My disillusion from visiting Columbia’s Earth and Environmental Science Department

March 4, 2017 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership, Nature

I’ll get in trouble for describing this visit as one of the most disillusioning interactions I’ve had for a long time.

This post is part of a work in progress, of me disentangling my thoughts and impressions to figure out how to act in a community I’m partly an outsider, but whose involvement I consider critical for achieving goals I consider important. I welcome perspectives. I know I didn’t write that clearly. You can tell from the date in the picture below that I’ve taken nearly a month to process my thoughts to reach this level. It will take a lot longer for me to process them enough to communicate them clearly and concisely.

I was going to describe it as discouraging, but in the long run I believe I will label it as one of my more encouraging interactions, for my realizing my ability to lead in an area I care about most is poor, incredibly poor, and that I have to work at it a lot if I want to become effective.

How the visit started

Last fall I met a student at Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science. As I expected, he went into the field not just to study nature but to do something about our overheating and polluting the planet. Our conversation exposed that Columbia’s program, while world-renowned, merely studied the effects of our behavior. It did little active to change it. I believe he felt that he could no longer be satisfied merely studying but not influencing and leading.

On my part, one of the main reasons I study and teach leadership is that I believe that not acting on the problems of global warming and pollution will lead to billions of people suffering as rising sea levels displace cities of people, washing cities worth of garbage to sea, as crops fail, and so on. While I believe we should pursue scientific and technological solutions, ultimately our behavior creates these problems, meaning we have to change our behavior to change the results.

Changing billions of people’s behavior means leadership on a global scale in ways we’ve never done before. As hard as it is to try to solve problems of that scale that no one has faced before, the alternative is global suffering. I prefer taking on the hard problem.

Changing beliefs is also at the root. Many people see burning less fossil fuels, eating less, and buying less as deprivation. My experience flying less, eating fresher, and buying less has improved my life by every meaningful measure. I’m happier, have closer friendships, get more done, enjoy my food more, and so on. I don’t know anyone who enjoys their life more than I enjoy mine. Many people believe economies must grow to succeed. I’ve never seen reason to support this belief, yet it sustains, as much as the Domino Theory that sustained our disastrous war in Vietnam. When the “theory” and its effect ended, Vietnam didn’t fall, as the “theory” predicted.

I believe that responsibility, empathy, initiative, and related social and emotional skills tied to effective problem-solving skills are our best route out, which is why I develop and teach them.

My expectations and what I learned at the visit

I took for granted that many people in earth sciences wanted to make a difference. I felt scientists had credibility but lacked leadership skills to influence others based on what they knew would happen to the world. I didn’t expect the three big surprises I found, which was that among the scientists I talked to there, they

  • Didn’t change their behavior to pollute less
  • Retreated from influencing others
  • Focused on spreading information and changing laws to influence others

So disappointing!

I apologize for the ones that don’t fit my description.

Regarding changing their behavior, as best I could tell, they flew around as much as anyone. The cafeteria used mostly disposable materials.

Regarding influencing others, as best I could tell, they viewed the role of a scientist to research and publish, not to act on it or suggest to others what to do about it. Anticipating this perspective, I included a slide listing well-known scientists who acted beyond research:

  • Aristotle
  • Galileo
  • Dian Fossey
  • Rachel Carson
  • Albert Einstein
  • Linus Pauling
  • Bertrand Russel
  • Margaret Mead
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Robert Oppenheimer
  • E. O. Wilson
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Charles Darwin
  • Sam Harris
  • Steven Pinker
  • Carl Sagan
  • Benjamin Spock
  • David Attenborough
  • Elon Musk
  • Brian May
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Richard Feynman
  • Jonas Salk
  • Jane Goodall

Scientists have a long history of acting outside science and earning greater respect for it!

Regarding their methods to influence others when they did, their methods of choice seemed to be to share information and try to pass laws.

Simply sharing information rarely leads to changing behavior. On the contrary, I find it motivates people to dig in their heels and argue back. In Marshall Goldsmith’s words

The problem with most leadership training to me is you go sit in a room, you hear a lecture, and then you leave and there’s an assumption that somehow your behavior is going to change… And in life our problem isn’t understanding, it’s doing. I think most people understand what we want to do, we just don’t do it. What I love about what you’re doing is it’s practice and doing over and over again and you’re building a follow-up.

People know they’re polluting, they don’t know how to stop. Or as I look at it, we know more about nutrition and the health consequences of diet than ever and we are more obese than ever. Knowing what you want to do rarely translates into doing it when you feel pleasure doing the opposite.

Trying to pass laws without popular support first is authoritarian. I suspect they don’t want to try to get popular support because they don’t know how to. Getting popular support means changing people’s behavior, which they don’t want to do. In a democracy, government rarely leads the population. Government does what will get votes, but majorities of Americans aren’t voting to reduce pollution and CO2 release. They aren’t acting to reduce pollution and CO2 release.

These scientists are trying to pass laws to force people to do what they aren’t doing themselves. I call this authoritarian, not leadership.

As far as I can tell, their views on leadership don’t include effective ways to influence others’ behavior and they probably know that directly trying to change people’s behavior through their methods will motivate resistance, so they fall back on what they know and are comfortable with, which is stating facts (without emotional connections that might change behavior) and trying to pass laws without support.

Meanwhile, a guy who knows nothing about science but knows how to influence people gets elected to the White House changes environmental regulation on a scale the scientists could only dream of in the opposite direction!

My failure

I tried to present to them about the role scientists could play in influencing the world based on the information they knew. As best I could tell, my message didn’t resonate.

All of this describes failure on my part to learn about the community I hoped to influence before putting myself in front of them.

Looking back, I consider the interaction a learning experience. I thought they wanted to change things but didn’t know how and would be open to alternative perspectives. I’m sure I’m missing a lot. I’m sure they have ways of being effective I missed. But mostly, I see that the scientific community, at least as represented by Columbia’s earth science community, sees changing human behavior as an abstract concept outside their domain, not something they would do themselves.

I’m as passionate as ever to lead people to find that they can improve their lives by changing their behavior to reduce their pollution and CO2 output, and then to act on it.

My hope, expectation, and calling

Increasingly I see a need for someone like a Gandhi, King, or Mandela, who behaves consistently with their beliefs, in ways to motivate others to follow, to learn that life can be better when not filling the world with the greatest population possible, believing that burning fossil fuels is necessary for happiness.

So far, I’m far from that person, nor do I see anyone else close to that role, nor do I see a strategy like nonviolent civil disobedience that could work.

Still, it’s an area I find the most important to work on. So far I’m trying to create a community of leaders skilled in empathy, responsibility, initiative, and the other social and emotional skills I consider necessary to lead humanity out of our predicament. I’m trying to come up with other ways to act and lead effectively.

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