Slow Fixing the Environment

The other day a woman walked into a doctor’s surgery and issued a demand that summed up why the world is in such a mess.

“Look, I know I have a million things wrong with me, but I really don’t want a lecture,” she announced. “I just want a pill that will make it all go away.”

The doctor, an old friend of mine, waited for the woman to laugh at her own joke. But she didn’t. Because it wasn’t a joke.

Of course, her craving for a quick fix is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, Plutarch denounced the army of quacks peddling miracle cures to the citizens of Ancient Rome.

Today, however, the quick fix has become the default setting in every walk of life. Whenever a problem surfaces in business or politics, in science or society, in our health or relationships, we reach for the nearest just-add-water solution. And it’s taking a heavy toll.

Why? Because quick fixes seldom deliver on their seductive promise of maximum return for minimum effort. When it comes to the really hard problems in the world – turning around a failing company, combatting poverty, tackling disease, rebuilding a broken relationship –  there are no shortcuts or instant remedies.

This is especially true when dealing with Mother Nature. Everywhere you look, quick fixes are failing to solve environmental problems – and often just making things worse.

One example: To clean up the oil spill caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, BP pumped more than seven million liters of a dispersant called Corexit into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Such chemicals help make the oil less visible and prevent it reaching the shore.

A win-win fix, right? Wrong. Recent studies have shown that combining oil and Corexit yields a mixture that is up to 52 times more toxic than oil by itself. Which is seriously bad news for the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

The good news is there is now an alternative to our culture of the quick fix. It’s called, not surprisingly, the Slow Fix.

You may have heard of the Slow Movement, which challenges the canard that faster is always better. You don’t have to ditch your career, toss the iPhone or join a commune to take part. Living “Slow” just means doing everything at the right speed—quickly, slowly, or at whatever pace delivers the best results.

When it comes to solving problems, a speedy solution can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered. There are times when you have to channel MacGyver, reach for the duct tape and cobble together whatever fix works right now. The Heimlich manoeuvre saves many lives.

But for more complex problems, the best remedy is always a Slow Fix. That means taking the time to: admit and learn from mistakes; work out the root causes of the problem; sweat the small stuff; think long-term and join the dots to build holistic solutions; seek ideas from everywhere; work with others and share the credit; build up expertise while remaining skeptical of experts; think alone and together; tap emotions; enlist an inspiring leader; consult and even recruit those closest to the problem; turn the search for a fix into a game; have fun, follow hunches, adapt, use trial and error, and embrace uncertainty.

All these ingredients can be used to tackle problems afflicting the environment. Just imagine if BP had sweated the small stuff by testing Corexit more thoroughly for side effects.

Yet forging smarter solutions for environmental problems will never be enough on its own. Each win for Mother Nature must be anchored in a deeper, seismic shift that puts nurturing the planet’s ecology at the core of everything we do. Imagine a world where we did not feel compelled to run the risks that BP did hunting for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, we need a revolution in the way we live, work, travel, consume – and think.

Making that happen will be the biggest Slow Fix of all.

It will not be easy to achieve. In these times of economic hardship, many people are more worried about paying their bills than nurturing the environment. But there are reasons to be hopeful. A new generation is coming of age that sees the world through an environmental lens. Companies and governments are coming under increasing pressure from the public to act green. Last November, for the first time ever, China made “ecological progress” a pillar of its national development plan.

Putting the environment at the top of the agenda must go hand in hand with beating our addiction to the quick fix. In every walk of life, the time has come to resist the siren call of half-baked solutions and short-term palliatives, of band-aid cures and pills that “make it all go away,” and to start fixing things properly.

The time has come to learn the art of the Slow Fix.