Socio-cognitive perspective to sustainability

Socio-cognitive perspective
to sustainability
HENVI seminar on Current Trends in Environmental Research
Janne Hukkinen, University of Helsinki
[email protected]
• Motivation for the work
• The dilemma of human-environment
• Concluding remarks
Motivation (1)
• Cognitive approach to human-environment problems can
overcome division between objective realism and social
– Realism: truth reachable with universal observation
and reason
– Constructivism: truth claims represent social
constructions subject to change
• Contrast this with findings of embodied cognition and
cognitive anthropology: Human reason is
– Evolutionary and embodied in neural and bodily
– Mostly unconscious and metaphorical, always
emotionally engaged
Motivation (2)
• Resolving realism versus constructivism with
embodied cognition:
– Humans have universal, evolutionary,
embodied capacities to make heuristic
sense of the world around them (aspect of
– But specific claims about truth sometimes
differ because contexts of humanenvironment adaptation differ (aspect of
• What changes if we take a cognitive
approach to the sustainability challenge?
• Motivation for the work
• The dilemma of human-environment
• Concluding remarks
Dilemma of human-environment
“On the one hand, by making use
of increasing quantities of natural
substances and other living
species and enhancing their
productivity by transforming them
into „natural resources, humans
might be said to have freed
themselves from the constraints of
“on the other hand, this increased
freedom created exponential
functions, especially population
increase and an increasing
dependence on Nature” (J.W.
A double bind between individual
and system level (Bateson)
Presenting the double bind as a
belief network
• Positive links (+) refer to
mutually reinforcing
relationship between
• Negative links (-) refer to
mutually weakening
relationship between
• Dashed nodes and links
(- - -) indicate individual’s
decision on whether or
not to include belief in
• Beliefs of an ”average”
individual in a culture
Belief 1
Belief 2
Belief 3
Belief systems in hunter-gatherer societies
Examples from hunter-gatherer
• (1) Individual and system-level safety directly and
positively linked
– less concern for personal wealth than today
– taboos enforced link, double bind only during exceptional
resource scarcity
• (2) Short chain of positively linked beliefs between
system-level safety and individual action
– Ancient taboos, mental images:
• red spirits will punish if fell certain trees (Tsembaga)
• taboos prevent overfishing (Tikopia)
• one child killed for each fish caught in a stretch of river (Tukano)
– These mental images are cultural representations of past
depletion crises, encoded in simple practical instructions
Present belief systems
Characteristics of today’s dilemma
• (1) Individual and system-level safety not linked (or
linked negatively to create double bind)
– Striving for profit and power to reduce individual dependence on
other members of society is a key structuring force in
contemporary societies
– Resulting strategies include high discount rates and declining
– End result: dire environmental consequences
• (2) Long chain of beliefs between system-level safety
and individual action (vulnerability to criticism)
– Technological worldview widens nature-culture division
– Link between system-level safety and environmental
management action involves complex chain of beliefs
Belief systems to be built
Dealing with the dilemma
• Lesson from history: surviving ancient communities
culturally encrypted their ecological understanding and
created cognitive shortcuts between core safety centers
and codified answers to pressing environmental
• Therefore need to create shortcut between socioecological systemic safety and individual environmental
behavior: ”We have to save our civilization”
• Mental representations like this are physically present in
our brains (Lakoff and Johnson) and need to be
reinforced by repeating the statement and its underlying
values across a wide range of issue areas
• Motivation for the work
• The dilemma of human-environment
• Concluding remarks
Practical implications
• IPCC focus on uncertainties opens up points of
attack for skeptics and gives grounds for
psychological defense
• Instead, it should integrate science with
visionary energy mission, such as Solar Europe
• Manhattan / Apollo project analogies to tackle
energy and food security
• It has been done before, with less science
(financial crisis, Apollo, Finnish social security)
• Winston Churchill to
House of Commons in
World War II:
– “nothing to offer but blood,
toil, tears and sweat,”
– but also “victory […], for
without victory there is no
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