Three Big Ideas from The Garrison Institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior Symposium

This year, I had the privilege of working with The Garrison Institute to plan and run their 2013 Climate, Mind and Behavior Symposium. As an applied anthropologist focused on cultural diversity and sustainability, I couldn’t have been more excited by the symposium theme: Variation and Diversity in Sustainability and Climate Work.

The goal of the symposium was to work together, as a group of 100 researchers and practitioners from across the world, to identify key social science insights about diverse human behavior and what they suggest about how we should do our sustainability and climate action work in new and different ways.

The three-day symposium, held at the Institute’s renovated monastery in Garrison, New York, brought together speakers well-known in the sustainability and climate fields—such as climate scientist Dan Schrag, environmental psychologist Elke Weber, and ecoAmerica’s Bob Perkowitz—with scholars and practitioners well known in the areas of culture and society, diversity, and social justice—such as National Geographic anthropologist Wade Davis, Executive Director of First Peoples Worldwide Rebecca Adamson, Executive Director of the Evangelical Environmental Network Rev. Mitch Hescox, and journalist and former founding director of the Human Rights Campaign’s gay and lesbian family project Lisa Bennett.

Throughout the symposium, we used a participatory process in which participants shared their takeaway ideas from each session on big white boards. For the last session, a small group of participants organized the ideas into 33 key insights, such as:

  • communicating through stories rather than facts

  • identifying and sharing survival strategies from diverse cultures

  • building partnerships with non-traditional stakeholders

  • appreciating diversity as an asset.

I came away from the symposium particularly intrigued and energized about three big ideas that emerged across presentations:

1. Grassroots innovations will be key to mainstreaming sustainability

It’s easy to judge small efforts to live or work sustainably as too minor and too fringe to make a difference. But a number of presentations at the CMB Symposium pointed towards the potential of these efforts to have a big impact, on our economy and our culture.

  • In a talk on sustainable consumption, Maurie Cohen, director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Co-Founder of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative, argued that cultural and economic trends are slowly but surely de-linking production and consumption, partly through “pro-sumption” practices in which communities produce and consume for themselves and peer-to-peer networks of collaborative consumption that separate ownership from usership. Two great examples that I have stumbled upon since the symposium are Quirky.com, through which site users propose, vote on, create, and then buy their own products, and ride-share services that take on individuals as drivers using their own cars and “allow individuals to become their own dispatch service” using smart phone locator and reservation apps.

  • In the same session, Michel Gelobter, co-founder of BuildingEnergy.com and former director of Redefining Progress, told us that technology and information alone will not be enough to prompt wide-scale business participation in the clean energy sector because energy use is still in an immature, “pre-economic” phase. Rather, he argued that there needs to be a strong sector of practice in place, to demonstrate how clean energy will work as a business. So, Gelobter’s call was for grassroots business innovation.

  • Karen Litfin, professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington, presented data on ecovillages around the world from her forthcoming book, Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community. She argued that while ecovillages used to be seen as cults, in many places they are now mainstream and even being consulted by government. In Sri Lanka, the meditation practices of Sarvodaya are now practiced, together, by half of the country. (Dr. Litfin’s presentation is not yet posted on the Garrison website. In 2011, she made a video about her ecovillages work. She also has a 2012 paper posted online.)

  • Blake Poland, director of the Collaborative Program in Community Development at the University of Toronto, presented on his research on the Transition Town movement in Canada. While we might assume that Transition Towns and ecovillages are generally liberal, his research indicates that some of the neighborhoods participating in Transition are, in fact, conservative. Poland argues for the importance of taking a practice theory approach to understanding this growing movement—an approach that focuses on collective practice as a mechanism for normalizing sustainable lifestyles. To me, this is the theoretical take on Gelobter’s argument that for the clean energy sector to really take off, more businesses have to start doing and demonstrating it.

I heard recently about a study conducted by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that shows that when 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, this belief will always be adopted by the majority. These presentations, along with that finding, give me hope that change can come from “below” and grassroots sustainable efforts might someday make a huge difference.

2. We need to enable and trust everyday people to be decisionmakers

In the sustainability field, there often seem to be set solutions—whether individual, community, or policy-based—and our work with diverse communities is often about getting those communities to implement or support those solutions. The CMB symposium challenged this basic model of change. A number of sessions focused on the importance of process, not over outcome but rather as a means to diversify the outcomes we can even imagine.

Gerald Torres, law professor and former deputy assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and counsel to U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, argued that all change starts with community and culture change. He emphasized the importance of creating processes that nurture the political participation of marginalized groups, in order to enact change that benefits everyone. Torres told the story of an educational policy in Texas that resulted from one effort to bring Latino parents into policy discussions about their school. His overall message was to bring people into decision-making conversations and trust them to make their own decisions. Indeed, he said, this is the only type of change that will lead to adaptability.

Torres’ presentation reinforced Wade Davis’ and Rebecca Adamson’s central message that we need to be open to the diverse approaches that cultures have for interacting with nature and each other and learn from ancient wisdom.

3. Does social change start with inner change?

The Garrison Institute is a center for contemplative practice, and the symposia always include contemplative components. This year, short meditation sessions were sprinkled throughout the sessions, led by Zen priest and writer Rev. angel Kyodo williams, who works at the intersection of inner and social change. “angel,” as Rev. williams likes to be called, encouraged us to use meditation to let go of certainty and open our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking—to help us relate to ourselves and each other in more authentic and creative ways. She sees this individual-level practice as the start of a broader cultural shift.

I stated this idea as a question because there seemed to be no consensus in the room about whether inner change—or at least this type of inner change—is a prerequisite to succeeding on the climate front. But the question is provocative because it opens the door for thinking about what types of change we need to engage in as we confront a changing climate.

How much do we ourselves need to change, not only our own sustainability practices, but our mindsets and approaches to be able to build broader coalitions for change? This question reminds us that process is key to outcomes—and that we ourselves are an essential part of this process.

Dr. Jennifer Hirsch is an applied anthropologist and sustainability and diversity specialist located in Chicago. At the CMB Symposium, she spoke on developing a new approach to place-based engagement in climate action.

photos courtesy of the Garrison Institute.