In February 2011, the Boston Celtics were riding high. They had the best record in the Eastern conference going in to the All-Star break and were already thinking ahead to the playoffs. Then came the call: their center, Kendrick Perkins, was being traded away. It was quite a blow…Perkins was a cornerstone of their 2008 championship team, and was loved like a brother inside the locker room. In the weeks following the trade the Celtics lost some of their shine, dropped in the standings, and were easily beaten swept from the playoffs by the Miami Heat in the second round.
When I tell you this story has everything to do with climate change and the power of belief, no doubt you’ll make a face. Here goes:
I recently read a book called The Power of Habit, which lays out the mechanics of how human habits form and how they can be changed. (The book is also very entertaining and cool, I highly recommend it). Without going into too much detail, every habit works the same way: you have the cue, the action, and the reward. Should we ever want to change our habits, the mechanics are actually very simple: keep the Cue, but change the Action.
Yet while the mechanics are easy, everyone knows that breaking bad habits is actually quite difficult. What researchers found is that the people who succeeded were those that found a strong belief that success was possible. Even if a person had total commitment to their goal and possessed a logical plan of action, unless they really believed they could succeed, they would ultimately fail. This belief was most commonly established in some kind of external entity…often the deeds of other people or faith in some spiritual being. When the Celtics traded Perkins, they still retained more than enough talent, training and strategy to win the championship. But the trade doomed them nonetheless, because Kendrick Perkins was more to the Celtics than just the sum of his on-court contributions – he was their belief.
When we hear the word belief, our thoughts naturally turn to religion, and indeed religion is used by many seeking to make positive changes in their lives. Perhaps the best known organization that uses God to affect personal behavior (other than Michelle Bachmann’s clinic that “cures” homosexuality) is Alcoholics Anonymous. Acceptance of God is one of the famed 12 Steps of AA for a reason: it gives the alcoholic a sense that success is possible because a higher power is looking out for them. This belief is such a powerful mechanism that even the most dedicated atheists of AA claim that having God in the program made a positive difference for them. There’s just something in the idea that a supernatural force is guiding you that gets people over the hump.
What’s really fascinating is that belief doesn’t need to be about God to work…pretty much any kind of belief will do. The essence of belief is merely the ability to envision a positive outcome at the end of the road, and that vision can come from other people as easily as any deity. Alcoholics Anonymous uses God at its foundation, but it also uses sponsors: veterans of the program that offer new members close personal support. The Jenny Craig weight-loss plan does something very similar, pairing its members with a consultant who helps execute a diet plan and provides counseling. These support personnel provide the belief for their charges — it’s through their encouragement and personal example that members find the will to succeed. I can personally attest to the power of this phenomenon, because I employed it when I set out to lose weight a few years ago. I was successful because I buddied up with my friend Jeff Davis…we kept food journals, were mutually supportive, and found our belief in one another.
The irony is: this belief is absolutely meaningless. A person with a diet buddy or a relationship with God is empirically no better off than someone without those things. Belief changes nothing about the reality of our situation: we’re still drunks, nail-biters, or (to open things up a little bit) a species on the verge of self-imposed ecological collapse. Belief adds nothing to this equation…yet it adds everything, too. Something in the human mind taps real power and purpose from a feeling of belief. This “something from nothing” situation reminds me of recent scientific discoveries about how the nothingness of empty space is actually a volatile soup where matter constantly pops in and out of existence. Modern science’s understanding of both the universe and the human mind is still a work in progress, but I find it striking that this phenomenon is mirrored in both.
And that special kind of nothing was what Kendrick Perkins was to the Boston Celtics. It’s funny, because he really wasn’t very good…to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even like Perk when he was on the team. He moved like molasses, he’d drop passes like his hands were made of stone, and he had this infuriating habit of needing to “power dribble” before shooting (which often resulted in his shot getting blocked). Back in 2011 I was shouting his name in frustration five times a week, minimum.
Yet for all his flaws, I can see now that Kendrick was the heart and soul of that team. Despite his mediocre play, in his passion and commitment the Celtics found their belief that they could play together and win. When he left, very little changed in terms of the X’s and O’s…the Celtics had several other Centers capable doing Perk’s job out on the court. But in terms of mentality, everything had changed. Now, the true meaning of the Perkins trade is still a hotly contested subject for fans, but I think all sides would agree that nothing was quite the same afterward. The belief was gone, and it showed.
So having gotten this far, you might be screaming “how the %$&# does this relate to climate change”? Let me explain by first relaying a popular chant used at climate rallies:
“We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”
When you first hear it, this chant certainly smacks of hippie naivete…how could it not? But it begins to make sense once you truly comprehend the magnitude of the problem climate change poses, and the transformational steps humanity will need to take to address it. If you comprehend that “business as usual” will lead to our ultimate demise, then it follows that in coming decades human civilization will need to devise entirely new systems for energy, economics and governance. That sure sounds like a ‘another world’ to me!
Transformation at that scale is of course terrifying and seems impossible…feelings no doubt shared by every rock-bottom alcoholic pondering sobriety. In the back of our minds, many of us know that massive change is required, but like the drunk we tell ourselves that we’ll sober up tomorrow and it’ll be no big deal. That attitude will change of course: as climate and societal disasters will soon put humanity flat on its back, we will finally be forced to face the harsh truth of our predicament. Yet we cannot hope to succeed in creating habits for a ‘another world’ without backing it up with belief. While I do not exclude deities in this cause, I think it more likely we’ll find this belief in eachother and a rebirth of community.
The world is entering a strange new time…but I’ll be your belief, if you’ll be mine.