Sustainability is about psychology, not technology
I’m an engineer, both by training and outlook. When I first dipped my toe in the field of Sustainability about 25 years ago, I was fascinated by the idea of ‘clean technology’, moving away from end of pipe environmental protection to avoiding pollution in the first place. This led to an interest in eco-design and, later, industrial ecology where you emulate the sustainable systems seen in nature.
But parallel to this interest in technology, design and industrial systems was the growing realisation that this innovation stuff was the easy bit. The real difficulty is making change happen – ie making those systems the new normal. And I soon found out the hard way that logic is not enough – I’ve lost count of the number of times I gave a well researched presentation to people of influence to be told “Very interesting, good luck with it!” before they trundled on with business as usual, not realising that I wanted them to do this stuff.
Resistance to change is, unfortunately, perfectly natural. Ranging from passively following habitual behaviour to overt hostility, we can’t simply wish it away. I’ve recently learnt that when Belisha beacons were introduced to mark pedestrian crossings in the 1930s, thousands were vandalised. Likewise 30mph speed limits were introduced in built up areas about the same time, but the signs kept going missing and newspaper columns decried the loss of freedom and economic impacts. So if you think the London ULEZ camera vandalism, or right wing newspaper columnists thinking they’re suddenly experts on climate science/electric vehicles/whatever is new, think again!
I usually suggest people ignore the noisy culture warriors as we know that over time they’ll move on to a new target (I haven’t seen the anti-wind farm phrase ‘blade flicker’ deployed for a decade or so). But the mental inertia of wanting to stick to what you know is a genuinely critical challenge to address.
The change model I use is the elephant-rider-path analogy I first read in Switch by the Heath brothers (recommended). If you imagine someone riding an elephant along the path, then the rider is the logical, conscious part of our minds, the elephant is the emotional, instinctive part and the path is the environment we operate in. You can fire as much data as you like at the rider, but if the elephant isn’t interested you are sunk. Changing the path can help guide the elephant, but as we have seen in, say, the ULEZ row, elephants can still be very destructive if they don’t like the path they are being funnelled down.
So, fundamentally it is all about the elephant and that means psychology. Green jujitsu is my approach to package a number of effective psychological tactics together, but the underlying principle is you have to tailor all your engagement efforts to the audience, finding the sweet spot of messages and activities that resonate with the elephant. Think of yourself as an elephant whisperer!
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