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Change, Change, Change...But How?

Busting Pathologies for Sake of the Environment and more.

Why do people say one thing and do another?  Why do people, for example, say they are all for protecting the environment, yet live environmentally irresponsible lives?   This post is the second and final in the series of articles on an issue that Professor Joan Freeman addresses in a chapter she has written on Psychology for the Sake of the Environment appearing in the book, Natural Resources, Sustainability and Humanity (A, Cunha, A. & Chakrabarti, R, Editors).  In this inspiring piece, Dr. Freeman looks at a variety of psychological techniques that can be used to influence positive change in regard to attitudes and behavior with regard to environmental issues.

Dr. Joan Freeman, PhD is the author of the book, Gifted Lives:  What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up?  She is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, which has also honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work with the gifted and talented. She is the Founding President of the European Council for High Ability and the author of numerous books and papers on the subject of gifted children.

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One of the reasons I enjoy Joan Freeman’s new work is that I, on a personal note, live in what colloquially people in my area refer to as a “the sticks” (rural, country).  It is a highly wooded area off the beaten path, in the Berkshire Mountains.  We have plenty of fox, deer, four-foot snakes, owls and hawks and a whole bird sanctuary surrounding us.  We occasionally have large, early morning visitors like moose and bear. And we have seen, not so often but within our time in the mountains, an awesome mountain lion sleeking around at night.  The environment is dear to me and I have been environmentally active for years.

When I heard that Joan was doing this work on the environment, I was excited to see it.  After some correspondence and reading her new work, I am more enthusiastic than ever about it.  I am now convinced its concepts are best when read twice. 

The first time you read it will illuminate why so many people say they are environmentally conscientious and yet manage to live quite contradictorily.  This reading gives you a good idea of what can be done to even out this inconsistency, especially if you are environmentally inclined.

Your second reading opens a related and even larger perspective.  Dr. Freeman’s new work can (and in my opinion, should) be additionally  enjoyed as an exploration into change, life transformation, in general – no matter what kind of makeover you are talking about:  individual, institutional, personal or inter-personal.  Dr. Freeman’s compass will help provide you with guiding posts for your armamentarium that will lead to clearer perspective.

An important element of environmental issues is that so many are long-range.  Change in longer- range matters whatever they may be is not easy.  This is because people are mostly paying attention to what is imminent and pressing in their world.

Environmentally speaking, people in my neck of the woods, for example, were able to focus and get much done in preparation to hurricane level storms last year. It was amazing to see how much individuals rallied together and accomplished in just days. The danger was big, and it was looming.  People were able to clearly see how it would imminently impact on them. But longer-range issues (environmental and otherwise) are harder for people to get excited about – or even see the need to get excited about.  We have our long-range issues in the Berkshires and no doubt wherever you live, you have yours.

Dr. Freeman uses cigarette smoking to make her point about environmental decision making and the kind of change that requires your ability to zoom your attention forward in order to start making changes/adjustments today.  Her point evolves around the idea that it’s too easy for a smoker, for example, to put a cigarette into his mouth and ignore what it is doing.  You can’t see the damage.  It may not, in fact, catch up with you for years.  So change is harder when you see the consequences –including rewards – appearing further down the line.  Like many environmental decisions (or lack of), consequences won’t hit home, in some cases, for years.  So getting a solid and clear perspective, again, is not easy.

Other elements can hold us back from good and healthy change and keep us living in dissonance.

Sometimes the shackles that cause one to hold conflicting beliefs are imbedded in the culture. This element also contributes to inconsistent actions from one situation to another.  Sometimes people choose to live in denial or remain apathetic.  Cultural influences, as Freeman reminds us in her writing, “have deep historical origins along with mythological and religious.”  They can come, she writes, from a myriad of sources:  “filtering through generations when parents teach their children how to behave [and] it also spreads horizontally, as when a dominant culture will affect others, such as the current world-wide American influence.”

The great American environmental poet, Gary Snyder, warned almost half a century ago that we are globally becoming less and less of a poly-culture and more of a monoculture.  The danger in becoming a monoculture, as Snyder explained, is that everything in nature (human nature et. al.) is reliant on diversity for new growth and strength. Mythologist Joseph Campbell urged us to jump in and ride the wave, so to speak, to participate, become active, and not to sit back.  Participating by injecting your informed and authentic perspective according to Campbell is the point. And I believe Freeman’s as well.

She points to issues of birth control and overpopulation as being affected by culturally spiked denial and apathy – which will unplug participation and stunt growth and strengthening if you let it.  Again, many circumstances are easy to deny when affects are not immediate.  So what to do?  Find the immediacy in them, which may come even in the form of reward one gives herself.

One aspect of Dr. Freeman’s work that I especially appreciate is her allusions to gifted youth.  As a side note, if you have or work with a gifted child, her work is a must read.  I suggest her book, Gifted Lives.  While I am at it, I will also encourage you to go to the Davidson Center website,  http://www.davidsongifted.org/press/ and enjoy their great variety of programming, articles, and more for working and/or living with the gifted learner. 

In Dr. Freeman’s current work, she cites, from Australia, V. Volk (2008) who says that gifted students, more than others, show interest in the future of the world, in that they want to take action for global interdependence. She also cites a former study she conducted to see who (among youth) were likely to become active in what I will call here issues with longer-range consequences.  She made her point by using the dangers of nuclear threat:  “The brightest and most highly educated young people were the liveliest thinkers and the ones most likely to take action.  But they were also the pessimists who had a more heightened awareness and concern for the society they lived in.  They were also twice as likely to be first-borns.  The optimists protected themselves with psychological defense mechanisms, notably of two types:  either that some higher authority would come to their aid or would prevent destruction, or that there really was no nuclear threat.” Interestingly, it seems this particular issue has come full circle of late. As well, she writes of another of her studies, “The gifted they were indeed more interested in world events and had much stronger opinions than the average ability youngster, but their outlooks also correlated very highly with those of their parents and their socio-economic status (Freeman, 2010).” Yet while she believes, “the gifted have a greater potential to deal with issues of change and morality,” she further argues that, “to see the greatest positive effect, global concerns should be a matter for all young people.” 

A most important element related to the above findings showed that the brightest were most likely to become active, rather than live in denial or apathy.  And what I enjoy best of Freeman’s findings is the idea that education helps, particularly when the parents raising the child have become educated themselves:   “…there were no differences [in Freeman’s findings] in their [parents] physical home and neighborhood circumstances.  The family differences were clearly not to do with money, but with behavior and outlook. It is parents who teach their children that they are effective and competent in dealing with life.” In this author’s opinion, therein lies a lot of hope for positive change. 

Busting the pathologies:  Some ideas to get solutions started, from Joan Freeman’s work 

  • The idea is to move individuals past denial and apathy into participation
  • Understand that just telling someone to change isn’t going to work
  • Combat “zombie arguments,” (which ought to be dead, yet live on, outside the scope of reason) and old beliefs with solid and accurate information. According to Freeman, this needs to be supported by information on (1) What is true and what is not, (2) What is immediately beneficial to the individual, (3) What can each individual actually do about it
  • Make “messages” easy to process, fluent rather than difficult to understand, with a sense of familiarity, and utilizing a lot of repetition. 
  • Utilize and stress consensus wherever possible. People like common goals. When many do something, the individual is more likely to follow.
  • Use reward and incentive.  Individually you can choose change over more of the same and feel the emotional satisfaction that supports your decision.  Civically, incentives can be used to foster change as we have seen in Mexico, Brazil, and NYC.
  • Utilize more educational input
  • Involve youth
  • Generate more government legislation. Start by convincing politicians, as has been done in the banning of smoking in public places.

Although the above list simply overviews the possibilities for change, in her work, Dr. Joan Freeman elaborates on these items and provides a much needed perspective on what psychology can offer up to change for the sake of the environment.  Ditto for self transformation, if you decide to read twice.

For a more complete look at these issues and so much more, check out this wonderful collection:  Natural Resources, Sustainability and Humanity (A, Cunha, A. & Chakrabarti, R, Editors.   2012).

Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D., is the author of Can I Have Your Attention? How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration.

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