Dennis Wittrock

Dec 9, 2018

21 min read
Image credits: Conceptual illustration of a designer cell sensing a target cell (by Ryo Tachibana), combined with a photo of earth.

Immunity to Climate Change

How to Overcome Humanity’s Immune Reaction to Acting on Climate Goals and How to Craft a More Inspiring Story

That’s right. We do SHIT, compared to what we SHOULD be doing. Instead, this ultimate global car-crash is unfolding in slow motion right in front of our eyes. Why the hell is that?

When I first heard about Climate Change, I was still a kid. I must have been around 10 years old. I read about it in a German tabloid newspaper (BILD). They included a nice illustration condensing the basic scientific information. The energy of the sun is warming the planet, but the change in the atmosphere traps the energy like a greenhouse. I thought to myself, “oh my god, we’re being cooked alive!” That’s right, back then the language was slightly different. They talked more about “the greenhouse effect”, which is much more illustrative — and actually scarier than calling it “Climate Change”. While it may be technically true, that “the climate is changing” (and some regions may even get colder), by and large, we are slowly being cooked alive like the — by now — proverbial frogs in the slowly heating water. (Thanks, Al Gore, for using that imagery. It gives me nightmares.)

Immunity to Change

In particular, I recently read Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Lahey’s book “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization”. The info given on the book jacket reads as follows:

The immune system of your psyche

According to the authors, our psyche possesses a kind of immune system, not unlike the immune system of our body. In general, it is a good thing to have a vigilant immune system. It protects your body from harm by eliminating the stuff you don’t want to let get into it like viruses and bacteria. But from time to time immune system overreacts and attacks “the good guys” — think of leukemia or AIDS, or any form of autoimmune response that hurts more than it helps.

The Immunity to Change (ITC) Process

Kegan and Lahey (Harvard University) developed a step-by-step process that can help to overturn your own immunity to change. Here’s how it works. They use a 4 column worksheet (the “Immunity Map”) to guide participants through the process.

  1. It all starts with an initial commitment to change. This is your improvement goal. Let's use a new year’s resolution as a simple example: “I am committed to losing weight.” New year’s resolutions are quite illustrative, because you may have noticed that it can be quite difficult to live up to them.
  2. In the second column, you take stock of all the behaviors, that are directly detrimental to your espoused goal as noted in column 1. How is what you are actually doing or not doing different from what you originally intended? How do you sabotage yourself? So you intend to lose weight, but you had an extra helping of dessert, you stuffed yourself at the last family dinner, you snacked in the middle of the night while passing the fridge on the way to the bathroom? Make a painstaking list of all the undermining behaviors that contradict your original commitment.
  3. Column three is reserved for your hidden commitments: Imagine yourself following through 100% with the behavior in column 1. What is the worst thing that could happen, as you are envisioning yourself successfully dieting, working out and getting slimmer? There are a lot of different worries that may arise from actually achieving your goal. In the book, Kegan and Lahey discuss the example of a woman who had been sexually traumatized in her childhood. She had learned that overeating makes her less attractive for males so that she doesn’t get hit on — a situation that her psychic immune system wants to protect her against. So her hidden commitment is to stay safe. No wonder there is so much resistance to losing weight! For her, it feels like a matter of life and death. Her hidden commitment is directly contradicting the statement in the first column. The column 3 commitments brilliantly explain and express the column 2 behaviors. She is stuck and at odds with herself.
  4. Even deeper than our hidden commitments are our big assumptions in column 4. These are the unquestioned beliefs and axioms, upon which our worldview, our “philosophy” rests — our personal “myth of the given”. In our example, it might be something like “All men are dangerous”, “If I lose weight, I will get harassed”, or “If I don’t eat everything offered to me at the family dinner, my parents will stop loving me”. If we treat these unexamined assumptions as “the truth” it will be impossible to overcome the immunity to change. Kegan and Lahey suggest to treat them as “big assumptions” instead.

Turning subject into object: putting your big assumptions to the test

The thing about assumptions (or hypotheses) is that you can actually go and test them to see if they hold up to scrutiny. In most cases, they don’t hold up, because they consist of over-generalizations and rather crude and biased models of the world. Once the immune-system and its workings have moved from being subject (that which looks) to being the object (that which is being looked at) of awareness, it loses its hold and the new (now bigger) subject is able to move beyond it, instead of just fighting against the column 2 behaviors (which is futile, as long as the immune system is not transformed). The reflective move beyond being embedded in a view of reality to looking at your construct dissolves the psychic immune reaction, once successful testing of your big assumptions reveals that the reality is actually different from what you constructed it to be in your head.

Technical vs. adaptive challenges

Kegan and Lahey distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges. In order to solve a technical challenge, you need to figure out what steps you need to take and then execute on them.

An adaptive challenge is like a Zen koan: in order to solve “it”, you need to solve yourself.

The Immunity to Change Process is designed to help you do that. By mapping out your psychic immune system, you are gaining a perspective on that which has you. In the process, you become a larger version of yourself, able to embrace your prior limitations and consciously work on them in order to overcome them.

Climate Change is an adaptive challenge. In order to solve “it”, we need to solve ourselves. We need to overcome our immunity to change.

Albert Einstein: This guy knew a few things about solving difficult problems…

Applying the ITC process to the problem of Climate Change

When I looked at my own behaviors and the collective behaviors of humanity with regard to lack of actions against climate change, I noticed that we’re individually and collectively stuck in a similar place. I felt inspired to fill out an Immunity Map — for myself and for humanity. Here’s what I came up with:

Immunity Map with respect to action on climate goals.
  1. Commitment (Improvement Goal): I put it quite straightforward as “Reduce global C02 emissions to mitigate climate change.”
  2. Doing / not doing (vs. #1): Despite what some (but not all) of us are saying, that we want to be doing (e.g. Kyoto protocol, Paris agreements, etc.) instead we’re still continually raising CO2 emissions; we do business-as-usual, we shrug off rising sea levels, extreme weather phenomena, melting of polar ice-caps; we’re denying, ignoring or doubting the facts established by science, represented through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  3. Hidden commitments: Most people, especially in the developed world, are committed to keeping up their luxurious lifestyle, not cutting back on energy usage, air-travel, meat-production, cheap electricity and the seemingly endless addiction to all forms of fossil fuels. A central worry is that if one country unilaterally moves in the right direction (column #1), it will lose its economic competitiveness compared to the others who are not applying the stricter standards. This, in turn, will hurt the local economy and lead to politicians being voted out of office in favor of a more liberal economic policy. The argument is even stronger from the perspective of newly industrializing countries. The first world built its economic power by burning fossil fuels for centuries. Now China, India, Brazil, etc. are supposed to be on a strict voluntary carbon diet? That’s deeply unfair. There is a strong commitment to short-term thinking. This is not plain stupidity. The immune system simply does its job, protecting the basis for economic success, which is closely connected to staying in office for any serious politician (a strong incentive). In that sense it works just fine — it is just that, unfortunately, it prevents us as humanity from making the substantial progress we need with regard to our emission goal (#1).
  4. Big assumptions: Some of the underlying assumptions that we collectively hold, or shall I rather say, that are holding us (hostage), are “only material wealth brings happiness”, “our economies need to continually grow indefinitely”, “we can externalize the costs of our economic actions”, “economic growth depends on exploiting fossil fuels” and “we cannot overcome the cycle of destructive international competition — the nation that moves first loses out economically”. Of course, all of these assumptions are very debatable — that is if we were able to hold them as such. Instead, they are being unconsciously held as self-evident truths. They’re the water we’re swimming in, the myth of the given. They’re subject, not object.

Testing our collective ‘big assumptions’ about reality

The purpose of the following section is to model what a reality-check of our big assumptions about reality could look like. The basic pattern is to take one of these claims about reality (from column #4) at a time and devise concrete experiments to check if they hold up to scrutiny. It is basic science. If the claim says “the earth is flat!”, we think of ways we could collect data that could possibly falsify it (e.g. a satellite image of the earth). If our map of reality is incorrect, we have the chance to update it to a more correct version, which dissolves the basis for the contradicting behavior (column #2). Let’s have a look.

“Only material wealth brings happiness”

“Our economies need to continually grow indefinitely”

Yeah, right. By now you have probably stumbled over the idea that infinite growth within an environment of finite planetary resources is probably not going to work out. Maybe we’re just fine with a circular, sustainable economy. The need for exponential growth seems to be driven by infinite greed.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”― Mahatma Gandhi

The greed, in turn, is rooted in the prior assumption of material wealth being the main source of happiness.

“We can externalize the costs of our economic actions”

The problem is, that most people have a very narrow definition of what “home” means.

Europeans used to export their plastic trash to China for recycling. Get the trash out of the country. But China isn’t taking it anymore. Now what? In the last years, there is an increase in public awareness of plastic pollution, especially the threat it poses to marine creatures. In the end, microplastic enters the food-chain and lands back on our plates.

“Economic growth depends on exploiting fossil fuels”

Even if we go along with the assumption that economic growth is needed, it doesn’t need to be tied to the use of fossil fuels. There are plenty of models of how to build a green economy that creates new jobs by shifting to sustainable sources of energy — a new “green deal”. If we take the challenge serious that climate change confronts us with, there is plenty of work ahead of us. It will take a herculean effort to upgrade the current system into a sustainable version in time— everything from food production, industry, to transportation and all the other systems that are involved.

“We cannot overcome the cycle of destructive international competition — the nation that moves first loses out economically”

One of the main arguments that we keep hearing from national leaders when confronted with the demand for stronger commitment to the IPCC emission reduction goals for CO2 is, that if they take decisive action (for example by adding a carbon tax on fuel, like in France), they receive an immediate push-back by their voters. The industrial lobby cries out and points to the loss of competitiveness in international comparison, the loss of future investments and ultimately, the loss of jobs in the given country.

Businessman John Bunzl, founder of explaining his concept in a TEDx talk

Humanity’s Heros’ Journey

Coming up with a new, more helpful story about Climate Change

The gift of Climate Change

If you can bear to follow the news about recent climate developments it is very hard not to fall into despair or cynicism. I force myself to face the heavy stuff, although at times it can feel exhausting and overwhelming and I'd rather look the other way.

The Hero’s Journey

Writer, teacher, mythologist, storyteller, and scholar Joseph Campbell described a common archetypal pattern behind great stories and myths. It is called the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey Outline, image credit:

Climate Change as humanity’s call to adventure

In our case the “hero” of the story is humanity.

Joining Humanity’s Fellowship of the Earth

Who wants to join Humanity’s Fellowship of the Earth?

Stories and movies — humanity’s collective subconscious dreams

I think that’s a better story than the current doom and gloom of zombie movies with dystopian futures. If movies are humanity’s collective subconscious, we’re currently having serious nightmares. Where are the positive stories of hope and global cooperation? Here’s my challenge to all the screenwriters, directors and actors out there: create hero stories about THAT, please!

Change is on its way.

“Even if there is no hope, we need to do something. Not having hope is not an excuse for not doing anything.[…] The one thing we need more than hope is action. Because once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, we should look for action, and then — only then — hope will come. ” — Greta Thunberg (15)

Climate Change Courage

True courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to not flinch in the face of fear, to tackle adversity head on and to take a risk, even though we cannot know for sure what the final outcome will be. But one thing is certain: if we don’t take on the challenge, we have already lost. Remember — it’s an adaptive one. You, we and all of humanity need to transform in order to survive. So don’t despair.

Let’s turn Climate Change into the best thing that ever happened to us.


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