Saturday, March 30, 2013

Communicating sustainability: lessons from public health

Experts in public health have struggled with enabling behaviour change for years. The sustainability sector should learn what it can from their experiencesSteven Johnson
On the Road
Lessons for sustainability: having travelled the long-hard road of tobacco control, public health knows that behaviour change is a journey, not an event. Photograph: Frank Whitney/Brand X/Corbis
Consumer behaviour change is the challenge of our time. As governments and brands are beginning to realise, upstream improvements are relatively easy to make compared with the herculean task of shifting consumer behaviours downstream.
While the sustainability community is just beginning to get to grips with the gravity of this challenge, our colleagues in public health have been wrestling with it for decades. Great progress has been made, but hard lessons have been learned – costly, time-consuming lessons that we can all learn from.

People need more information

No they don't. They need practical tools. Public health has spent decades firing messages and health information at target audiences with little demonstrable impact on behaviour. With message fatigue reaching epidemic proportions and behavioural science clear on the limitations of rational appeals, public health has finally drawn back from its relentless campaigning to focus more on clear, actionable steps, combined with practical support to implement them.
Information is necessary for change, but is not sufficient. It will only contribute to behavioural outcomes if it is integrated with consideration of how we create conditions in which the information can be acted on.

We need to inspire people

No we don't. We need to take them on a journey. Having travelled the long-hard road of tobacco control and smoking cessation, public health knows this all too well. Behaviour change is a journey, not an event. It happens over time, it goes through different stages, encounters different obstacles and doesn't necessarily move forward all the time.
One off, tactical interventions may trigger temporary, symbolic behaviours – give up X for a day; turning off Y for an hour etc – but sustainable change requires long-term strategic approaches based on robust behavioural theories and models of change.

Attitudes drive behaviours

No they don't. Contexts drive behaviours. For decades, public health laboured under the common sense assumption (supported by the more traditional social psychology literature) that the attitudes we hold determine the behaviours we manifest: if people agree that excessive alcohol consumption is a bad thing, they won't drink to excess. This radical reductionism is not only wasteful (it doesn't work), but also unethical.
An exclusive focus on internal psychological constructs (such as attitudes) places disproportionate emphasis on the individual as the locus for change, and removes due consideration of the social and structural influences that surround them. Effective and ethical behaviour change interventions take a holistic approach that influence at the social and structural levels, not just the individual.

Market research will give us the answers

No it won't. But collaboration will drive innovation. While the intention-action gap is relatively new to sustainability, it has been public health's arch nemesis for decades. In both cases, it is rooted in the simple fact that what people say and what they do are often two very different things, especially when it comes to issues that have a normative or moral dimension... such as health and sustainability behaviours.
Despite this, most market research is still built around methodologies that drag people out their natural context, sit them in a room and ask them what they think. While some would say that public health has only just started to listen to citizen perspectives, considerable work has been done recently under the banners of co-design, co-creation and co-production to base public health behaviour change efforts on collaboration rather than consultation.
The surge of quantitative, survey-based data demonstrating how consumers intend to recycle more, buy more ethically, base purchase decisions on brand behaviour etc have a role to play in building our insight and establishing baselines. However, sustainability behaviour change needs to quickly begin moving on from the neat rows of tick boxes to the messy complexity of people's real lives as the primary source of inspiration for effective intervention.

We need a hard-hitting approach

No we don't. We need an empowering approach. The use of shock or fear appeals is a public health addiction that is hard to shake: the tumours growing out of cigarettes, the drunk people flying off buildings, the graphic car crashes. However, while these approaches generate widespread publicity and evaluate well for recall, the spike in awareness rarely correlates with any sort of sustainable behaviour change.
Thanks to the recent popularisation of behavioural economics, and particularly the work of Daniel Kahneman, we know how adept the human cognitive system is at protecting itself from emotions that it would rather not have to deal with. Dramatic depictions trigger defence mechanisms just as quickly, if not more quickly, than they trigger emotions and the viewer has recall to a range of strategies to distance themselves from the message.
For sustainability behaviour change, this means moving away Armageddon and extinction as motivators to more positive depictions of a future built from the behaviours we seek to bring about.

We need a TV ad to reach the masses

No we don't. We need tailored strategies based on the particular needs of specific segments. The entire preventive health agenda in the UK over recent years has been defined by challenge of health inequalities: the fact that certain sections of society consistently display poorer health outcomes.
The long hard lesson that public health has learned is that one-size-fits all approaches to behaviour change, such as mass-media campaigns, run the risk of actually widening health inequalities. That is, they accelerate change among those who are already considering it or implementing it – almost invariably the whiter, better educated, and more affluent – while ignoring those who could benefit most from intervention.
Segmentation is nothing new to sustainability, but it generally isn't applied with anything like the same rigour as it is in public health. There is clearly much to learn from this. Specifically a shift to thinking in terms of sustainability inequalities would focus resources on sections of society that are most in need of intervention, rather than those that are easiest to engage, and it would facilitate the development of more effective interventions, based on the real needs of real people.

But this issue is really important

No it's not. Work, money and family are important. The rudest of all awakenings for public health was the realisation that it's not really that important to most people's lives. Yes, people value "health" in the abstract, but especially when it come to preventive health and lifestyle-related illness, it's simply not proximate or relevant enough to influence day-to-day life.
This has led to the recognition that if we are to effectively drive behaviour change, we need to locate our issue within people's existing value sets and priorities, rather than seek to extend their values sets to encompass our issue. In very basic terms, we make healthy eating about being able to play football with your son, rather than about preventing heart disease; we make being smoke-free about attracting the opposite sex, rather than preventing lung disease.
Culturally, sustainability is a scientific issue and most behaviour change work is built on the assumption that people will attach as much importance to climate change, species diversity and resource depletion as the scientists do. It is essential therefore that when it comes to consumer behaviour change, we take their lives not our issue as a starting point.
Steven Johnson is an independent writer, speaker and creative consultant specialising in sustainability, CSR and behaviour change. He is a D&AD trustee, founder of Collaborative Change and author of upcoming book, Considered Creative. He blogs and tweets as@Considered_
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Friday, March 29, 2013

Distributed Power: From the One to the Many

Grist magazine has an interesting article on the emergence of the distributed power grid (let's not confuse this with transport energy) as an example of 'emergent complexity.'

Distributed energy: Driving the ghosts out of the machine

The folks over at Platts have a feature on distributed energy called “the ghost in the machine.” That title is ironic, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute. Still, it’s great to see outfits like Platts taking note of this stuff. For a broad view of the same trend, check out my post on “the next big thing in energy: decentralization.”
Platts begins:
The wave of small-scale power generation technologies — technically known as distributed energy resource (DER) systems — that are growing in use or undergoing rapid development across Europe, from fuel cells to micro turbines, photovoltaic systems and reciprocating engines, do indeed point to a fundamental change in the way, and by whom, power is generated, transmitted and stored.
More from the Platts report:

What do these month-on-month declines in high voltage power use tell us? Three things for sure: that industrial, grid-connected demand is down; that there is no evidence of HV demand recovery to pre-2008 levels; and that Europe’s central plant overcapacity is likely to keep generation margins comfortable and prices down for the foreseeable future.

Increasingly, however, there is another factor at play. High voltage deliveries are facing competition from local network production. With its arsenal of a million PV-paneled roofs, Europe’s ‘prosumer’ army is turning the traditional transmission/distribution relationship on its head. Further up the consumer chain there are companies building their own PV farms connecting directly to their facilities to avoid fees. The era of assuming grid statistics give us an accurate picture of overall production and consumption is over

Then there are the sixteen Bundesländer themselves, who have ambitious renewable energy plans that, taken as a whole, exceed federal plans. “Everybody more or less wants energy independence,” Burger said. “This is a powerful movement, the people want to be the agents of change, communities want to attract new inhabitants focusing on new technology, which will breed growth clusters, as well as provide work for local artisans, reducing unemployment. There are signs of a ‘race to the top’ now, with communities generating PV power trying to integrate e-vehicles into their systems.”

The key is not technology but engagement of the community. “I’d say this is not a big bang revolution, rather this is a thousand stings,” Burger said. “It is not just the communities, it is individuals with PV panels on their roofs, it is not just one technology, it is a number of technologies, not necessarily renewables, there might be gas-fired or biogas generation in there. This is more to do with final control, the proposition that if I create value it is kept within my region.”
*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
It’s not just about the power generation, of course, it’s also about storage, intelligent management, and demand reduction. It’s about creating a lean, resilient, just-in-time electricity system to replace the lumbering dinosaur we live with today.
The centralized paradigm, which still dominates, is simple. It’s a one-way street from generators to transmission to distribution to (passive) consumers:
Platts: centralized power generation
Click to embiggen.
The localized paradigm is more complex, with power going every which way, via multiple technologies:
Platts: localized power generation
Click to embiggen.
The transition from the former to the latter is going to scramble everything, not only the economics of power but the institutions, the regulations, the political landscape, the technology, and of course the carbon content. It’s going to be fun to watch.
So yeah, mainly I just wanted an excuse to post those graphics. But I know all of you are wondering, “Why is the title ‘ghost in the machine’ ironic?” Well, I’ll tell you!
“Ghost in the machine” is a derogatory term that British philosopher Gilbert Ryle used to refer to the mind-body dualism made famous by philosopher RenĂ© Descartes. The idea — which still holds a strong intuitive appeal for lots of people, even today — is that there’s a body, a thing of the physical world, and an immaterial mind, which operates and oversees the body. The picture one got from Descartes was of a little man (a “homunculus”) inside the brain, gathering data from the body’s senses, interpreting it, and giving instructions for action. You know how, in spy or action movies, the guy running the nefarious government program is always standing in a room, surrounded by computers, barking things like “I want eyes on that warehouse!” and “move team A into position!”? That’s sort of how Descartes imagined the mind inside the brain — a homunculus integrating all the information and figuring out what to do. (The precise way that mind stuff can cause changes in physical stuff has always been a bit hazy, but leave that aside.)
Mind-body dualism has come under frequent attack ever since, but another aspect of Descartes’ vision has also fared poorly. It is the idea that intelligence/reason must reside in a singular seat of rationality (that homunculus). There must be a headquarters, a central control station, a nerve center, where info is gathered and decisions are made. The presence of that “seat of reason” is what sets humans apart from animals, which are governed by brute instinct.
When people first got into artificial intelligence — trying to make intelligent machines — this was the model they had in their heads. They built computers with huge central processors and fed them tons of raw facts. But over time, in the cognitive sciences, that model has gone out of favor. The new model is based on parallel, distributed processing. There is no center, no singular intelligence running things. Rather, there are comparatively “dumb” nodes — with limited processing power devoted to limited subroutines — networked together in a latticework of relatively simple, rule-governed interactions. Get enough of these nodes interacting and you get complex systems withemergent properties — properties of the system that are not reducible to the properties of its constituent parts. Consciousness and intelligence themselves are now generally seen as emergent properties of distributed neural processing systems interacting with physical and social contexts.
You’ll notice that this same transition, from centralization to distribution, from linearity to complexity, pops up in other places too. Democracy itself is an example. It was taken for granted for centuries that a populace with no singular, strong ruler would dissolve into chaos. But it turns out that self-organizing systems of distributed political power — even with the dumb nodes, and boy are there some dumb nodes — are generally healthier and more dynamic. Capitalism is another example. Central management of economies has generally failed to create prosperity; prosperity has tended to be an emergent property of economies that consist of rule-governed interactions among independent nodes. The IT revolution is another good example. The creation and distribution of information was once a highly bottlenecked process, governed by a few large entities, but now processing power and bandwidth have been put in everyone’s hands and things have been created that never could have been anticipated or planned by a single governing intelligence.
It’s the same transition that’s now happening in the power system. Rather than one central intelligence (a utility) predicting demand and directing investment, there are going to be thousands, nay millions, of dumb nodes, houses and buildings and cars and batteries and microgrids and whole communities generating and managing their own electricity based on local needs and preferences.
My prediction is that the familiar pattern will repeat itself: The transition from centralized to distributed power will produce more reliability, resilience, and intelligence than the clunky, top-down systems of the past.
Unfortunately, when it comes to power we have the central intelligences of the past, utilities, still very much alive, influential, and hostile to the notion of being overwhelmed by a leaderless swarm. They are actively inhibiting the transition and will likely continue to do so until they wither entirely. Der commissar does not submit peacefully to the rabble.
But the transition is inevitable. And that’s the irony: distributed energy is not a ghost in the machine. The ghosts, the homunculi, are beingdriven from the machine. Soon there will only be the machine and its emergent intelligence.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

New Study: One Katrina-Like Storm Surge Every Other Year

On Tuesday, March 19, Thomas Homer Dixon showed a slide as part of his presentation that illustrated one response to the climate crisis, which he called the "We're Fucked" response. Then he quickly shifted to the next slide which redefined that as "Opportunity for Change." I appreciated that note of optimism. But when I read stories like the one below—one Katrina or Sandy-like storm surge every other year due to climate change—that seems to belong in the "We're Fucked" category. I don't think sugar-coating it as an "opportunity" does much good. I learned from the Buddhist Ecologist Joanna Macy that we have to get in touch with our shock and grief for the planet's situation, fully accept it as it is, if we're going to realistically do something about it. We have to move through the fear, grief and sometimes paralysis and then we can move into the "opportunity." 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), a storm surge is an "abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above the predicted astronomical tide". (See image below)
Graphic representation of a storm surge.  Image:
Graphic representation of a storm surge. Image:
In other words, the wind of a storm pushes the sea at a higher level than the normal tide.  The result is flooding of coastal areas which can cause not only incredible damage coastal homes and infrastructure, but also great loss of life.  Still fresh in the collective memory of North Americans are the storm surges associated with Hurricane Sandy (2012) and Hurricane Katrina (2005).
Flooding in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy.  Photo: Scott Anema.
Flooding in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Scott Anema.
Horrific damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.  Photo:
Horrific damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Photo:
According to a group of researchers from the Neils Bohr Institute (NBI), extreme storm surges like the one caused by Hurricane Katrina, are set to dramatically increase in the years to come.
Graphic representation of the results from the Neils Bohr Institute study.
Graphic representation of the results from the Neils Bohr Institute study.
The scientists from the NBI used data from monitoring stations along the coast of Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic coast of the US to predict the frequency of hurricane storm surges into the next 100 years.  Their results led to the conclusion that if warming of the planet reaches 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial temperatures, we would see 10-fold increase in the number of Katrina-like storm surges.  Put in different units of measurement, this translates into one Katrina-like storm surge every other year.
Unfortunately, the situation becomes even worse when you consider that sea levels will also be rising as temperatures continue to rise.  This means that the starting point of any storm surge will be higher, resulting in greater flooding and greater destruction.
Every day that we delay, we reduce the odds of limiting warming to 2 degrees.  Every day that we delay, we increase the chances that this is in our future.  So what the hell are we waiting for?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dr. Bruce Alexander: The Globalization of Addiction

A fascinating discussion with psychologist, Dr. Bruce Alexander, professor emeritus from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, who explains the global addiction epidemic, sociologically, as the end product of modernity and capitalism. He describes the addiction epidemic as almost, dare I say it, peak addiction. Capitalist Modernity, as a system, now globalized, strips people of a shared spirituality, culture and community that protects and nurtures people, while it isolates, dislocates and exhausts the human psyche, leaving addiction to drugs and consumption as a last resort. Alexander calls for a model of Recovery that goes beyond personal, individual recovery to a social recovery of communities and cultures that support and nurture people in a society-wide context. Dr. Alexander belongs to a group that is involved in what he calls 'social recovery.'

The Globalization of Addiction
with Dr. Bruce Alexander

Bruce Alexander is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, where he has worked since 1970. His primary research interest has been the psychology of addiction. He is best known in the UK for the "Rat Park" experiments, which helped to demonstrate the falsity of the outworn belief that simple exposure to narcotic drugs can cause addiction. 

At its nub, Alexander’s argument can be presented in a few blunt brush strokes, which he does well. He defines addiction as “overwhelming involvement in any pursuit whatsoever … that is harmful to the addicted person and his or her society.” These pursuits, drugs or gambling or whatever, are not themselves the causes of addiction. For Alexander, addiction is an adaptive response to dislocation—the loss of (or failure to achieve) psychosocial integration. Dislocation includes but is more than the displacement that immigrants, refugees or the colonized experience, which he vividly illustrates using the history of his hometown of Vancouver.

Alexander views psychosocial integration as the goal of human development, both personal and societal. The more people, individually and collectively, are unable to establish and maintain an existential sense of wholeness and community, the increased the likelihood that they will recourse to addictive behaviour. Addiction is a way of adapting to the homelessness of the human spirit that dislocation produces.

Alexander shows that our age is particularly vulnerable to addiction and other pathologies because the prevailing economic order undermines psychosocial integration more than any other social structure to date. Because globalizing free-market forces produce mass dislocation as part of normal functioning, Alexander sees this as an age of “unprecedented, worldwide collapse of psychosocial integration.” Addiction is not just the problem of the disadvantaged and the destitute; it affects even more perversely those who have wealth and resources; dislocation is “the general condition.”

Addictions become the tiny baskets into which more and more people put all their eggs in search of compensation for lives without psychosocial integration. For Alexander, addiction occurs along a continuum, and is not the only manifestation of dislocation. He mentions other pathologies of modern life—depression, apathy, anxiety, self-harm and violence, for example. In building his case, Alexander acknowledges that while dislocation is a necessary condition, it alone is insufficient to “cause” addiction. This turns us back to the need to have a fully integrated bio-psycho-social-spiritual view of these problems. In contributing to that comprehensive model, Alexander points out what we’re up against and where we need to look for solutions. Not a bad testament to a lifetime of work.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Discourses of Climate Change

Remember climate change? The issue barely comes up with any substance in our current political dialogue. But bringing climate change back into our national conversation is as much a communications challenge as it is a scientific one.
This week, in an encore broadcast, scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, joins Bill to describe his efforts to galvanize communities over what’s arguably the greatest single threat facing humanity. Leiserowitz, who specializes in the psychology of risk perception, knows better than anyone if people are willing to change their behavior to make a difference.

Half-way through the discussion, there is a presentation of the digital photography of Chris Jordon, who creates Burtynsky-style images of over-consumption and waste.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Get Gangsta with Your Shovel

Ron Finley's talk on community gardens in South Central LA is a brilliant piece of first, a sociological analysis of the effects of food poverty on urban, minority populations; and second, the social dynamics of community gardens; both delivered through the distinct urban culture of South Central.