Why incrementalism is more than fallacious – it’s fatal

Why incrementalism is more than fallacious – it’s fatal

It was clear at the World Travel Market in London in early November that the number of individuals, institutions and companies actively engaged in an aspect of transforming tourism is expanding. While being undertaken mostly by small-scale enterprises, more individuals within the larger corporates associated with mainstream tourism are also playing their part. Every initiative to reduce tourism’s footprint; improve the livelihoods of guests and residents; tackle injustice; alleviate poverty, conserve wildlife, clean up damage etc. is critical and to be applauded. So I am looking forward to [Travindy Editor] Jeremy Smith’s forthcoming book Transforming Travel that highlights numerous examples of transformation happening around the globe.

But the nature of the “wicked problem” that tourism’s current dependency on volume growth causes, means that these individual efforts on so many diverse fronts still lack the power to alter our current trajectory. They may slow down the passage of the Tourism Titanic but not prevent its ultimate collision with the iceberg. Susanne Becken rightfully and courageously addressed this problem head on in her presentation to the WTM (see her article Carbon and Tourism Where Next? referring to it as the fallacy of incrementalism. I support her 100% and am willing to go one step further and suggest that it’s not just fallacious but fatal for these reasons:

1.    Incrementalism is not working. Despite all the earnest efforts of individuals around the world, we’re being undermined by the prevailing commitment/addiction to volume growth and a refusal of those with power and authority to question this strategy or re-define more helpful ways of defining growth and success. Interestingly, all the signs suggest that 2017 will be a bumper year for tourism with growth rates exceeding already ambitious forecasts.

2.    We’re also undermining ourselves because we haven’t broken free from so many of the assumptions and beliefs that drive the old model – a focus on parts not wholes, on things not processes, on problems not potential, on scarcity that drives competition not abundance that comes from cooperation; a reluctance to share and collaborate; the need to control and over systematize, standardize and quantify; a reliance on rational, financial arguments and incentives; a failure to appeal to hearts and minds;  the promotion of and dependence on experts that disempower communities; use of language and jargon that reflects the old paradigm and excludes; plus a belief we can use sustainability for competitive advantage. In short, we have ignored Einstein’s injunction and are using the same way of thinking that developed the problem to correct it. For another perspective on this, read David Holzmer

3.    It breeds a false sense of progress and actually sustains “business as usual”. In fact I would venture to suggest that those parties who resist change (and they tend right now to be the most powerful in the system) use these incremental achievements of others to distract; as cover/camouflage to actually sustain business as usual.

4.    These incremental efforts, while essential, do not address the root cause of our dependence on volume growth. The real cause of our predicament is “a way of seeing and being” on this planet that is no longer accurate (science has turned virtually all assumptions about how the world works on their head); no longer produces the outcomes intended (i.e., greater welfare/well-being) for the many; and leaves far more value and net benefit unrealized than it produces. Ironically it fails the hallmark of a successful industrial system – it’s inefficient and under-performs! Tourism may be growing in size but the net value generated per trip is, given the proliferation of cheap flights and cruises, not necessarily going up at the same rate. (Note: global data on net income desperately needed!!).

It’s long been recognized outside of tourism that the narrative (a.k.a. story, worldview, paradigm, consciousness) has to change first or we’ll continue to dig the hole we’re in deeper. (George Monbiot is one of the most recent proponents of this view (see: How do we get out of this mess? ) but many other luminaries have been saying this for half a  century or more.

But who wants to take the time to figure out a new narrative? The old story dominates every nook and cranny of our consciousness urging us to “be practical” which means “do something dammit, ” get results, be measureable, analyse more, get more data, produce tangible results this quarter etc. so we have another conference, call for papers, publish another declaration, create another symposium or summit. There’s no time in our busy, overly competitive lives, now run by machines and systems; to stop, breathe, let alone think, reflect and question. The latter activities were actually designed-out of our way of working decades ago. (Image below source from Danone a company that’s working on narratives)

The word “transformation” has become popular this year but do we understand what that, once powerful word, actually implies? It’s change on a scale most of us are unfamiliar with despite our living in a period when every aspect of life and living is changing at an unprecedented rate and scale all around us. Richard Barrett of The Values Centre, a pioneer in the study of coporate culture and values observes.

  • Change is doing things differently. Transformation is a new way of being,
  • You can change without transforming but you can’t transform without change and
  • Organisations don’t change, people do!

Transformation is the opposite of the incrementalism that Susanne Becken warned us about. To qualify as transformational, change has to face and overcome root causes of a failing system or be exposed as mere tinkering i.e., yet another “makeover”. Transformation is nothing less than systems change. But here’s the rub – transformation has to start within the hearts, minds and consciousness of people like you and me or it won’t happen at all.

Transformational change doesn’t cut the engines of the Titanic to slow it down, it steers the vessel in a very different direction.

So what will it take to turn this great vessel of tourism around?

1. Push the door of our mental prison – it’s locked in the inside

Thinking small won’t serve us. Going it alone won’t either – especially if we are motivated to “get one over” on others.

Never has there been a time in history when so many of us were being asked to move out of our comfort zones; out of our shells, our cubicles, our departments, our silos, our specialties, our functions, companies, agencies and institutions, even our spheres of influence and join hands, hearts and minds as human beings and ask: What’s really happening? What on earth am I doing here? Is this all there is? What do I long for – if not for me but for my children or my friend’s children? What gift of my being can I share and develop?

This first step – recognizing that we don’t have to settle for mediocrity; that we can learn to dream big again and, each of us matter and have a role to play and a responsibility to play it – can be taken alone. It is primarily an inner journey as we re-examine our personal values, beliefs and assumptions. But after that, the journey requires and is enriched by companions.

2. Acknowledge that we’re all in this together and no hero is coming to save us.

We’re each different and unique and that’s a huge positive, but only if we start listening, sharing, co-creating, contributing and, most importantly, learning together. Because in this brave new, utterly joined up connected world of ours, each of us do matter. Hogging power and authority at the centre is as fatal as incrementalism. True innovation, creativity happens at the edges between order and chaos. It emerges from dialogue, interaction, relationship, flux, and conflict and depends on diversity, honesty, transparency and a willingness to fail as often as to succeed

Why incrementalism is more than fallacious – it’s fatal

Leadership and power are currents that flow through a group to be shared and expressed in varying amounts by each participant according to circumstance. What matters is that we learn to “see” and care for the whole (i.e., life, humanity on this planet) and our role as contributing to its flourishing.

3. Commit to seeing “clearly”

We’re being asked to open our eyes, to wake up and see who we are as individuals and members of a species that now holds the balance of life in its hands. It’s less about saving the planet than saving ourselves and the other life forms that have become dependent on our capacity to act in their interests as well as our own.

Virtually every challenge you can think of, in general and in tourism specifically, stems from the success of a system we humans designed – albeit incrementally over a 300 year period. It’s called the industrial production-consumption system refined more recently by a particular form of economics that seems rigged to benefit fewer and fewer each year that passes. (George Monbiot, by the way, referred to just one layer of a multi-layered narrative that digs deep into what it means to be human). The impact of that system on the rest of the life and inanimate matter on this planet has only become apparent in the last 60 years ago. What appeared to be efficient and effective is now delivering outcomes and side effects that are sufficiently harmful that they will break the system itself. A system re-design is called for. But unless we understand what assumptions, beliefs and values underpinned the old decaying system we won’t be able to change or correct them when designing a better one.

Hence the need for a massive re-framing of our thinking (changing the paradigm or story) and that has to be taken throughout society and throughout the community of people who work in the tourism and hospitality as part of it. Most importantly, this process involves inner and outer transformation – a willingness to better understand what goes on in our own, individual hearts and minds as well as what we say and do in our families, communities and workplaces.

4. Be willing to consider re-defining success and purpose.

In order to create and sustain the vast global system of product and consumption that has now infiltrated every corner of the planet (even bushmen of the Kalahari now know they need money to survive) humanity has been entranced – put under a spell. A spell that says to survive and thrive money/cash is essential; making and spending it our role, function and purpose; and the acquisition of it the primary sign of success. As the sun passes over our revolving planet from the hours of 6:0am-9:0am, the global population wakes up and performs virtually the same preparatory rituals for a day of work or play that increasingly involve, for many, the need to completely numb ourselves for “the “commute; ” and leave large parts of our “selves” at home.

Why incrementalism is more than fallacious – it’s fatal

Be it at the individual, corporate or community level, we’ve been lead to believe that our purpose is to contribute to generating more wealth in the form of income, profit or GDP. This wasn’t always the case – ask any indigenous person and you’ll see how recently the spell has enchanted us all.

Even a few hundred years ago, the purpose of an economy was to create welfare for the many and income, profit and GDP were seen as the means to do so. But since, we have switched means for ends despite the fact that the capacity of these means to produce greater well-being, greater health and happiness is now diminishing.

The simple most effective way to start to turn the Tourism Titanic in the direction of safety will be to re-define our shared assumption that more visitors will bring more benefits and focus instead on increasing the net benefit. That will require a far deeper understanding of the nature and scope of costs incurred to support each visitor and a commitment to grow the benefits their visit generates in real, net terms. Many of these costs and benefits are difficult if not impossible to quantify but the party best able to identify them is the host community. In most cases they will be paying to mitigate the costs and, as importantly, only host communities can really identify what they perceive as a benefit.

Only when we’re ready to admit that our incremental steps are insufficient and that we need to recognize and internalize the four truths listed above, can we begin to re-design a system that works for all. That’s why, the focus of our work is on community education and empowerment and pushing that mental prison door wide open!!!.

This article was first published on Linkedin. Follow Anna Pollock on Linkedin to read all her articles. 

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