Most importantly, Zeitgeist shifts because it becomes a better representation of reality. It chimes with 'common sense'. A contested term, the idea of common sense has been argued about for centuries. In German it literally means 'healthy human understand-ing',8 but can be understood as the 'generally accepted majority view', with examples being 'laws apply to everyone', 'peace is better than war' or 'everyone should have access to health services'. 'Some use the phrase to refer to beliefs or propositions that in their opinion they consider would in most people's experience be prudent and of sound judgment.'9 Common sense is dynamic, not static, and what makes sense changes with time and circumstance.
Shifting common sense requires the dissemination of the starkly illustrative. New cultural narratives by their nature are more difficult to inculcate into common sense - there are few stark facts or figures that can evince an epiphany. But environmental narratives, on the other hand, constitute a more jarring challenge to received wisdom and it is not difficult to construct out of them would-be iconic soundbites that can seep into common sense. For instance, you do not need to be a scientist to understand that increasing the number of cars in Britain by 800,000 a year cannot continue. This net increase is equivalent to an extra six-lane motorway full of bumper-to-bumper motor vehicles from London to Edinburgh, a length of 665km, every year.10 The average European car produces over 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. You do not need much skill to calculate that 800,000 times 4 tonnes equals 3,200,000 tonnes, nor that pumping this compound, invisible though it may be, into the atmosphere must have an effect. We simultaneously acknowledge and deny the link between exhaust fumes and acid rain, lead-poisoning and a variety of bronchial and respiratory illnesses. But we don't need much insight to realize that cars, whether moving or static, clog up cities and give them an overwhelming 'car feel'. Is it therefore not 'common sense' to curtail car use and encourage less-polluting forms of transport?
Would-be iconic facts such as these enable the understanding of things that seem self-evidently true. Or do they? Many want to hide from 'reality'. They are wilfully ignorant, their fear often masked behind arrogant overconfidence and power play. The will leading to ignorance and apathy arises especially among the beneficiaries of the status quo, whether financially, through peer groups or even emotionally. It takes commitment to change. The structures and incentives around us do not help, nor does the mantra of 'free choice', two deeply contested words that are used together as if they could never be queried. It takes behavioural change, but denial translates into avoidance activity. With glazed open eyes we sleepwalk into crisis. It hurts to digest the implications of facing things as they are, and to do something about them. The Zeitgeist changes when the unfolding new can be described in crisp encapsulations; this gives the spirit of the times a firm, persistent push, so it appears as the new common sense.
Was this article helpful?