Last month, I went back to college and re-learned some old lessons about meeting people where they are.
For a few short days in October, Brett Jenks, Rare’s President and CEO, and I visited Dickinson College in the small town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania and met with dozens of students, faculty and staff who are passionate about environment and sustainability. Brett had been honored with the prestigious Rose-Walters Prize for Global Environmental Activism, and this week-long campus residency was the culmination of that award. Since we used the prize money to support the launch of Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment – an initiative which I lead at Rare – I happily joined Brett for a few fall days of college life once again.
We were hosted on campus by Dickinson’s Center for Sustainability Education, an impressively influential initiative on campus, especially given Dickinson’s relatively small size of about 2,400 students. And since previous prize winners included the likes of Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Mark ‘the Hulk’ Ruffalo, there was a fair amount of hype around the residency that added to the fun.
Over four days, we visited classes, met with student groups, toured the College Farm, and tried to soak in as much as we could of that passion and zeal that college students always seem to have in spades. Brett delivered a keynote lecture to hundreds of students and faculty on ‘Why the Biggest Barrier to Solving Our Climate Crisis May Be in Our Heads’ – you can watch a video of it here. As Brett argued in the lecture, “the only way we’re going to [solve our climate crisis] is if we can recognize the same illogical, emotional human mind that created this mess is probably the best tool we have to clean it up.”
Finally, our friends at Dickinson invited us to lead a couple of workshops on ‘Behavioral Design for Sustainability’ with students, faculty and staff. The Center for Behavior & the Environment was launched with a vision to bridge the gap between thought leaders in the science of human behavior and field-based conservation practitioners, and to do that we will train thousands conservation leaders over the next five years to change unsustainable behaviors in their corner of the world by designing solutions that put people and their real motivations at the center. So we trained the first 50 in two pilot workshops addressing sustainability challenges right there at home on campus – cutting back plastic pollution and reducing post-kitchen food waste.
But the most interesting part of the conversation, and perhaps the week, came when the somewhat banal subject of water bottles came up. The students described how it has become, much to their dismay, a very popular social signal to carry around disposable one-gallon jugs of drinking water. It started with the football team (apparently the trendsetters and social leaders on campus) and has since spread across most of campus. And because the jugs are cheap (the school actually taxes smaller bottled water, but through a strange loophole, gallon jugs aren’t taxed), the students throw them out at the end of each day and buy new ones the next.
And it seems that the only thing more horrifying to the treehouse kids than this behavior itself is the fact that no one seems to be responding to their pleas to stop adding plastic jugs to the waste stream. As Brett and I sat there and listened to them, we heard real disappointment and even shock that their voices were not being heard and that people didn’t seem to care how harmful their plastic waste is to the planet. (Disclaimer: These students are passionate and smart and inspiring, and I pick on them now only because I remember being in their shoes at one time, except with many fewer of my own accomplishments.)
It was at this point more than any other during the week that I remembered in a really tangible way why we’re doing what we’re doing. There is an incredible amount of passion and energy pouring into our global movement to live on this planet sustainably, but if we want to convince everyone to share the same values and desires and identity as the treehouse kids, we’ve failed before we’ve even really started.
If we want to change behavior, we can start by appealing to people’s emotions. Facts don’t change minds, and people don’t want to be told they’re doing something wrong. We can’t blame others if they aren’t motivated as easily by facts and figures about how much plastic ends up in the waste stream. But like it or not, humans are emotional beings, and we can use that to our advantage. At Rare, we leverage the power of pride to inspire behavior change: pride of place, pride in community, pride in tradition. We suggested to the treehouse kids that just as they are proud to be at the leading edge of campus sustainability, they should find what makes other students proud of themselves and tap into that. Could they tie the behavior that they wanted to promote – reusable water bottles – to the Dickinson Red Devil identity?
We can also appeal to people’s deep need to belong. We are all inherently social animals. We care what others think about us and are highly responsive to social influences. We often model our behavior after those we like and trust. If the rest of the student body didn’t want to emulate the behavior of the treehouse kids, could they find some campus trendsetters and other key influencers and convince them to model sustainable behavior?
Lastly, we can change the decision-making context and remove barriers, making new behaviors easier to do. We actively filter information in the real world to favor the stuff we agree with, and ignore the stuff we don’t. This is known as confirmation bias. We prefer simplicity and get confounded by too many choices and too much information. We easily suffer from what’s known as choice overload and decision fatigue. We’ll go out of our way to avoid hassles, even when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. All these things can make it really hard to get someone to change. Could the students remove barriers to reuse by offering free bottles (maybe with the help of the Center for Sustainability Education) or add barriers to single-use by, say, making the purchase of gallon-size water bottles less convenient?
Our trip to Dickinson was a grounding and important reminder that to achieve this great big vision, we’ve got to start meeting people where they are, not where we want them to be. And that means not trying to turn football players into treehouse kids.