Where Doth Climate, Mind & Behavior Meet?


Image courtesy of the Garrison Institute

The first day of the Climate, Mind & Behavior conference at the Garrison Institute saw a parade of economists, scientists, and thinkers try to pinpoint what exactly might motivate us fickle, easily distracted humanfolk to address broad, distant-seeming threats like climate change. The event gathers 90 or so of the nation's big environmental minds -- climate scientists, authors, biologists, psychologists, designers, businessmen and journalists -- with the aim of cultivating new modes of messaging, strategizing, and networking to get the climate message out to a broader audience. It was a long, brainy day. Here are some highlights:And when I say highlights, I mean highlights -- consider this the Cliff's Notes to a day that gave way to what was an essentially nonstop stream of theorizing and pontificating about the interactions of climate science, human behavior, energy efficiency, and neuroscience.

Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA kicked off the day with a talk on the neurological basis of behavior, and how the mind, the brain, and human relationships together comprise the fundamentals of the individual experience -- not just any one of those entities. He argued that understanding this concept, that the self should be treated as a plural verb rather than an isolated 'I', was essential to imparting the urgent need for empathy that might spur people to help one another overcome the challenges of climate change.

Next, economist John Gowdy asserted that the neoclassical model of economics on which policymakers rely is deeply flawed -- instead of rational actors, there's a major body of scientific evidence supporting the notion that we're highly unpredictable, largely social beings. Instead of individually-minded, "homogenous globules of desire" that act with our own best interests in mind as certain social darwinists would have it, we're deeply affected by an irrational set of concerns like the opinions of others and ideologies. We might, for example, refuse to address climate change despite it being in our best interests to do so.

Dr. Jonathan Rowson discussed the social brain, and discussed the vast human networks through which information travels -- and why understanding how that network operates and how to tap into it will be paramount to fostering wider understanding of climate issues.

Dr. Drew Western, a professor of psychology, and psychiatry at Emory University, beamed in on Skype to explain why modern conservatives are so much better at spreading their messages than liberals, and that they'd made anti-climate rhetoric into one of their key messages. To get on message, climate actioneers need to craft relatable narratives that bring the climate story home, and avoid employing too many cumbersome statistics.

Finally, a crew of energy researchers and economists tackled the question of how to promote energy efficiency, noting that simply by inspiring better energy consumption behavior, the US could save, annually, the amount of electricity it takes to power all of Brazil. The better and more up-to-date info people have on their energy consumption, the more they'll do to lessen it. It also helps if they know whether or not their neighbors are using less energy than they are -- keeping up with the Joneses can lead to cutting back, too, it seems.

That's all I've got time to get to today -- sleep in a rickety bed (the Garrison Institute grounds are a charming converted monastery) beckons. Stay tuned for more updates tomorrow.

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