The art of the cognitive war to save the planet

Paper by Antal & Hukkinen 2010
Discussed at the Journal club 18.5.2012

This survey paper addresses some rather profound issues related to saving our planet, as the title suggests. It takes a cognitive approach to what is required from environmental policies to change human behavior with respect to environmental problems. The paper is certainly thought provoking, even provocative in style. The fact that I ran out of paper for making notes perhaps best describes the intensity of discussion.

The paper builds around belief system networks, illustrated as simple graphs for (1) the past hunter-gatherer societies, (2) present community, and (3) what should be built to achieve the fundamental behavior change required for sustainability. The human need for safety is what drives our behavior, but in different times it has meant different things: from mere survival in the past, to wealth and power today. These examples of modern vs. historical belief systems really helped in putting things to a broader context and explaining the reasons behind the current ignorance and negligence of environmental issues.

It is a fascinating insight that it is actually the possibilities provided by the modern day society to accumulate wealth and power that has caused a detachment from the other main factor of security: predictability of future (or maximal circumstantial safety). We are under the illusion that by increasing our personal power we would be independent of the environment around us, whereas in reality, a society where wellbeing is presumed to depend on consumption is more dependent than ever on natural resources. Therefore, it is the increased wealth that is driving people towards individualism (or bluntly put, selfishness), as opposed to wealth being a prerequisite for taking care of the environment, as often is claimed. This raised some thoughts about the impacts of social policy to sustainability:  the ever increasing economic inequality might enhance this illusion even more and create a vicious circle. The stronger the competition between individuals, the more they believe to find safety in personal wealth and power, and the less they will care for sustainability.  This may seem obvious once you’ve read it, but at least for me it was one of those “finally someone put it into words” moments. The paper very neatly sews together the pieces that we knew were there, but didn’t quite make all the connections.

The journal clubbers were also impressed how clearly the authors managed to explain the concept of the double bind with an example of a child wanting to hug her mother, but becoming rejected with help of an apparently benevolent lie. We are the child choosing to accept the lie that our independence increases with consumption, because recognizing the limits of the planet would cause us to lose the false feeling of security.

After this exuberant appraisal let’s move on to the critique. The paper works extremely well as an introduction to the topic, but left us a bit puzzled about the solutions to address the dilemma. At a theoretical level, (re-)creating connections between the individual vs. community level considerations sounds like the right (although perhaps obvious) path to take. Such connections existed in past societies in the form of religious and spiritual rules of the type: “the gods must be pleased to keep the land fertile”, or “the spirits will get angry if too many trees are felled”. Obviously in the modern world such rules should be science based.

But aren’t we (or some people at least) already trying to recreate these connections?  Aren’t virtually all environmental awareness campaigns trying to warn us about the consequences of uncontrolled consumption? Like the WWFs Ecological Debt Day as an excellent example. And isn’t this why the concept of Ecosystem Services has been launched? OK, so maybe the point is to make these connections even more concrete and ubiquitous. The “brownouts” for concretizing energy shortages in the minds of the consumers serve as a sort of shock treatment, and the authors go on to suggest that often various kinds of regulatory sanctions should be stricter. Some of us saw the progressive energy taxation suggested by the Finnish Green party as a better option. This might also work better because it in a way balances off with the other side of the safety requirements: the more energy you consume, the more you pay for it and reduce your personal wealth. If money is what matters to people the most, then in general the most effective and quickest way to have an impact is to make bad things expensive and sustainability cheap. Then again, you’d only need to get filthy rich to be able to pollute all you want. A bit tricky. Making unsustainability expensive doesn’t alleviate the fundamental problem of lack of caring, where probably any significant impact can only be achieved with early environmental education and children’s empathy training… well, let’s leave that for another discussion.

Another issue we vividly discussed was the criticism towards IPCC and similar bodies for their emphasis on uncertainties, which gives too much space for criticism and skepticism. The authors advise drawing a clearer line between science and policy, when it comes to communication. To us as natural scientists it is a painful dilemma to figure out how to report research findings to the public simplifying them enough while recognizing the uncertainties, which are unavoidably always there.

Some thought they saw some mixed messages in whether the authors were promoting top-down vs. bottom-up policy approaches. On the one hand, the authors defend stricter regulation and use of political rhetoric to mobilize people, and defend their “totalitarian undertones” by explaining how not only dictators but also many strong democratic leaders have taken advantage of simplified punch lines for a greater good. But at the same time they promote social learning, improved environmental communication strategies, “local adaptive co-management practices” etc. Perhaps they are not mutually exclusive, but should be used as an adaptive mix.

We ended our discussion with a slightly melancholic undertone. Well, realistically speaking, we didn’t expect a single 7-page paper to actually save our planet, we just got so excited by the first two thirds that the final part seemed a bit of a downer. In retrospect, the paper was well worth reading, and even educational for this crowd. We are not social scientists and reading such papers is always some kind of a struggle, but this paper was definitely not among the hardest pieces of reading for laymen. The jargon that was used was also explained, rather well in fact. In sum, I’d warmly recommend the paper to anyone in any branch of research, policy or management related to saving our planet.