Tag Archive: strangers

Emily is incredibly fortunate to occasionally contribute her stories and thoughts to the Lift Blog maintained by some management and leadership experts she deeply admires, Bob and Ryan Quinn from the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, respectively. This father/son pair wrote a book entitled “Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation” that inspires the blog. This week, Ryan posted a blog that started to analyze an experience Emily had while trying to progress efforts for large scale environmental education and engagement. Ryan takes a first pass at understanding whether or not it matters if people believe in climate change… in this conversation and analysis- maybe it doesn’t.

Click here for the story/ analysis

The University of Michigan connects its students to AMAZING people. Not too long ago I found myself in a casual conversation with a member of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during a presentation reception. The things said in that conversation have changed me forever.

The presentation preceding the conversation was about the amazing efforts our government is taking to address today’s problems through progressing science and technology. From carbon recapture to nano-everything, we seemed to be working on it. It felt really great to see such inertia in science under this administration.

That said, the picture painted seemed incomplete.

Given the urgent gravity of the problems the espoused technology are posed to solve, I was hoping to hear more “prongs” to the approach of solving them. Specifically, I wanted to hear about how the administration had scanned all the sciences, including social sciences, to identify many levers for addressing problems. I wanted to hear about how research in neuro-cognitive studies, sociology, ethics, and environmental and health behavior was informing research into proposed technologies and so on.
I didn’t hear this inclusion of social science and and my questions lingered. What if technology isn’t found fast enough? What if even when it is found it will be ineffective, not enough, not used, etc.? Why weren’t we calling on social sciences to figure out why the potential for carbon reduction from EXISTING, tested technologies has not yet been realized. ? Couldn’t social science help us figure out the obvious gap in what we know about nutrition and how we eat? My primary wonder is this: Why aren’t we talking about changing individual and organizational behavior?

So I asked some version of this last question to my new acquaintance from the Office of Science and Technology.

His answer was eloquent and respectful. He had clearly thought a great deal about the topic, without a doubt more than I have in my entire lifetime. But… he admitted abandoning the passion he had for changing behavior long ago. When I asked why he said many things but the one that stuck out was, “because it is too hard.”

Too hard. No reference to suggest support for targeted social science coming elsewhere in government and a suggestion that “Too hard” is now an acceptable reason to abandon ship.

If I needed any more reason to become passionate about studying environmental behavior and organizational change in business, I just found it. “Too hard” is not good enough. “Too hard” closes opportunities social psychologists, organizational theorists, behavioral psychologists, etc work to create. Opportunities we need to exist. Opportunities that will help fill the gaps left by an exclusive technology and cap and trade policy approach to mitigation. Opportunities that, if ceased, could better many societal problems simultaneously. (What else happens when you bike to work, use a clothesline, shop at farmers markets, encourage a corporate culture that authentically cares about all stakeholders, etc?)

Maybe my expectations of the knowledge my new acquaintance would have about such efforts were unfounded. Maybe the support for a behavior change approach comes from a different part of government. (LET me know if that is the case!) Maybe I was talking with someone who is not up to speed on the progress made in behavioral, environmental, and organizational psychology AND SO ON since he last visited ideas about this “lever” for change (pretty sure it was long ago). Maybe supporting behavior change initiatives has economic and (consequentially?) political implications that might make such an investment risky or unfavorable for the requisite politicians. Maybe we have a hard time translating social science findings into action. Maybe my thinking is made possible by naivety. Or… maybe it is “too hard.”

But those are just excuses I’d be accepting despite myself. Unspoken excuses that “we” accept despite ourselves. Not only do I believe that the social sciences offer new levers to addressing social problems, I believe that levers drawn from social science insight are the ones that need to be pulled soon… now…decades ago. This project, including all the As, Bs, and Cs in your stories, is a proverbial electron of an atom of a molecule that comprises the tip of the iceberg when it comes to observations (and research!) that suggest changing behavior is possible and a good idea.

Nobody said it was easy, but I am not convinced that is a reason to disregard that which can be labeled “hard.”

In many ways farmers are at the forefront of the movement toward sustainable change. They are the industry that has seen the most change in consumer behavior in the name of environmental stewardship. Note the amazing growth the farmer’s market segment of food retail in the last years. Maybe this is because food directly affects families’ health as well as the environment, local economies, and food security? Perhaps it is because the link between action and personal or environmental benefit is tangible and immediate? Rachel surely knows more than I do on these topics (specifically how many people have NOT made these connections and changed behaviors) so I’ll stop there.

We’ll have more posts about farmers, food, sustainable agriculture, etc as this is Rachel’s passion but I wanted to tell a quick story about farmers’ going beyond compliance with USDA organic guidelines and expectations of good behavior at a conference to “go green.”

Years ago, (2006?) I attended a session with some small farmers while at a giant conference the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture hosts annually. I was invited to this conference by the owners of Northstar Cafe, which you can find discussed in my first Small Infinity story., and found it to be highly relevant and inspiring. I saw both Sandra Steingraber and John Ikerd speak at this conference- more on those too soon as both of them remain on my list of influential thinkers.

Man do I digress…

The title of the session, something vague about connecting small farms to wind power, attracted enough participants to fill the room. The speaker, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly attracting the attention of the crowd. It turns out the crowd was filled with mostly farmers who wanted the speaker to enable action- steps, contacts, cost analysis, how-to stories- while the speaker was filled with lots of information on high-level policy of wind power on small farms. The tension of the mismatch was palpable.

By the end of the session, the audience was acting like a classroom of 4th grade girls during study hall. I saw people whispering and passing notes everywhere. From my spot in the midst of the farmers, I overheard people saying things like “here talk to these people” and noticed that the people “in the know” about HOW to get wind power on small farms were cranking out as many little notes as their pocket of crumpled receipts would permit.

Lesson: Small Infinities enable each and are open to opportunity beyond expectation.

Sometimes you overhear small infinity stories at the most unlikely times… and even that can change you.

I was driving out of a parking garage later in the evening last week and clearly it was busy enough to warrant two cashier booths but not slow enough to stop the cashiers from keeping their windows open and chatting across the lane that separated them. I was sad to break up the talking and laughing as I approached.

I am hopelessly curious and relish opportunities to laugh with strangers so I asked what they were discussing, in hopes they’d let me join. As Parking Lot Attendant A was taking my cash and preparing his words, he pulled a copy of the book “Fast Food Nation” out of his lap. I saw the title flash, recognized the importance of the moment, and quickly rolled down the passenger window of my car to create a tunnel through my car for him to continue teaching Parking Lot Attendant B and now me. Parking Lot Attendant A was soaking up the message of the book. As I pulled away he was talking about his first meal from Whole Foods that afternoon made him feel different and healthier already.

An image of the “food cups” from the movie Wall-e flashed through my mind. I wish I could find a clip of the scene where the captain first learns that food can be so much more than processed junk in a cup. It would be perfect to share here.

I often wonder how warped my view of the world is given that the places where I spend most of my time are filled with people who read, study, and passionately live to their definition of “sustainability.” OK so I also spend a lot of time in places where people do NOT live to any definition of sustainability but that is intentional on my part. (Professional Change Agency will do that to ya.) This encounter was a refreshingly hopeful reminder that although my life may happen in a bubble of like-minded people (Erb, SNRE, etc.), it is actually just one active node in a huge network of people from all walks of life headed in the same direction.

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