Today’s blog is the latest in a series from Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, ran the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, launching a degree in Sustainability Studies. His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability. As ever, with our blogs, Richard’s views are not necessarily shared by NAEE.
In my last post, I emphasized that my research showed the vast majority of people support a sustainable world, even if a large group are still locked into what can be termed ‘Self-Indulgent Materialism (Logical Idealists – LIs).’ Dunlap and Van Liere showed as early as 1978 that many people were already transitioning to a ‘New Environmental Paradigm (NEP)’ and were ready to discard an older “Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP).’ So why then over forty years on is this transition proving so difficult? My belief is that the people running our global economy are so entrenched in the DSP they would go down with the ship taking all of us aboard rather than abandon it. They are currently being buoyed up by the LIs with many of the rest simply following along with no vision or hope to guide them. The solution? Getting people to ignore the proverbial ship’s officers and follow a new vision with hope and possibility. As I have learned from years of watching political campaigns, people respond readily to emotional appeals and not hard cold facts and rationale.
As a higher education educator much of my coursework was about facts and explanations. My favorite course, and the one that I saw yielded most positive change in my students towards sustainability, was my Worldviews course. The course was a historical narrative that asked the students to look closely at their beliefs and values, and the stories they tell about themselves – to come to understand their social conditioning that has set their worldview. You do not change a belief with facts but through cognitive dissonance. You have to challenge personal narratives in a way that creates reflection, forcing the individual to recognize inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, and behavioral decisions towards the stories that seem to define us.
Napoleon Bonaparte is reputed to have said, “History is an agreed upon fiction.” Our conditioning is also an agreed upon fiction in how we perceive the world, and much of it comes from historical narratives and stories that we use to define ourselves. If we are to connect with the rest of humanity and also the natural world then we need to learn how we choose to express ourselves as humans. If we choose to see ourselves as a dominating species of conquerors, we likely continue to choose actions full of hate, spite, animosity, and tribalistic compartmentalization. Beyond facts we need to show how we choose our humanity, full of compassion, love, respect, and cooperation across ideological boundaries.
When we look closely at the stories we tell ourselves we need to look closely at the language we use in those stories. How we think within our worldview directly affects how we act. Social linguists, Lakoff & Johnson make the case that metaphors unconsciously structure our beliefs and thoughts and hence, actions in our daily lives. In most modern cultures, a ‘war’ metaphor dominates, even when they are not at war with anything specifically. Whether it be business, sports, personal relationships, community living, or even interaction with the natural world, people talk with language that mirrors a war environment. This of course means that everything and everyone is unconsciously an adversary in which we are in dire competition. Even discussions are argumentative battles that must be won instead of for understanding. Again, this is typical of a competitive mindset that justifies winners and losers.
A negative mindset will typically produce negative reactions to any situation. It is not that competition is inherently negative, after all it can be used to bring out the best in someone even if they do not actually win, but when framed as only a win-lose, where losing is seen as negative, then it is a negative mind frame. We should all be encouraging each other to excel in all we do, but glorifying only the winners is detrimental to us all. Another linguist, Robert Schrauf, found that most people in a westernized society predominately use negative words when describing emotional states, which is problem of the times in which we live. We have been conditioned to express negativity. Since the times we live in are actually one of the safest periods in known history, our paranoia is really a product of the amount of negative input we face, day in, day out – the war-conflict metaphor that runs our lives! Consider how often this kind of negative-conflict narrative is used in conveying environmental information. If we are to truly become a society that values cooperation, unity, and a sustainable vision of positive hope, then perhaps we should look closely at our own messaging and finally throw out the doom and gloom approach that is still so prevalent in trying to drive behavior change for a sustainable world.
Richard can be contacted at: Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org.