Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day Two: Themes

Today has been a day of themes emerging from the apparent randomness of the various talks.
One hopes that this was planned by the organizers, but one never really knows.

The day began a bit late, with the Consuming Better: What Neuroscience Says About a Sustainable Future which echoed some of the sentiments of the keynote from Tuesday.  The primary gist is this:  You cannot expect humans to stop acting like humans.  The only thing you can do is engineer systems that take into account how humans actually behave and make decisions.

And that's an important idea.  Much of the root cause of a lot of the failures in environmental policy thus far have been because we try to push for how people to behave the way they should act, even when that seems to be in direct contradiction with how they do act. Most people simply don't want less. They don't want to live in a low energy society. The previous people who did live in such a society opted to create this one, and people make the transition from an agrarian life style to an urban one at an astonishing rate every day.

Neuroscience is showing us that human brains are not rational devices, but that they are somewhat predictable. Most humans tend towards outcomes that lend them perceived status relative to their peers, even if that means they are worse off, in absolute terms. This means that our brains will fool us: wine we believe to be expensive tastes better than wine we think is cheap.  We engage in conspicuous consumption.

Another interesting fact is that when you provide people with feedback, they shape their behavior to optimize that feedback signal.  Thus we drive a car more efficiently when we can see the mileage instantaneously (the Prius Effect).

If we can manage the energy problem (which is no small feat) and take these things about human nature into consideration, then we can go a long way towards having a more sustainable society.

The keynote for today was given the the CEO of the Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek.  It was, in the tradition of keynotes thus far, not stupendous.  He spent most of his time discussing the core constituencies for the Nature Conservancy (average people, business, government, and kids), giving examples of their activities, and talking about how we need to change the nature of dialogue, take risks, engage people we think of as the bad guys, and so forth.  He finished very early, and took questions from the audience, some of which got quite challenging.  He mostly did a fair job of answering them without getting too defensive, but the tone in the room was not terribly convivial.

I finished out the day with two panels that blended into each other, "Building a Better Climate Movement" and "Let’s Stop Talking About Sustainability: How Our Current Vocabulary is Failing Us".  Both of these addressed--as others had tangentially--how the environmental movement as a whole seems to have lost its way, and the severely uphill battle it now faces.

This is one of the other themes of SXSWEco so far:  Why do we suck at getting our message across, at winning the hearts of the middle of America?  No one ventured the proposition that it was because interested parties have created the image of an environmentalist as a shoeless, patchouli stink hippie, unfortunately.  Much the discussion centered around the fact that we have become enamored of facts, and think they're all we need.  But, as we have seen earlier, facts are insufficient, and people do not respond well to them, per se.  Andrew Huston put it best, saying "We don't have any pathos."

This, I think is the biggest problem facing the Environmental Movement as a whole.  We seem to have lost the ability to tell a compelling story.  One of the other really key facts about human nature is how we respond to narrative.  We are essentially narrative machines, creating stories about everything, constantly, from when we are small children, all the way to the grave.  Narrative is an incredibly powerful tool, and it is wielded against environmental causes very effectively.  It's really time for the movement (and even scientists like myself) to relearn how to wrap our message, our data, our precious facts, in the mantle of narrative.  Once we've mastered that, I don't think there will be anything that could stop us, because our story can be a better one than that being told by those who want to maintain the status quo.

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