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"

"Reward centers” distributed throughout the brain light up when differences are overcome  the same ones that light up with you exercise or have sex. That’s right: Agreeing with someone about climate change is biologically akin to having an orgasm. 

"We struggle to understand each other because we care. Our brains have a predisposition toward cooperation and helpfulness, and our reward circuits light up when we do this,” she told the audience at the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

Sethi also explained how the brain prioritizes concerns. Although action on sustainability is traditionally motivated by concern for large-scale problems, she said, social psychologist Daniel Gilbert says human beings are wired to concern themselves with imminent and short-term concerns. All the others fall through, particularly those far away. 

"There’s a finite pool of worry  there’s only so much we can care about,” said Sethi. “We can’t ask people to worry about things that are far away unless we displace the worries in their heads, or work within existing cares.”

Sethi’s work includes writing on seeds and food, environmental justice and most recently, a piece on growing the green economy through ethical markets.

She teaches at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., acts as a senior communications adviser to the Center for Environmental Health and is the founder of the interdisciplinary beta website Metamorphose.

Sethi has been named as one of the top 10 “eco-heroes” of the planet by the U.K.’s Independent and as an “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair.

Her move to Kansas to teach sparked her interest in this cultural divide. Despite Kansas being the nation’s breadbasket and having a deep connection to the land, the majority of residents didn’t identify as environmentalists, she said. What does the word environmentalist mean, then?

"This was a fight over affiliation (with a specific region or place) … not over a desire for a healthy community,” she said. 

In some ways, nature may have already started contextualizing things for millions of Americans who live, work and play in drought-ravaged regions, or in the path of Hurricane Sandy. As ecoAmerica’s blog puts it, 2012 was “The Year Climate Change Got Real.”

Now might be the time for those contextualized pitches, said Sethi. “Instead of a company saving water and then telling customers about it,” she said, it will be necessary to think about place and mindset when appealing to green consumers. 

"We have to tell different kinds of stories, that are personalized and immediate,” she said. “To inspire visions of a world that Bryan Welch calls 'beautiful and abundant.'”