24 April 2011

The Myth of Apathy

Reposted in full from Sustainable Life Media

'The conundrum

At this moment in time, there is no shortage of good ideas about how to make the world cleaner and greener.

We live in an era where there is an abundance of juicy good ideas, more awareness than ever about our ecological contexts. Information about the vastness of biodiversity, creatures in the deep seas and remote corners of this planet, the fragility of our home. Information about the threats. More information, period.

And yet, the riddle at the center of just about any sustainability effort (worth its salt) is why we are not taking action. Let’s be even more specific: actions that we know would have a good chance of mitigating some of the most severe threats facing our horizon, from climate change to overfishing to toxic contamination of air, water and dirt. Actions that we know from an ecological, economic, political and spiritual standpoint would do us all – plants, critters, humans – a lot of good. This has been referred alternately as the “gap” between values and behavior, or attitudes and actions. Is there actually a “gap” or is there maybe more of a “tangle” of confusion, emotions and desires?

The image of the moralizing environmentalist has been changing, as marketing agencies and corporations are cottoning on to the fact that if we make green sexy, hot, and profitable, more people will “buy” into it (pun intended). Green sells. Yet something fundamental may be glossed over. It is as if we can somehow suture together the rifts inherent in our consumptive-based way of life, and all that led us to this point (yes, all of it, from the first coal mines carved out of the British Isles to the present moment), and smooth it all into one lovely, profitable and seamless green dream.

While this vision is intensely appealing, it is psychologically problematic, emotionally confusing, and ideologically incoherent. Clinical psychology – the folks who work on the front lines with people and groups on a daily basis to effect change – knows that in fact we are always negotiating dilemmas and conflicting values and desires. It’s part of being human. And sustainability is no exception. The reason is that most of us are embedded in the very practices, desires, goods, textures and sensations that contribute to our ecological ills. And if we are not embedded, we are in contact in some way or another with the products of our industrial and post-industrial achievements. Psychologists refer to this state as “dissociation”– our capacities to both know and “not know” and split off our awareness so we can function normally.

Why does this matter for us, as we work hard to integrate sustainability at every level of our organizations, woven into the fabric of our branding and our culture? Because this paradox gets to the heart of why people may continue to do nothing to help save or protect our environment, despite our best wishes, hopes, desires and dreams to do so.

Being green is attractive, desirable and profitable. However – and it may be hard to accept this, particularly for those of us working hard on selling sustainability – it is also potentially frightening. Going green, if we really pay attention, is about how we construct meaning in our lives. Until we incorporate the whole picture – opportunity, innovation and creativity, as well as fear, anxieties or losses of cherished identities tied to consumptive (and wasteful) practices – into our vision of being sustainable, we are going to be fighting a battle. Flowing against a current. When in fact, we can be flowing with the current – if we can acknowledge paradoxes, contradictions, and dilemmas these topics can bring up.

What’s actually going on.

We are constantly reminded at how little the “public” seems to care about the most pressing ecological threats facing us, such as the latest Gallup poll in March 2010 indicating Americans' worries about environmental issues have hit a 20-year low. It can be very hard to know exactly what people feel and think about sustainability, and it is tempting to assume apathy is the status quo.

Apathy has become a term used to describe the disjuncture between the exigency of a situation (chronic, ecological threats) and adequate emotional, intellectual or physical response. We think of apathy as the central driver for public inaction in the face of serious issues, whether it is political injustice, ecological devastation or plain wrongness in the world. Apathy is a blanket term to describe what seems to almost defy description: the lack of pathos. From the Greek root apatheia, it means quite literally lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern (OED, 2011). Apathy is perceived commonly as an “enemy” – of reform, political action, up-take. It can also be seen as shorthand for “selfish,” “ignorant” or “greedy” – attributes often ascribed to “the public” for not “doing enough” to protect our collective resources, fellow creatures and planet.

If we examine apathy as a viable descriptor for human experience and behavior, we may find some surprising implicit assumptions about humans. Such tacit assumptions also run throughout much of our communications and outreach strategies. They include the following:

If someone believes, feels or values something, there is a necessary correlative in their actions.

That we are aware of all of our thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and conflicts at any given time and can adequately provide them on request (such as in a poll or survey).

Humans have the capacity to quite literally turn off their feelings, sensations or responses to the world around them.

The “public” is largely passive, and what is required are ever more ingenious communication strategies to mobilize, inspire, cajole, threaten, frighten or force specific actions.

What all of these assumptions have in common is a particular conception of human psychology: that we are largely rational beings who are self-determined, transparent to ourselves and to others, and with the right levers and motivators, can be enticed to take certain actions and avoid others. It’s a stunning image of human nature once you scratch the surface; and a pretty crude one. It shows up in our tendency to follow poll data and segmentation, as if we really can be placed into fixed and static boxes. It makes research easier, but how accurate is this really?

A more compelling and arguably accurate conception of human nature may be one that assumes contradiction, anxiety, ambivalence, paradox, and dilemmas. It assumes there may be huge reserves of care and concern, but complicated by a whole variety of pushes and pulls on our attention, identity, and investments. It takes onboard that with change, there is often loss. And with loss, there is often mourning and melancholia. And with grief and loss – when met adequately with support, there can be space for creative engagement, participation, care and concern.

It is our job to meet our customers where they are, and in order to, we need to have far better insight into what is actually going on for them. All the messy stuff.

It may seem entirely contrary to our mission to think about these aspects of human behavior. We want to focus on solutions and getting the job done: the bottom line. And my point is that if we don’t attend to these aspects our work will be harder. We will continuously trigger people in undesired ways, by speaking only to part of the picture. It’s our “affect” and emotional investments (often unconscious) that drive most decisions we make. Resources and guidance are available to us, but maybe not where we’d expect it.

Putting it into practice.

So what would it look like, if we were to take these ideas and put them into practice?

Rethinking research.We would design innovative methods for understanding what people are thinking, feeling and sensing with regard to our particular value offerings. Rather than relying on polls or surveys, we would partner and collaborate with those coming from clinically psychologically informed backgrounds to help us develop cutting edge methods, that yield rich insight into the dilemmas our customers may be experiencing; and how to then help them “cross over.”

Speaking the truth.Glossing over the challenges we face is at best patronizing, and at worst, damaging to our brand. What would branding look like if it was straight talking, and assumed customers may feel overwhelmed, and to build a healthier world? This simple shift in acknowledging dilemmas helps disarm the tendency to fill in the gaps in what we don’t say, undermining the power of our messaging.

Authenticity.A credible and authentic brand and voice is one that can tap into the emotional resonances of our clients. We currently do this; let’s just broaden the range a bit more. Climate change, nuclear contamination, massive oil spills and loss of species are scary and painful issues we all face. There is no branding that will undo that reality. Rather than stick a smiling face on everything, build a brand rooted in an authentic acknowledgement of both reality and the possibility.

Humans are by and large, truth-seeking creatures. We love the truth, it feels good to us when we sense and feel it. Let’s try branding that does not assume our clients are apathetic but rather may be a bit stuck. It’s our job to help them along, and one way is to build a branding and platform rooted in the messy complexity of what it means to be human, right now.

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