THE BLOG

The End of the World Is Not Enough: Why the Key to Understanding Change Is Understanding Ourselves

14/10/2014 15:42 BST | Updated 14/12/2014 10:59 GMT

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I've had it with the doomsayers.

I have heard enough about death, destruction and extinction for one month. I've heard from the World Wildlife Fund that in the last 40 years we have lost half of the world's wildlife. I've heard that we lost a chunk of rainforest the size of Wales (it's always Wales) and I've heard from environmental correspondents and scientists, who wants us to stop taking endlessly from a planet that can't give any more.

It's not that I don't believe the WWF (and think it is unbelievably tragic) or don't hear and believe what the scientists have to say or don't listen to the climate change lobby, because I do. I'm not one of those who deny there is anything wrong or ignore it because I have a financial interest in some get rich scheme that stands to gain from rainforest destruction or oil exploration. And I am not stupid either. I believe we have a big, fat world-sized problem and I believe that we need to be told about it. It's just that I find it all so overwhelming. What can I do to save the animals or reverse climate change when the problem is so vast? Sign another worthless online petition?

The thing is that the doomsaying and the fire and the brimstone make me feel helpless and worthless. Like I have just been told off for something I didn't do. Even if my existence does make me culpable I still feel like I am having a finger wagged in my face and I don't like it. Sorry for existing. Go tell someone who can do something about it. I shall sit here on my sofa (while the world self destructs).

That's human nature.

We don't like to be told what to do. We don't like to be told to compromise, when others don't. Each of us is as important as the other, so why shouldn't we have what they have?

Another aspect of human nature is that we are lazy. We are so used to our home comforts and shortcuts and having everything that we no longer want to go out of our way to get something - because we don't have to. We can have anything we like at any point and we rather like it. We like instant gratification and we like taking short cuts and we like having more than we need. We have developed a sense of entitlement that somehow the world owes us a living.

That's human nature.

Unfortunately and ironically it's why the scientists are wagging their fingers at us - because we have taken the easy way out, lined our pockets and generally lived beyond our means for too long.

And then we're back to the doom again. I'm sorry.

Yes we have to change, and change quickly. But it won't happen if we are pushed and shoved and bullied. Unless governments enforce change - which they won't do because none of them are brave enough to stand up to corporations or bring in policies that are unpopular - it will happen when we decide it's time for us. So the question is how we can make change happen sooner, today, right now? Yes we can all turn off our taps when we clean our teeth. We can all change our habits. But to change deeply we need to be inspired more deeply.

The key to understanding how to effect change is by understanding human nature. The only way we'll make a real difference is by understanding who and how we are. Nothing will change if all we get is a bollocking. You make change happen by leading the way, by showing us something that's positive, by making the unacceptable acceptable, by giving praise and making us feel genuinely good about making those changes. We all seek approval from our peers. We want likes for pictures of our dinner.

I live in Cornwall. After the winter storms earlier this year I went down to my local beach to find it strewn with wreckage from broken beach huts and marine plastic. I helped a beach hut owner retrieve his possessions from the strandline and picked up a few bags of marine litter. But, really, it barely scratched the surface of the problem. Plastic in the marine environment is a terrible symptom of the wasteful way we live.

Over the next few days I went back to the beach and continued to pick up marine plastics, even though the storm brought more and more of it with each tide. It seemed so futile but I reminded myself, as I removed each plastic bottle, piece of discarded rope or shredded fishing net, that at least those bits couldn't kill a seabird or dolphin or pollute or enter the food chain now they were out of the water.

You could call it hopeless optimism. But it wasn't, because I chose to believe that doing something, anything, is better than whining and doing nothing. If you see a beautiful view spoiled by something ugly you can choose to do something about it or you can choose to do nothing. But if you choose to do nothing you have no right to complain.

What if, I thought to myself. What if we all did a little bit each day?

I tweeted my finds with the hashtag #2minutebeachclean each day to see if anyone would notice and take up the challenge. Soon others began to send me pictures of their mini beach cleans too. I discovered that people got the idea. They understood it from the off. They began to do it too - because there was nothing to hold them back - no paperwork or bureaucracy. And it was entirely positive. We weren't tutting at the state of the beach and blaming someone else, we were rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in. Even though two minutes might have seemed futile compared to the combined effort of an organised clean up, or even the problem, we understood that there was no place for cynicism. We knew that tomorrow's tide would bring more, but we had to do something. People who would never have thought about it before began to pick up litter and hashtag their pictures of it. People said how satisfying they found it. People said they didn't mind the funny looks. People said others had joined in to help them. We began to see the beginnings of a movement.

The 2 Minute Beach Clean is simplicity in itself. It understands that you are human and gives you a way out. You only have to do two minutes, which means it tells you when it's okay to stop. It tells you when your conscience is cleared. It understands that you are busy and may not be able to get to an organised clean up, even though you may want to.

Despite being a solitary and potentially divisive activity, picking up litter as part of a 2 Minute Beach Clean can still give you the praise you might seek for doing something positive - even if your fellow beach goers look at you as if you were mad. Every post is available on beachclean.net to see from anywhere there is an internet connection. We take time to respond to everyone so that, no matter where they are in the world, people who take part feel they belong to our family. And they do. We have had pictures posted to us from every continent, including Antarctica.

What about making change, genuine change, happen? That's when mass communication, the internet and social media make all the difference. Good ideas - and bad ones too - can circulate very quickly on the internet. Word spreads and people respond if - and only if - they are moved by the message.

I always wondered if the internet had the power to make people change their behaviour or get off the sofa, or if it even had the power to change anything outside of the virtual world. It can. Since my first hashtag on Instagram there have been 1329 posts, and countless others to twitter and facebook. That doesn't include the people who email me to say they do theirs but don't use social media or the people who are doing it and posting nothing. Our idea has grown and is being used in Ireland by An Taisce, The National Trust for Ireland, as a national campaign. Keep Wales Tidy are using it too, along with lots of coastal groups around the UK. Discover 2 Empower, a charity that supports veterans and offenders are using the 2 Minute Beach Clean to inspire and empower people who are lost and need to feel they have worth. Soon we hope that every surf lesson in the UK will begin with a 2 Minute Beach Clean. We'd like to see every dog walk, surf, rockpool ramble and Sunday stroll begin with one too.

Our little idea is growing every day.

I believe something as simple as the 2 Minute Beach Clean can make change happen. While those changes might be small on the surface, they can be far more powerful and resonant than just a bunch of people collectively removing tonnes of rubbish from our beaches. Ideas that have legs can make people think. They move them. They allow them to go to the next step.

That's human nature. Because, despite the lack of thought, we are capable of being thinkers.

When someone walks on the beach and picks up some plastic we hope they might start to wonder why it's there. They might start to question their own plastic use and the way we all use plastic every day. They might begin to wonder about where it all goes when we're done with it, why much of it will end up in landfill and what they can do to stop it. They might start to think about the sea life that is still under threat from the plastic they haven't yet got out of harm's way. They might start to see how everything is related. Then they might start to vote with their feet and wallet and begin buy products that don't use so much plastic. They might stop using single-use plastics and buy products that are made to last. Their buying decisions, together with everyone else's, might also start to have an influence on the people who pump out the unrecyclable plastics. They might question the power of the supermarkets, of government, of corporations. They might even begin to search for another way.

And all the while, as they patiently pick up after others, they are being praised by a virtual family for doing something so simple that it has become a part of their life, and that maybe they hadn't thought of doing before.

Is that change? We'll see. But at least no one's getting told off.