinctions, along with the concomitant civil unrest and even war, doesn’t seem to make much difference to many people. We can see the effects, and we know the causes, but not very much is being done about it. There are people who deny all these facts, of course, but ignoring the facts and doing nothing is tantamount to denying as well.

The message we got at the Rio Summit in 1992 was very clear. Did anything change? Yes things changed – they got worse! Ecological awareness might have increased but the ecosystems of earth are getting more and more degraded every day. Awareness obviously does not translate into actual change. If the people who had heart attacks won’t change, what hope do we have of the average Joe changing their lifestyle for something that seems so distant. Even the risk of their life does not deter people from their unsustainable habitual ways. The habit of our capitalist civilisation is to consume. Surely the purpose of life is not to consume ourselves to death.

Changing for the wrong reasons

Many people are watching the slow-motion train wreck of our civilisation and doing nothing. The question is, how do you get people who are unwilling to change, to change? The social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, says that we have to appeal to the elephant, not the rider. The elephant is our emotions, the rider is our conscious, rational mind. It is the elephant that calls the shots.

This means people are emotionally suggestible, they will change because of persuasion techniques that are an appeal to their feelings. The change might seem voluntary, but it isn’t, and it is often not good. Herein lies the paradox already mentioned. If people are gullible and passive they will be changed by outside forces, such as emotional persuasion techniques by businesses, advertisers, politicians, ideologues, institutions – all without being conscious of it. (Read more here about bad advertising.)

Love of the the new

People love new things. In modern society novelty is a driver for acquisition and consumption. The English economist, Avner Offer, in his book The Challenge of Affluence3, argues that affluence drives novelty and that novelty is unsetting.

Offer says that well-being has lagged behind the increasing affluence of western societies and he states that “affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being…the paradox of affluence and its challenge is that the flow of new rewards can undermine the capacity to enjoy them.”

Again, the point is that we are compelled by bad change and not by change for the good.

Change for the good

Change can’t be revolutionary because it will fail. If people are forced to change they will push back. Change needs to be evolutionary because it needs to be voluntary. Also revolutions often create a ‘power vacuum’ that is often filled by something worse than was there before.

We can be so good, if only we changed. But we don’t. You won’t change if the need to is not on your radar. The writing is on the wall but no one is reading it.

I don’t know how to solve denial and apathy. I suspect that these attitudes are a way to cope in the face of an uncertain, perplexing and confronting world. For habituated and passive people, the solution involves not waiting for others to change things. We need to do it ourselves.

As Gandhi said we need to be the change we want to see in the world. This means to stop over-consumption and that means to live simpler, but richer lives. This is not really that hard. We just need to make the move. Change is so difficult because we are chained by the illusions created by our genes, culture and ego. They are all incredibly hard to break. We think that we are thinking and acting freely when this isn’t actually the case.

Change and live: the benefits of change

What are the benefits of change? Well, for one thing, if you change you may avoid death for longer – this certainly would have been the case all the cardio patients mentioned above. However, as the adventurer Alvah Simon once wrote, there is more than one way to lose your life. If we change by giving up the rat race, we gain our life back. This is not some romantic notion – it is reality for the many people who have done it and thrived.

Change needs to be rational, moral and universally good for people and the planet to be truly beneficial. Change for the sake of change is generally not beneficial and is often unnecessary and therefore wasteful. Yet change is the only constant in life and in the universe.

That is why we say: change and live.


  1. ↩︎
  2. Marris, Peter (1986). Loss and Change. London: Routledge. p. 2. ↩︎
  3. Offer, A. (2011). The challenge of affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950. Oxford University Press. ↩︎