Why environmental communications is all wrong.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of environmental advocacy groups, agencies, organizations – NGO, governmental, foundations, private industry-run – for decades have been working like heck to stem the tide of ecological destruction. Negotiating profound tensions of industry, economic development valuation of nature and wilderness and the human craving and need for healthy air, water and soil, it’s a veritable minefield, with occasional victories and too many defeats.

In recent years, a critique has been developing, sometimes one of honest self-reflection, and other times, fierce castigation. The realization, perhaps too late, is that the strategies, tactics and methods have simply not been effective. The reasons vary — from neglecting underlying values and worldviews of the audiences, to being too “doom and gloom.” (The criticism of “doom and gloom” was banished during a recent discussion at the Garrison Institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium, in which David Orr emphatically called on us to top berating ourselves for essentially telling the truth.)

Having worked in the environmental communications field for twenty years, studied and taught environmental communications and conducting doctoral research in psychology of environmental issues, I must say: I believe we’ve got it all wrong.

We crucially need some down-to-earth, grounded, boots-on-the-ground psychological insight to help guide the way. The sort of psychological insight that comes from working with people, directly and intimately. It’s the insight that recognizes how we manage anxieties, losses, and sorrow. How we manage news about our trespasses. How we can imagine ourselves as contributing and being part of (real) solutions. This is psychological terrain.

Take the recent piece by Joe Romm, An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces. A tour de force, this piece details the range of consequences we face through “doing nothing” to alter our current industrial and energy consumptive practices. While the objective of this piece is to inform, there is nothing here to suggest how we can actually address the “inaction” we so gravely face. What this piece does is illustrate graphically how we continue to describe in horrifying detail the threats and upheaval we face, without adequately taking measure of the psychological response to threat and upheaval and change.

True, we cannot generalize; some of us are mobilized by fear and anxiety, and feel the need to rescue, take action, “do the right thing.” We meet more people who are experiencing a shift in how they relate to their work, “born again” environmentalists who are waking up. (Note, new HBO series playing exactly on this poignant, moving theme in Enlightened. This program would not exist were it not for the sea change many are undergoing in the confluence of climate news and economic instability.) As I’ve been suggesting for years, environmental issues is really a form of existentialism. We cannot escape, as much as want to, that scratching the surface of “sustainability” (the latest, happier, more positive discursive spin on environmental threats and issues) is about who we are (as humans, as individuals, as communities and families); about what we value, and what gives life meaning. That’s it in a nutshell. Put the glitter on it, make it sexy, but you’re not going to avoid the fact it’s why we’re all doing this.

There are many theories about how to mobilize and engage people. Currently the flavor of the month (or recent years) as been CBSM – Community-Based Social Marketing. This is essentially a branded approach to behavior change, that works on the social level of targeting behavior change. It taps into the power of social norms and making small changes easier and more accessible. There is nothing here about addressing the emotional complexity of the issues, the conflicts we find ourselves in as industrialized entities facing the limits to our growth, or the pain involved in changing our behaviors (systemically, which is to say, also our identities). Related approaches frame behavior change as an engineer or an economist would – and it’s no surprise, as many advisers on behavior change are engineers and economists. Current behavior change work is an elaborated, souped-up model of B.F. Skinner – behavioralism, the essential psychic logic of rewards (or costs and benefits). Drive less, get a reward. Use a canvas bag, get a reward. Do small things, get points, bonuses, rewards. But we’ve come a lot way in our understandings of psychodynamics since Skinner’s time. Why are we still continuing to talk like Skinnerians?

We want and need behavior change. However, there are many reasons why approaching this as if we are rational, self-interested, encapsulated egos won’t lead us to the changes we deeply need to be making. Not withstanding it flies in the face of innovations in mental health fields, for now I’ll mention just one.

The emotional realities of our situation. The psychodynamics of emotionally charged issues as environmental threats (code: plastics, fossil fuels, cheap energy, all those things that grease the wheels and constitute normalcy for us).

For some reason, we prefer to gloss over, skip and ignore the psycho-social dimensions of what these issues mean. This means, very simply, The emotional dimensions or effects of learning about our ecological predicaments.

Let’s imagine a patient comes into a therapist’s office, and wants to stop an addictive behavior. Does the therapist shout and present pages and pages of data about how destructive the addiction will cause, or admonish the person for not doing enough? No, not if the therapist is any good. The therapist will apply a range of strategies and techniques to help the patient come to systemic behavioral change. Some of this may involve exploring not only the symptoms but the causes, and tolerating the painfulness of this. Other approaches may involve allowing for the patient to just simply talk about what life may be life without the addiction.

What psychodynamic therapy has to offer is a meaning-based approach to deep, systemic change. Often simply talking and being heard is enough. But what we don’t seem to understand is that we need to employ psychodynamically inspired strategies to help people move from “inaction” to “action,” to access the deep potential we have for generating change. And I don’t mean tiny, small behavioral changes. I mean change on the scale of demanding more leadership from policy-makers, and experiencing ourselves as agents of change.

This is what my work is about and what I invite you to join me with. Together, why don’t we revision what our work looks like and does, if it actually applies tried-and-true psychological practices and wisdom.


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