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Sustainable Futures 

August 23, 2010

Climate change and human nature at BC3

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to the San Francisco Business Council on Climate Change (BC3) about the behavioral side of climate change. BC3 is comprised of over 100 Bay Area based businesses that have all committed to reducing their carbon emissions. The Academy is an enthusiastic new member of BC3, and a few months ago I was asked to do a presentation for the group discussing the Academy’s broader sustainability efforts. At that presentation I made a brief mention of fact that the major roadblocks to US carbon emission reductions are behavioral. Several members expressed that they were very interested in learning more about this topic, and so I was invited back to do a follow-up talk.

The premise of my presentation was simple: The biggest barriers to a sustainable (and that means low-carbon) future are psychological, cultural and institutional, rather than financial or technological.

Yes, how we finance the necessary short-term investments (and how we divide the long-term gains) is something we have to figure out; yes, we need massive new R&D to develop better renewable energy and transportation technologies. But the real question is, with more and more scientific evidence piling up that climate change is contributing to climatic instability around the world, and that we are in general taking more resources out of nature than we are replacing, why aren’t we pushing harder and faster to take these steps; why aren’t people demanding greater action from their government and themselves; why is the average American so misinformed and disengaged about something so important as long-term sustainability?

The answers lie within our psychological tendencies as human beings, our cultural values as Americans, and the dysfunctional nature of our biggest institutions. Human beings are not rational; emotions and value systems almost always trump reality, and this means pushing for change by giving out information, accurate or not, will always have a very limited impact. One of my old college professors called it the “dump truck approach”, and boy was he was right when he said it was worst way to convince anyone of anything.

We can’t expect facts to bring us the change we need. We need a new approach. We need to tap onto the expertise of those who specialize in connecting emotionally with others: Salespeople, marketing gurus, human behavioral experts and natural orators. There have been decades and billions of dollars spent on market research to determine what makes people tick, and we need to start utilizing that knowledge ASAP if we wish to create a more effective cultural narrative on climate change, one that is grounded in science but empowering enough to encourage everyone to be part of the solution.

At the Academy we have spent quite a bit of time and energy getting to know our visitors, and we use that information to try and offer programs and exhibits that not only inform people about the science of sustainability and climate change, but also convince them to take action. We have lots to learn, and we are constantly working to achieve better real-world results, but one of our guiding principles on sustainability has become: “Try to connect and talk with, not at, people.”

This was my general message to BC3. I was very honest that I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. But I think it’s critical that we all keep the tendencies of human nature in mind as we strive to create a better future, and I was excited to be able to bring this perspective to the business leadership the BC3 embodies. I thank them for the opportunity.


Filed under: Uncategorized — apope @ 12:22 pm

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