May 1st, 2014


CEO, Six Seconds; Author, Inside Change

Author, Ecological Intelligence

Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, UC Berkeley

What’s really preventing us from enacting environmental change? Blame our brains, says Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence. As he explains it, “The problem comes down to a design flaw in the human brain.”
Goleman was speaking at a recent Commonwealth Club event that explored the disconnect between knowledge, emotion and action when it comes to climate change. He went on to explain that evolution fine-tuned our brains to protect us from immediate survival threats – lions, tigers and bears. But long-term dangers, such as those that threaten our planet today, don’t register. “The problem is that we don't perceive, nor are we alarmed by, these changes,” says Goleman. “And so we're in this dilemma where we can show people, "Well, you know, your carbon footprint is this," but it doesn't really register in the same way as “there's a tiger around the block.” Facts alone aren't enough, he adds, “We need to find a more powerful way of framing them…a way which will activate the right set of emotions and get us moving.”
The same can be said of our institutional brains, added Josh Freedman, author of Inside Change. Company CEOs tend to focus first and foremost on threats to the bottom line. “I think there's a lot of talk at an organizational level about sustainability,” says Freedman, “but I think when we come down to really day-to-day operations in organizations, our focus is on short-term, urgent stuff and not on the long-term really important stuff.”
George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at U.C. Berkeley, sees the issue as a moral, rather than environmental, crisis: “…the greatest moral crisis we have ever been in. It is the moral issue of our times and it’s seen just as an environmental issue.”
But morality can mean different things to different people. “The idea that there is "always common ground" may not be true,” says Lakoff. “There are about 100 million people in this country who believe that global warming is a farce, who believe that it goes against our economy, that jobs come first, that the government shouldn't be interfering in their lives, et cetera, and that comes from a moral position that's very different.”
This sets up a debate that quickly goes from the political to the personal, as Freedman points out. “When we start saying, "okay, they're good, and they're bad," what happens is we're actually fueling this threat system that’s what's in the way of us actually solving these problems.” Demonizing those who aren’t on board with your way of thinking adds to the strife. “And what our brains do, when we're in that strife, is we narrow our attention, we focus on short-term survival, we focus on narrower self-interest and we don't actually move into change.”
So what is the solution? How do we retune our primitive brains – and those of our political and business leaders -- to focus on a less than clear, less than present danger?
Throughout the discussion, several key avenues rose to the top: economics, education and emotional appeal.
Don’t underestimate the power of the purse, says Lakoff. If major institutions can be persuaded to divest from environmentally unsound companies, “then what will happen is that the prices of the stocks will go down for those energy companies. When they go down that way, they stay down…you have an opportunity to shift investment away in a way that has an exponential feedback loop.”
For consumers, knowledge is power, adds Goleman. “Let's have radical transparency about the ecological consequences of everything we do and everything we buy…if you go to the store and you see the ecological consequence relative to the other competitive things, what that does is create a market force because people have a way to make a distinction they didn't have before.”
One audience member suggested a more basic approach to the issue: “Make it sexy!” he urged, and you’ve got people’s attention. “We’re going to do a calendar!” quipped Freedman.
Educating today’s youth was a powerful and recurring theme for all the speakers. “First of all, when this first came up 40 years ago, people talked about our children and grandchildren,” said Lakoff. “They're in our classrooms now. If you're going to be living in 40 years, 50 years, 60 years from now, that's going to affect everything in your life, every part of it.”
“What kids learn and tell their parents is important,” Goleman agreed. “Schools are a big counterforce that we can do a much better job of deploying in this battle for minds and heart.”
Despite our primitive wiring, the speakers concluded, we humans do have the capacity for the ecological intelligence – and the morality – to effect global change.
“Your morality is what defines who you are as a human being,” says Lakoff, “it's who you are emotionally and morally as a human being that matters in your life, what you do every day. This isn't a matter of compromise…we have, like, 35 years to turn this around, period. That's not long.”
Final note? “All change starts on the inside,” says Freedman, “If we can support children and adults to connect with that capability and to develop what's already there, then things are going to get a lot better.”
 – Anny Celsi
March 11, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California