(Published Sept 2014, updated Dec 2018)
“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before recognising our dishonesty and living with it the best we can or we can begin the effort to change the way we live and think.”- Wendell Berry
Recognising one’s “personal connection to what is wrong” can be one of life’s most profound experiences – a ‘Red Pill Moment’, borrowing from the film The Matrix.
In the film, Neo (Keanu Reeves) takes the red pill offered to him by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) and he is transported into the future, real world. Upon arrival, he is so shocked to understand that what he perceived as reality was a fabricated construction – a computer programme created by the machines – that he vomits. Thus a Red Pill Moment can be defined as a profound moment of insight where we shift from blindly accepting a falsehood in everyday thinking to gaining a deeper understanding of the way that the world truly works.
In relation to sustainability, a Red Pill Moment can be an experience where one suddenly ‘sees’ that they are part of multiple natural systems, and that one’s health and the health of all things is deeply dependent on the long-term health of those systems. The shock comes from realising that the society we are embedded in and contributing to serves endless economic growth, and that endless economic growth is the driving force behind the destruction of nature’s life-sustaining systems.
To understand that the human systems in which one’s life is intertwined are working against the fundamental ecosystems upon which all life depends, is deeply disturbing. It goes against our value for life, and our related desire to support and protect living systems.
Such a moment of awareness can lead people to radically change the way they live. Ray Anderson famously had a ‘spear in the chest’ epiphany reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. I feel I have experienced such a moment in a tearful breakdown when I finally accepted my role and responsibility in driving climate change and resource depletion as a result of working in advertising. I have spoken to many others who have wonderful and moving stories of such moments.
Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew”. Red Pill Moments can represent a shift in consciousness where we move from attempting to ‘solve’ climate change, from primarily economic, rational ‘head-led’ solutions, to more intuitive, heart-felt ones driven by compassion, empathy and love.
How can marketing and brand specialists begin to make such a shift in a work context? My favourite story is of a global packaged goods company that, last summer, held a day-long workshop attended by employees and their school-age children. After introductions, the parents and children went into separate rooms and were asked to draw “What does a good world look like to you?” They came back together to share their visions. The children’s world was one with no guns or war where people are nice to each other and look after animals. The parents had a long discussion about big world issues but they drew something much more personal. Sharing their visions provoked a strong discussion between the parents and children, and in particular what the parents were doing in their jobs to help lead towards the good world their children wanted. What is fantastic about this story is how it enabled employees to change the lens through which they viewed their job, connecting their nine-to-five with the future lives of their children.
I expect Red Pill Moments will happen more frequently as we become more exposed to the negative social and environmental consequences of our endless economic growth narrative, and simultaneously develop greater awareness of systems thinking and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.
Jonathan Wise is co-founder of The Comms Lab and author of Looking up. www.thecommslab.com