Why Environmentalists Should Think Like Pro Athletes

Ed Yourdon/CC BY-SA 2.0

Anyone watching the Super Bowl on Sunday will have seen human beings performing incredible feats. Yet none of these footballers is superhuman, they have simply learned to perform in an "optimal state" of consciousness.

The environmental movement must learn to do the same.

I am currently reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is a fascinating look at those times—which almost all of us have experienced—where we are totally involved in what we are doing; where we seem to be performing better, more effectively, and more efficiently than normal; and yet where our actions flow seemingly effortlessly despite the sometimes extraordinary tasks we are involved in.

From rock climbing through reading to conversations with friends, researchers have shown that the "Flow State" exists across cultures and across a remarkably diverse range of activities. But it is triggered by similar conditions and, says Csikszentmihalyi, individuals and organizations can learn to encourage that state simply by designing for the conditions that encourage flow.

So how can we greenies learn to harness the flow state? I suspect we already are.

Gideon/CC BY 2.0

The rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline can be attributed to a number of factors, including election-year politics; savvy negotiating and geo-political concerns well beyond the influence of your average green campaigner. But it was also heavily influenced by one of the most effective, powerful and rapidly assembled green campaigns we have seen in recent times. And the strategies and tactics of that movement have many parallels with the conditions that encourage Flow. This from the wikipedia entry on Flow:

1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

From the taking on of a specific end goal, to the constant communication that the challenge was daunting but achievable, the anti-Keystone campaign was a text book case on how to promote Flow. Even the constant email updates from Bill McKibben and friends helped create a real-time sense of what was happening behind the scenes in the corridors of power. It really felt like a complex game of chess we were all involved in, rather than a simple case of us raising our voices and somebody else, somewhere else, making the decisions or knocking on doors.

See Ming-Lee/CC BY-SA 2.0

Even the fact that campaign activities were centered around specific challenges—provoking mass arrests, encircling the White House—helped to focus attention on immediate goals and successes, even when the pipeline itself felt like a foregone conclusion. The result was a mass movement that literally felt, as Reverend Yearwood has said, like the environmental movement had gotten its mojo back.

Shadia Fayne Wood, Tar Sands Action via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In a world facing unbelievably daunting challenges, with potentially catastrophic consequences, it can be easy to lose heart and view the task ahead of us as hopeless. I suspect this is why so many environmentalists learn to focus on individual action instead of collective success—because we know we can shape our own lives, but the idea of shifting society just seems too intimidating to contemplate. But rather than shying away from engagement, or under-emphasizing the dangers we face for fear of scaring people away, the green movement would do better to grasp the nettle with both hands, but do so in a manner that is conducive to promoting Flow. So that means identifying specific, achievable targets. It means heightening our sense of participation by paying close attention to feedback mechanisms and metrics for success. And it means acting with a strategic sense of coordination between different groups and actors.

Human beings have been playing "games" since the beginning of time. The stakes in this particular game are enormous. Let's learn to play well.

Tags: Activism | Occupy Wall Street | Tar Sands Action | United States

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