Wednesday, April 20, 2011
I just received the Spring newsletter of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. This issue has a thoughtful essay by Ajay Rastogi, an environmental educator from India. An excerpt:
I work in the area of nature conservation, sustainable agriculture, community-based enterprises and fair-trade in India and neighboring Himalayan countries. Over twenty years ago when many of my friends and I finished our university degrees in environmental sciences, we joined different organizations to contribute our efforts to saving the environment. Most of us and our colleagues at work carried a strong conviction that conservation could be achieved by improving knowledge and awareness. We worked with considerable passion and commitment, across different sectors of society, to try and bridge the gaps in people's understanding, providing information about “why” and “how” to protect the environment and conserve nature.
The result was that more books and films were produced, and more travel and workshops were planned, as these were considered the means toward our ends.
Some of these efforts may have contributed to a success story here and there, but it appeared to me that conservation education remained in the same domain as cognitive learning, and that it often failed to transform people to translate into action. To an extent, environmental education turned out to be part of the same educational riddle that lies at the root of the sustainability question. How can environmental education help not only make people aware, but motivate them to take the actual steps in their personal and community life that reflect their commitment as the stewards of natural ecosystems?
I began to realize that we need a paradigm shift in our approach to environmental education. I also began to feel that at deeper levels, environmental concerns are in many ways akin to other important societal concerns such as violence, hunger, drugs and corruption. None of these can be addressed through scientific, technological and policy solutions alone or just by enhancing knowledge, awareness or income levels. To maintain ecosystems, conserve biodiversity and keep the earth elements healthy (soil, water, air), nothing less than a radical change in human behavior is required.
How does one bring about behavioral transformation? I began to search for approaches. I located a master’s course in Applied Ethics and left my job in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to study. The ethical and moral theories presented in the courses made strong arguments that appealed to the rational mind, but still could not penetrate through to the deeper layers of beliefs and thought processes that affect changes in behavior. Appeals to value systems have limitations in promoting the attitudinal changes that would result in more sustainable living. Ethical discourse is often just a piece of good conversation. Most people will only make adjustments in their lifestyle for things that they really care about!
Rastogi is not the only scholar considering how the human element plays a role in policy-making and problem solving. I'm also reading David Brooks' new book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Brooks' inspiration for the book was his insight that the human equation is being left out of policymaking. Here's an excerpt from a piece on NPR:
In Washington, D.C., which Brooks calls "the most emotionally avoidant city on Earth," Brooks notes that decisions are made based on the assumption that people are cold, rationalistic individuals who respond to incentives. Those assumptions didn't quite match what the research in other fields began to illustrate, however.
"Scientists, philosophers and others were developing a more accurate view of human nature, which is that emotion is more important than reason, that we're not individuals — we're deeply interconnected," Brooks says. "And most importantly ... most of our thinking happens below the level of awareness."...
Instead of relying on rational decisions, Brooks says, people tend to be influenced by their underlying, unconscious emotional state, which is in turn influenced by the social relationships surrounding them. For example, Brooks has covered education reform for 20 years and writes that he has seen little improvement from multitudinous policy changes.
"The reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah," he says.
I feel like people often look at me like I'm Oprah. Each semester I try to teach my students about emotional intelligence, underlying values, and even mindfulness - non-rational aspects of the human experience that have a profound impact on decision and policy making. Even the students who are grateful to learn about this are, at the same time, skeptical and worried about surfacing all this squishy stuff in the "emotionally avoidant" world of the law school and lawyering.
It's something I'm thinking a lot about as I prepare for our panel discussion on teaching about values at the upcoming "Practically Grounded" conference - how do we engage in best practices of law teaching, which (to me) includes tackling the range of human emotions and experience, while helping our students feel safe and sane?
Jamie Baker Roskie
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