People Don’t Always Act in their Best Interest

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Some people have been debating whether or not scientists should become climate change activists or if they should stick to the data. The concern is that the general population seems less worried about environmental issues.  Given our culture’s typical reliance on external solutions to problems, it doesn’t surprise me that journalists and pundits are looking to Obama, scientists, activists, politicians and economists to motivate change. As someone who helps people transform less than optimal behavioral problems into opportunities for accomplishment, lets begin with this fact:  People don’t always act in their own best interest.  Usually, what most motivates people to behave in a manner that affirms self and others is direct  emotional enlivenment that connects to an inner conviction or memory.  Let me provide an example from my work to illustrate how it might be possible to get people interested in climate change.

A man wants to stop criticizing his kids.  He has an irresistible need to point out imperfections.  He feels that he can’t help it even though he knows that it hurts his children, angers his partner and diminishes his own confidence in himself.  The first thing that helps him is an analysis of why he does it. In this case, he is very uncomfortable with himself and worried about his own shortcomings.  Yet, the behavior seems automatic, leaping out before he has a chance to think about it.  One day, however, he notices a ten-speed bicycle leaning against a tree, and suddenly he vividly feels his childhood overwhelming him, not just as an intellectual memory but as embodied in his phsyique.  His legs and arms suddenly feel like those of a ten-year-old. When he criticizes his kids he can now feel what it must be like for them, and he is able to stop.

When trying to understand people’s destructive behavior toward the environment, keep in mind the mind’s capacity to dissociate (see also Bromberg) or compartmentalize. Like the man who criticizes his kids even though he doesn’t want to, people will also continue to behave destructively even though they don’t want to.  If the brain organizes different sets of experience into different drawers, when a person searches  in only one drawer for something they lost, they won’t necessarily find it if it is in another drawer.

Self analyze is a first step toward motivating the general population to behave differently. For instance, an advertisement could show one person driving a four person energy inefficient car, and an announcer might  say, “Why do you suppose he drives this vehicle practically empty when he could be sharing and reducing his carbon footprint by x%?”  The person watching this ad will think, actively engage with the issue, and wonder about his own behavior.

The next and most vital step however is for people to feel their relationship to the environment  through smell, touch, vision, sound and taste.  Some people advocate adventure therapy. There are also wilderness programs for troubled kids, or back to nature educational programs and tours. The Mountain School offers a semester living, working and eating off the school farm.  These concepts enable kids to viscerally connect to the environment so that it becomes a felt experience rather than simply an ideational one.

Yet, can this concept be more universally applied? What would happen if prisons were converted to farms?  According to the NYTimes, R.M. Hurd advocated for that in 1914.  Or, if every hospital had a garden that patients could tend? Could nursery schools could be organized in outdoor settings, like city parks, farms and gardens? Also, CSA’s are another way to help people connect to the environment in a more sensory way.

The point here is simple.  When individuals don’t act in their own best interest an emotional awakening often needs to accompany intellectual self awareness in order to produce  more optimal behavioral alternatives.  When people don’t act in their community’s best interest, they also need a more sensory based experience to promote social altruism.  If people are apathetic about climate change, the best way to inspire them is to create opportunities where people can develop long-term relationships to (not simply vacations in) their natural ecosystems.

As a person once said to me, “When I feel it, I stop shutting it out. It is like I have an experience deep down inside that has been crushed by years of just doing what is accepted and expected.  When I have flash of what life used to be like, when I read an early twentieth century novel, like Anne of Green Gables, or taste fresh milk, or smell wet grass, I’m transported to a feeling of what life was once like, to something my skin remembers, and then I care very much about what happens to the environment.”

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