Jun 16, 2011

What gets you fired up?

I haven't always worked in sustainability, and at first glance my path to this work looks rather random.  I originally moved to the U.S. to work in a specific lab, towards a PhD in biologically-based artificial intelligence.  In some ways it is far enough removed from what I do today that I joke about this being "a former life", but my interests haven't changed - only my priorities.

I grew up an environmentalist - first in the narrow "we must save beautiful places" sense, and as a teenager moving to a much broader understanding that we have to take care of the environment because threats like climate change have the potential to hurt so many people so badly.  I've also always felt that the world can only be understood with scientific tools, and unfortunately happened to start university (in the U.K.) just as Greenpeace was ramping up its campaign against genetically modified foods.  The problem wasn't the cause itself, so much as the horrifyingly anti-science rhetoric used.  Flyers that scaremongered about "alien viral DNA" had the opposite effect on me: they blinded me to the [more complicated, but nonetheless important] real issues around GM food.  Overall, the shriekingly science-phobic campaign gave me such a bad feeling about the environmental movement as a whole that I ignored it for years.

What brought me back was a combination of the complex systems work I was doing on the way to a PhD, and Jared Diamond's book "Collapse".  The more I learned about complex systems, the more frightening the IPCC's climate change predictions started to sound.  With a proper understanding of feedbacks and tipping points, climate change went from being a vague theoretical worry to a convincingly real threat to cities and agriculture.  Meanwhile, "Collapse" showed me how real the risk is that as a global society we won't manage to respond usefully to what's going on until it's far too late.  The last thing I wrote on my academic blog sums up the human side: Why I found "Collapse" so depressing.

All of this made me feel that the global environmental crisis was simply too important and too urgent to ignore.  I dropped out of the PhD and started looking for work in the sustainability sector.  In the four years since then, I've become convinced that the real action is on the social side.  The science is well enough developed that we know what needs to be done.  The technology is good enough that we have the tools to do it.  The problem is educating people, and changing behaviour at every level from individuals to governments.  I've been looking for tools to push back the materialism and atomisation that lead to collapse, and help bring about a world in which we all understand what we really need, and look out for each other, because we need that for humans to continue to thrive.

So now I find myself running a training program, and helping out wherever my skills are relevant with the Happiness Initiative, which is all about the change in values and the public conversation that needs to happen.  And now I'm experimenting with something new: working on a collaborative handbook for social change campaigns.

One of the things we need to understand to make social change campaigns effective—to make them recruit people to causes we believe in instead of driving them away—is what motivates people to care about an issue.  Joe Brewer and I have plenty of ideas, but we want some personal stories.  What kind of social change do you care passionately about, and what got you engaged?

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