Getting behind the psychology of sustainability

While helping to develop the climate change plan for Lawrence, Kan., sustainability journalist Simran Sethi was having trouble getting her message across to the Chamber of Commerce. “The science is uncertain,” one banker argued. She was shocked.

How could anyone still believe this? she wondered. Sethi, a journalism professor from “the green bubble of New York,” listened to the banker's perspective  and heard it. He had a daughter with asthma, so in his view, air pollution was the salient idea, and a strong reason to clean up the local coal plant. 

This experience shaped Sethi’s interest in “the green brain,” an exploration of how human beings are wired for (and against) taking care of the planet in business and elsewhere. Her talk, presented at the GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco on Wednesday, was titled, “It’s All in Our Heads: The Psychology of Sustainability.” 

Her main point: context. A sustainability discussion with no context  and no listening  is not effectual for companies or individuals, she said.

Our psychology and our geography are our biography,” she said. “They shape our stories and sense of the world.”

Sethi detailed some theories that impact sustainability efforts in consumer behavior and inside companies. Although sustainability advocates may see opponents as intractable, the human brain is in fact wired to reward understanding in the neurochemistry of both parties, she said. 

Photo of Simran Sethi at GreenBiz Forum San Francisco by Goodwin Ogbuehi/GreenBiz Group

Next page: Lighting up the brain's "reward centers"