Carrots Won’t Change the World

Photo via swong95765 on flickr

Naomi Klein spoke today at the Toronto Reference Library about her new book, “This Changes Everything.” It’s about climate change, and environmental change, and the terrible place we’ve got our world in right now (and how we should probably start getting ourselves out of it).

I haven’t had the opportunity to read the book yet, but the talk got me thinking not only about the environment, but about the role of Government in our lives and about how we, as a people, change.

This is my conclusion: humans don’t respond to carrots, humans respond to sticks.

At our core, we’re self-interested, and lazy people. Even the best of us. Because there is a survival benefit to forming groups and keeping the group strong, we’ve developed moral codes that train some of that selfishness out of us. But, in the end, taking care of society is still about self-preservation (or preserving the people we love) — either directly or indirectly. So Naomi Klein says that the carrot in this situation is “we don’t all die at the end,” which, frankly, seems like it should be a pretty good incentive to stop wrecking everything.

And yet, it doesn’t seem to be enough to make any bold changes in our lives or our world to stop the damage to the environment. Even as I write this, I’m eating take-out sushi from plastic containers. I ordered dinner right after her talk  because I can’t seem to figure out how to have a job, have a tiny bit of a social life, and still cook regular, healthy meals. So I made a bad decision for the environment to suit my immediate needs. I’d feel less bad about it if it were only occasional, or if I didn’t also have two take-out coffees today.

It’s not that I don’t think about the environment, because I do. I try to reduce chemicals, I don’t drive a car, I have silly reusable produce bags that add extra weight to my produce because I can’t stand single-use produce bags that serve no other purpose. And it’s not because I don’t fear the “we’re all going to die at the end.” I fear constantly. I fear that all the chemicals from cars and airplanes and cleaning products and make-up and food additives that go into my body daily are causing unknown destruction to my cells. I fear that my children, or my children’s children, will have their lives cut short by cancer or a freak storm or something I can’t even imagine right now because we really have no idea what we’re breaking yet. I care, and I’m afraid. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that I’m afraid of about 500 other big, massive, and kind of abstract things that are going wrong or could go wrong in the world — people are starving, women can’t control their own bodies, we regularly hurt and murder each other, it’s not safe to walk alone at night, we’re socializing each other wrong to put the burden of walking safely at night on the wrong people, we’re running out of water, the world is still awful and racist and sexist and ageist — that I just can’t mentally metabolize it all. I can’t always be thinking about all the things that are wrong in the world or could go wrong because I still have to figure out how to keep my job and pay my bills and maintain my marriage and keep my sanity that I’m frankly just all out of energy.


There are so many problems and there are so many things to fear that it’s completely overwhelming and I don’t know what to do about most of them. So I do almost nothing.

I’m clearly not the only one, and I don’t even think that I should feel all that bad about it. (A little bad, for sure). Because humans are hugely flawed and we’re not always very good at doing the right thing unless it hits us in the face.

I make decisions based on doing the best I can, trying to be better, but knowing that if I’m given a choice between something that is easier and solves and immediate need, and something that is a bit harder but solves a way bigger, more important need — except that need is a little hard to comprehend and anything bad that will come out of making the hard choice won’t happen for a very long time and I can’t really think about that right now anyway — I’m going to make the easy choice. Because I’m human. We’re wired this way.

But, if you re-frame the choices and instead of giving me a really easy-to-make bad choice and a hard-to-make good choice, you give me two entirely new choices that both lead to a better outcome, I do better. Sure, I’ll still choose the one that causes me the least trouble, but it will actually be less shitty for everyone. Because the thing about the carrot is that it only works to change behaviour in people who a) are really love carrots and were probably going to eat them anyway, or b) the carrot is so great that its benefits outweigh the benefits of the bad behaviour you’re hoping to change.

For example, when grocery stores offered 25 cent discounts for bringing your own bags, some people did it. But they were probably the people who were going to bring their own bags anyway and just liked the perk. But when the City of Toronto introduced a by-law that required all retailers to charge at least 5 cents for plastic shopping bags, behaviours changed. This very small negative consequence irritated people, and made them think about their choice to use bags. People I know who I would never have thought in a million years would carry a shopping bag, started carrying adorable, compact bags in their purses.

But when they overturned the ban? Plastic bags for everyone!

People don’t like being told what to do, and people don’t like being inconvenienced, and people don’t like change. So we do nothing. And we continue to do nothing. And then everything goes to shit.

Which brings me to my next point…

We need leaders who will actually lead, and we need leaders who know when the carrot is not enough and we need to start using the stick.


I have mixed feelings about Government as it currently exists. Maybe because I have the worst luck of any human on the blanket in dealing with government agencies, but government as a whole doesn’t seem to be working all that well. We have a public sector, which I happen to think is an important thing, that is massive and therefore not nimble and responsive, that is trying to solve All the Problems. And our public service exists within a political climate that devalues its work and is hugely divided on a social direction, all the while competing with a private market that can do things more cheaply. There are valid things to criticize about government and the public sector, but I also really believe that if we don’t have anyone working with the sole purpose of serving the public good (rather than also trying to make a profit, scale growth, impress all the ladies) then we’re going to be in trouble. Because, humans are lazy and humans are always looking to serve the immediate need and humans want to take the easy way out.

People don’t like governments acting like parents, but we all just keep acting like children. Clearly we need someone to say “You broke the world with your garbage and plastic and fossil fuels and over-consumption and factory farming. Now you have to be inconvenienced for the next 20 years while we pick up the pieces.”

So as flawed as government is, I truly believe we need it; but we need it to be better. We need politicians and leaders that make decisions based on the public good not on popularity. We need mayors and premiers and prime ministers who make tough decisions that will piss people off so that we can actually make some progress. (And then we have to stop trying to overturn every damn decision every four years because we’re whiney babies). Most importantly, we need leaders who will make the tough decisions that piss everybody off and somehow manage to convince us all it was a great idea anyway.

This is over-simplified, of course. Because in addition to making it harder to drive, we also need to make it easier to ride bikes. And in addition to making it harder to buy all our food in plastic containers, we need to make it easier for people to access healthy, fresh food and give them better transit so they can get to their affordable home that is not unreasonably far from work in time to cook their meals. And in addition to ending a constant flow of oil, we need to spend money on alternatives. We need to do a lot of things that require the expertise of all sorts of people who are smarter than me to plan and execute on big ideas. But most of all, we need leaders who will bring those people to together and make something happen.

We just finished a provincial election, and Toronto is headed into another mayoral election. I’m not particularly inspired by anyone. The best thing a politician could do to get my vote is tell me how much harder they are going to make my life and how much better the world will be because of my sacrifice.



Carrot photo courtesy of swong95765 on Flickr. 

Cat photo courtesy of Massimo Reganati on Flickr.

Leadership photo courtesy of Jessica Lucia on Flickr.


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