You must believe: how climate change is like the Boston Celtics

Kendrick Perkins

Former Boston Celtics Center Kendrick Perkins wasn’t the best player but was key to his team’s victory. Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr.

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 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:

In a generic case of a habitual drinker, the cue might be feeling sad, the action would be drinking, and the reward is forgetting your problems.

I recently read a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, 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 who 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.


Pray away the gay!

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.

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me

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 from any deity.

Alcoholics Anonymous uses God at its foundation, but it also uses sponsors: veterans of the program who 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.

Scientists now believe “something from nothing” is a reality of the universe. Dire Straits reportedly unimpressed, having published their groundbreaking “money for nothing, chicks for free” study decades earlier.

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.

We are the champions, my friend

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.

When it comes to climate, that attitude will change of course: as extreme weather events 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 each other and a rebirth of community.

The world is entering a strange new time…but I’ll be your belief, if you’ll be mine.

Reposted from Science Pope.

— Eric Krasnauskas, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    It’s so nice to see encouraging essays like this after accidentally getting sucked down the rabbit hole of Nature Bats Last a few days ago and spending an excruciating night watching my children sleep and sobbing at the thought of a total lack of any hope and no chance of them making it to adulthood.

    Our family already embraces a green lifestyle in many ways (even our rural UU church is wind powered) and I am empowered now to actively change the rest of it. But I feel such a need for hope and support, not end-times suicide songs. Thank you for helping to boost me up to look for bigger, better ways to deal with our climate crisis and allowing me to still occasionally sleep at night.

    • says

      Hi Alicia, thanks for the kind words. :) My wife and I just gave birth to twins last week, so I know exactly what you’re talking about.

      I liked writing this article because I got to hint at things larger than the plain mathematics realities of our situation. In the last year I’ve been sliding away from a purely scientific interpretation of climate change, looking past the surface layer and towards the cultural and economic systems that are driving it. Those systems are all built on a story, stories that every culture has about where we come from, where we’re going, what we value, what’s our place in the universe, etc. Our current story has a lot of problems and destructive flaws (separation from eachother and nature, lust for control, rational actor theory, etc).

      But if a story got us in to this mess, a story can get us out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Guy’s work, he’s saying the stuff that needs to be said…scaring the crap out of people is a necessary first step to change. But it does us no good to fill people with despair, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead we should choose to combat our destructive old story with a new story of hope and transformation. And it need not be bullshit, false hope stuff, this transformation is going on all around us right now, you just have to know what to look for. And fueled by the internet and a growing human collective consciousness, it’s picking up speed.

      So anyway, I’m hopeful, that’s all I’m trying to say. Thanks for reading, hope your kids are well, I’ve got diapers to change. :)

  2. Apneaman says

    “even the most dedicated atheists of AA claim that having God in the program made a positive difference for them” Any atheist who feels God makes a difference, positive or negative, is not an atheist. I’m a non-practicing alcoholic (12yrs) and an atheist. I was involved in AA and ignored the God part. Unfortunately, too many people felt it was their mission to constantly inform me that without god there is “NO CHANCE” of sobriety. It’s my opinion that believing in anything without evidence is dangerous. You know, like “market forces” “American exceptionalism” and not yet invented techno fixes.
    AA has a 95% failure rate.

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