Curating Content To Support Learning About Humanity's Transition

This content was posted on  4 Jun 24  by   Joe Brewer  on  Medium
Why I No Longer Attempt to Build A Rigorous Science of Social Change

This is an essay written on June 1, 2018 when I was the director for the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution I am reposting it as part of the original 3-part series from that time. Find Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Let me start by saying that literally every social problem humanity now confronts will benefit from taking a rigorous, evidence-based approach to developing interventions that work. If I believe this — you might wonder — why would I title an article this way?

The answer is simply that I have been trying to manifest into the world a science of large-scale social change for 18 years. During that time I have repeatedly found that almost no one gives preference to being effective over the feeling of “being right.” This has been true as I’ve interacted with academic researchers, the staff of numerous nonprofit organizations, program officers and boards of directors at foundations, government personnel providing public services, and among social-impact businesses of various kinds.

The single most important barrier to creating effective social change projects has been the conventional way of thinking that treats rigorously validated expert knowledge as being on equal footing with personal preferences and opinions. Almost never have I found people systematically critiquing their own methods, gathering data to test their assumptions, and — most significant of all — updating their assumptions when the data is inconsistent with habitual beliefs or normative judgments.

Historians of science will not be surprised at all by this observation. Nor will cognitive and behavioral scientists who study human decision-making. Yet there it is, in our modern institutions, as a widespread behavioral buffer against cultivation of the very same abilities that people all over the world so desperately need to manage huge challenges ranging from environmental destruction to the use of propaganda to corrupt governing institutions. Time after time, I have seen that no amount of pointing to the massively accumulated bodies of research was able to make a dent in the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or actions of governments or businesses, foundations or universities, nonprofits or community groups.

All of this would suggest that a rigorous science of social change is more urgently needed than ever. And this is definitely the case. Yet I have reason to make the determination that it is no longer worth the effort — and this has to do (unsurprisingly for those who take empiricism seriously) with the observed trends of large-scale change that drive the global systems of Earth. My reasoning has two parts: the first is about consequences that are already “built in” to futures scenarios due to inertia in various dynamic systems. The second is specifically about what our cumulative knowledge about cultural evolution reveals as the likely consequences of these ecological drivers of social behavior at institutional scales in the foreseeable future.

Global Drivers of Irreversible Change

A foundational concept from the physical sciences that I find is almost entirely unknown among social change practitioners is hysteresis — which can be defined as the amount of work that needs to be done on a physical system to undo changes that already occurred. Hysteresis can be measured easily for magnets placed in an electric field. It is the amount of energy that needs to be generated to “demagnetize” the material after it was charged. This is where the concept is best known and is routinely taught to physics and engineering students who study electromagnetics as part of their training. The thing about hysteresis is that it is a way to quantify how irreversible a particular system change is by measuring how much work must be done to take the system back to where it was before.

Applied to the Earth and human societies, it is much more difficult to measure directly (or even determine where hysteresis effects might be observed). To illustrate the importance of this little-used concept I will give two types of examples. One has to do with the geophysical systems of our home planet. The other has to do with the feedbacks across political systems where policies carve pathways of discernible outcomes that are not easily undone. The key thing about hysteresis is that a system that has had work done to it will not automatically revert back to the way it was before the work was done. Thus we can think of it as being “irreversible” in this way.

The examples from geophysical systems include such things as extinction events (where it is often impossible to bring a species back from the dead) and the thermodynamics of the ocean and atmosphere (where time lags exist that set a minimum timescale for undoing harms that have already taken place). I will elaborate more with two specific situations — the thermal inertia of the World Ocean and the release of methane as permafrost melts in the Northern Hemisphere. Thermal inertia is the measure of how long it takes a material to cool after it has been heated. It is well known that liquid water has a high thermal inertia. This is why you can pour hot water into a bath tub and enjoy its warmth for extended periods of time as you lie in it.

When applied to the World Ocean, we have in effect a VERY large bathtub. If it is heated up the period of time for it to cool must be measured in decades (for small changes) and centuries or millennia (for large changes). There are two consequences of thermal inertia that are directly relevant to the management of human affairs. The first is that it takes time to heat up this huge body of water. Much longer than it takes to warm the (relatively speaking, much lower thermal inertia of) the atmosphere. So as we watch global warming play out as “average daily temperatures near Earth’s surface for the atmosphere” — as is typically done for climate policy discussions — we are seeing a heat signal that is decades apart in time from what is happening to all the water surrounding the land masses of the Earth. A simple metric to have in mind is that the World Ocean is heating roughly 40 years slower than the World Atmosphere. What this means is that the extreme weather events we experience today (things like intensifying typhoons and hurricanes) are impacted by an ocean that has absorbed greenhouse gas emissions up to the early 1980’s. Sit with this for a moment. It is a profound realization with serious implications.

The second thing about thermal inertia for the World Ocean is that the consequences of our actions today will play out slowly and far into the future. During this multi-decade period of time, other changes will occur (like the burning of even more fossil fuels or cutting down of even more forested lands) that are likely to intensify the consequences of what we do today. They are all connected and overlapping processes playing out in parallel. Thus these time lags make it very hard to intuitively grasp how nonlinear and chaotic the changes will ultimately be.

When we consider the second example — that of methane release from melting permafrost — it gets even more frightening. The main thing to know is that a single molecule of methane is able to trap 20 times as much heat as a single molecule of carbon dioxide. As permafrost melts, it will release huge amounts of methane. So much that the amount of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels over the last 150 years may be doubled in the span of a few decades as the release of methane speeds up the melting of permafrost in a runaway trend of rapid change. Think of this like letting a genie out of the bottle or opening Pandora’s box. Once the process begins it is unlikely to be stopped. The longer we wait to stop it after it starts, the more difficult it will be to turn off such a powerful feedback dynamic of the planet.

The hysteresis effects of ocean warming and melting of permafrost create the scenario where ecological harms from altered planetary climate will continue at intensifying pace and scale even if we stopped burning fossil fuels instantaneously today. Of course, with so much “political capture” and institutional “lock-in” by fossil fuel infrastructure, it is not possible to turn off the fossil fuel switch. This leads us to the hysteresis effects that can be seen in human social systems.

A well-known phenomenon that is irreversible for humans can be seen in the developing brain of a child. Structures emerge in the developing brain through a process of pruning synapses (the gaps between neurons) as structures emerge and wire together. Developing into an emergent structure has different physical constraints than developing from an already-existing structure. It is here that hysteresis can be seen — with such consequences as never acquiring vision if light does not stimulate the eyes to strengthen and build the optic nerve and never acquiring language skills without social interactions to scaffold the learning process in early childhood.

Take this perspective and apply it to the emergence of political, economic, and social structures and it becomes possible to see hysteresis in the patterns of societal change all over the place. I mentioned the “lock-in” effect for fossil fuels just a moment ago. Let us now go into this phenomenon in more detail. There are several kinds of hysteresis that make it difficult to transition away from burning oil and coal — even as the evidence grows to mountainous proportions that continuing on our current path is a recipe for planetary disaster. One kind of hysteresis can be seen in the social structure of transportation systems. In the United States, there was a period of time when automobile manufacturers got together with tire manufacturers and oil companies to set up holding companies that went around the country and (a) bought up public bus and railway systems; and then (b) dismantled and removed them while © colluding with government officials to fund massive public works projects to build highways that could only be used by automobiles.

What this produced was a systematic patterning of urban development that required people to own cars and drive them on a daily basis. Public transit options (where they existed) were left in the margins to be ineffective and expensive while cars and oil were subsidized through tax incentives of various kinds to get people off their feet and into gas-guzzling vehicles. The further this developmental process advanced, the more work would be needed to dismantle or “shift modes” from one form of transit to another. Today we see that it will take decades for the United States to catch up with Europe and other regions of the world that did not lock themselves into these structural arrangements that are very difficult to change. All the while this will play out against the backdrop of melting permafrost, intensifying climatic shifts, and gradual warming of the oceans — irreversible drivers of global change that move us farther from planetary stability.

Another kind of hysteresis is the political capture of policy development as the industries benefiting from fossil fuel use (those above plus defense contractors needed to invade and access oil reserves and other “aligned” business interests like the clandestine black markets used for drug running, gun smuggling, and human trafficking) became extremely wealthy and powerful throughout the modern era. They could easily hire public relations firms and media companies to tell stories amenable to their agenda. Similarly, they could set up a revolving door where politicians who received campaign donations to pay for media coverage (essential for getting elected) would then work with industry lobbyists to enact policies that benefit these industrial partners. As their political terms in public office came to an end they would immediately be hired as lobbyists themselves or receive astronomical speaker fees to proselytize this agenda. The money would flow in such a system as a parallel circulation alongside that of crude oil.

Here we see that hysteresis is in the financial assets, points of access, and modes of influence for public policy that all serve the increasingly entrenched fossil fuel infrastructure. Environmental advocates have attempted to build their own countervailing systems of influence but they lack resources and access even to this day. As a result, the system remains deeply resistant to change its course.

Many other examples of hysteresis could be named. I will not attempt to be exhaustive here. My goal is simply to describe how it can be known that the timeframe for building up the institutional capacities for a science of large-scale change is incompatible with the “built-in” drivers of global change that are already deeply entrenched in the world today. Said another way, even if we could build these institutional capacities (I will explain why this can’t be done at present in the next section), there are inertial processes driving ecological collapse that reinforce and mutually feed the military-industrial complex of fossil fuels that easily quell change efforts mobilized against them. We don’t have the time that we need. And the time we do have will continue to be driven by past and present feedbacks for at least the next several decades.

Why Our Institutions Cannot Build A Science of Social Change Today

One of the more powerful frameworks for studying the irreversible patterns of development for human systems is known as “cultural scaffolding”. I will now use this framework to explain why I believe there to be too many entrenched institutions that would need to be more agile than they are at present for an applied science of large-scale social change to emerge within the timeframe that we have to work with.

Before going into the discussion of cultural scaffolding, let me speak to this timeframe specifically. In the previous section I explained how the thermal inertia of the World Ocean has already gotten pumped into it several more decades of intensification and that a runaway heating process from melting permafrost has already begun and cannot easily be turned off. These two examples allude to a larger story — which is that a global convergence of change processes is driving us into an unavoidable culmination of planetary collapse. Other change processes contributing to this include, but are not limited to: depletion of topsoils worldwide, overshoot of the human population beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity, over-production of chemically reactive nitrogen from industrial agriculture, conversion of landscapes for human uses that displace entire ecosystems, over-fishing of rivers and the oceans, consumption to near-depletion of numerous mineral inputs, release of thousands of novel chemicals (plastics and hormone disrupters being the most notorious) into every ecosystem on Earth, and so forth.

What we are seeing is an epochal change in planetary geology, ecology, biology, and chemistry. All of it is driven by human systems as they are embedded within and interact with other ecological systems. The changes have been developing for thousands of years, with an exponential “pulse” of explosive growth in the last 200 years. We are now planetary in scale and so will be the consequences of our collective endeavors.

Forecasting the future is a tricky business. But I think it is safe to say that it would take decades to replace existing infrastructure with replacements that find dynamic harmony with the Earth’s biosphere. During that time, we will experience the collapse of the world’s largest speculative debt bubble in the financial system and are already in a “post-peak-oil” world of declining productive yields that will make the financial system more volatile and unstable — all the while there is an uptick of intense storms and greater damage to the built environment because it is now much larger than it has ever been in human history. In other words, the next half century will be a time of unprecedented turbulence and disruptions.

Just when we need all-hands-on-deck for planetary management, our systems for managing will be strained (and many broken) in the same period of time. This is where cultural scaffolding comes into the picture. In simple terms, a cultural scaffold is the emergent web of feedbacks between agents, tools, knowledge, and environments to guide evolutionary change for social practices and institutional structures. Think of the example for teaching mathematics. A student must learn the basic concepts, become skilled at using tools like reading and writing implements, and have pedagogical guidance from teachers who support their learning process as it moves through its stages of development. They need support structures that assist the evolution of their tools and knowledge as they go through a series of difficult learning activities. Remove these supports at any critical juncture along the way and the effectiveness of learning diminishes greatly. This is because the scaffolding is what enables the learning process to arise and be sustained in its development.

When we assess existing institutions through the lens of cultural scaffolding, two things become immediately evident. The first is that we can see what the affordances (system-level capabilities) are for institutions in their present modes of functioning. This enables us to see where things are working well, which functions might be maladaptive, and where gaps need to be filled. For example, we can look at universities and see how they structure themselves into academic programs that enable people to specialize in existing domains of knowledge but are ill-suited for cultivating expert practitioners who synthesize and integrate knowledge across disciplinary fields. We can also observe that the globalization of work forces has led to a structural decontextualization of knowledge in academic disciplines — meaning that what is learned in fields like psychology, history, political science, engineering, and physics is treated as contextual-to-its-field rather than deeply embedded in the place of learning. A consequence of this is that students enter a given university from all over the world, then leave it and depart to wherever they find suitable employment afterwards. Universities are not embedded in the learning ecosystems of their own cities and bioregions. Thus they are not set up to respond to the systemic complexities of social dynamics around them where adaptive management will need to be implemented.

The second thing we can see is that existing institutions are developmentally entrenched just like the fossil fuel infrastructure outlined previously. There are pathways available for their continued evolution and pathways that hinder further development in other directions. Just try to join a university and secure federal research funding and you will discover that you are disallowed to apply if you don’t have a doctoral degree in a recognized program of study. This again hinders the synthesis and integration of knowledge. Similar assessments can be made about electoral systems in democratic societies, communication systems for multimedia that shapes popular culture, pathways of professionalization for gaining employment in nonprofit organizations, the “acceptable” funding streams from governing boards at foundations set up by wealthy families, and so forth.

As I have scanned this landscape of institutions over the years, I have found time and time again that there are developmental pathways that entrench institutional development to alignment with status quo trajectories in every domain of social life. The creation of a science for large-scale social change would require a different direction of coordinated development across educational programs, media institutions, systems of governance, and financial investment (plus more) to have a chance of taking root at the scales that are needed for managing planetary crisis. Yet what we are seeing is patterns of increasing scarcity and hyper-competition across all of these societal sectors because most of the world’s wealth has been hoarded away among roughly 1400 billionaires and a clandestine network of tax havens. The mechanisms for bringing synthesis to existing institutions have already been coopted by the military-industrial complex as it has been gaming political systems around the world for an “end game” of planetary ecocide.

With every passing year there are fewer funds available for basic research, more unemployable knowledge practitioners with advanced degrees in competitive labor markets, higher levels of global and personal debt, various kinds of intensifying structural inequality, and more that all together are driving institutional evolution away from the cooperative structures that would be needed for this epic scale of intervention. What I hope to convey here is that there is a pattern-level of social development that precludes the possible emergence of the cooperative learning ecosystems that would be needed for people to become adept managers of the immense complexities inherent to social and ecological systems. This is not a conclusion I come to lightly. I have struggled and fought against these currents for nearly two decades. Every step of the way, I found the direction of institutional evolution to be like the tidal forces of pull from the Moon upon the Earth — they deeply pull existing patterns of entrenchment farther in the same direction and will not alter course without a profound capacity for disruption (that would do a great deal of harm to infrastructure globally) to rip them away from their current entrenched pathways.

Add to this the developmental entrenchment of human potential that has aligned with the cultivation of people as market-saturated consumers of purchased goods and services. There has now been nearly a century of professional practices in marketing, advertising, and public relations — with tens of billions of dollars now spent every year to influence social behavior in service of corporate profits — that shape human behavior toward mindsets of emotional insecurity that (these consumers are told) can only be remedied through “brand alignment” with the consumption of marketed wares. As the human population has grown throughout this hundred year period, there have been many more people (in total numbers) who develop through psychological stages of maturity that move beyond this adolescent-like stage. But they are overwhelmed in numbers by the much larger total population that has entrenched and mutually reinforcing dynamics of creating debt burdens, shaping the consumer mindsets, and thus influencing how people think about their own identities and how they act out motivations in the world to get their needs met. As a result, the material footprints of consumable goods has grown exponentially while stripping the ecosystems of the Earth.

Here we find that the combination of skills required to regulate one’s own emotions and those for gaining the psychological flexibility to evaluate diverse perspectives (both of which are validated by decades of evidence-based prevention science and public health research as fundamental to human development) are inhibited from being acquired as children grow up in environments that lack basic support systems of nurturance that are known to be necessary for their development. This is egregiously evident in the United States where there are now on average one school shooting per week as children act out extreme violence against other children in profoundly impoverished social environments.

This kind of cultural entrenchment is particularly limiting for the emergence of rigorous practices to guide large-scale social change. When entire generations of children grow up without nurturant environments, there will be greatly limited capacities for self-governance and collective decision making at societal scales. Not only do we lack the institutional capacities for coordination, contextualization, and adaptive learning — but we also have a “debt bubble of social impoverishment” in the human capacities to create, manage, and dynamically guide the evolution of change for these institutions around the world.

Lessons I’ve Learned on My Failed Journey to Birth the Field of Culture Design

There is much more I could say about the evolutionary dynamics of social and ecological systems that are relevant to this topic. My goal here is not to be exhaustive, but rather to express that I have gained a deeply troubling collection of observations and insights about the developmental processes guiding change on Earth today. What I want to share in this section is some of what I have learned while attempting to build a large and capable field of intentional social change over the last two decades. This will require that I share some of the feelings associated with living out such a difficult life journey.

Firstly, to place oneself on a course to address systemic problems in the world (while most people are educated around isolated problems defined by existing bodies of knowledge — meaning they take a disciplinary or field-based approach) means leaving behind the established communities where people find lifetime friends and colleagues. If I had chosen to become an atmospheric scientist while studying in graduate school, I would have an existing pool of colleagues to work with at conferences and hosted meetings as well as new waves of students coming in each year as cohorts to learn about my field in the numerous universities around the world. When I left my PhD program in atmospheric sciences to go out into the world and work on systemic applications to address global threats, I found myself without institutional supports and without a shared community of practice.

A lesson learned from this is that without cultural scaffolding it is impossible for social development to thrive. My life has not been a journey of thriving. It has been a journey of depravation. Every step along the way I became less employable and less likely to secure financial supports to do the things I was attempting to do. Just as significantly — and perhaps more important — I have found that it is difficult to cultivate the social supports from communities of practice as most people are already committed elsewhere. This has to do with many influential factors — not least of which being that people generally lack the conceptual frameworks to construct simple narratives that are already familiar to them that could be mapped onto me and my work. I have seen this same pattern in the lives of other social entrepreneurs and now recognize it as what naturally unfolds around those people who step outside of social conventions to serve a need that their communities have not recognized yet.

Another common experience I have had is the social exclusion of those who are different that functions in many respects like the way your immune system will reject foreign bodies that are potentially threatening or dangerous. By rejecting disciplinary structures that didn’t serve my purposes, I found myself in the position of being a potential threat to those people who benefit from having gained high status and prestige within their own (already established) professional domains. There are many good reasons why this kind of conformist feedback dynamic emerges in human groups, mostly having to do with the stability and persistence of reliable benefits within a community that its members seek to preserve. And yet the recurrent pattern of exclusion by those who presumably should be allies has shown how powerful the cultural aspects of institutional entrenchment can be for resisting structural changes even when these changes are urgently and systemically needed.

We are living through unprecedented times with threats that are fundamentally unlike anything our communities have had to deal with in the past. Thus we lack adaptive responses to dealing with the kinds of crises associated with growing the human population and its social complexity to planetary scales, as has transpired in the last few hundred years. The preservation dynamics of community from the past were well-suited to the typical scales of size and pace of change that were commonplace back then. But they are profoundly ill-suited to the scales and pace of change we are all experiencing today.

Another lesson is something I learned by studying calculus and differential equations while training to become a physicist earlier in my life. It is the lesson that the human body has no perceptual feedbacks for feeling and intuitively grasping changes in acceleration. We can feel forces. We can even feel what are called impulse forces (like when a car we are riding in slams into a wall). But what we cannot readily perceive is changes in the intensity of impulse forces. Yet this is exactly what we are living through during this time of cascading, mutually-reinforcing, exponential change.

Add to this that our social networks are bombarded with cascading threats on a near-daily basis. I have observed that a new “global crisis” spreads across social media roughly every 5–7 days — meaning that people do not maintain the ability to orient themselves for taking strategic actions on the much longer (decadal) timescales they need to be working at. Even less capable are these same people to think in century timescales while planning out and taking actions on decade-length timescales. Instead what we see are institutions built around response cycles for quarterly earning reports (publicly traded corporations), annual budget cycles (municipal governments), and election cycles (national governments) — all of which are myopically short-sighted on their time horizons. And this all unfolds across communication systems that are routinely flooded with highly emotive content, artificially constructed media content, and other forms of propaganda that have “weaponized” the information age in service to powerful elites. Beneficiaries of the status quo have a great deal to lose by structural changes and are more than ready to deploy unethical campaigns to divert attention, plant seeds of confusion, and simply overwhelm people with crisis-oriented information.

Taken together, these lessons have taught me that the road to building a science of large-scale social change is one that leads to martyrdom (at best) and obscurity (at worst). It is slowly destroying me as a person while having declining prospects each year of ever being realized. The currently entrenched institutional landscapes continue to evolve along the pathways that shape and select for their future developments in the same directions that shaped them in the past. I simply do not see prospects for this endeavor to succeed. This is despite making Herculean efforts for the duration of my adult life.

I hope this answers the question from the title and opening of this essay. I have shed blood, sweat, and tears to birth into the world a body of knowledge and social change practices worthy of the times we are living in. Yet for all my efforts, there is nearly nothing impactful to present that is remotely operating near enough to the scales that are needed. And time has run out for the decades-long buildup of institutions that would be needed for such a vision to manifest at the planetary scale.

A Closing Comment About “Best Practices” Today

In March of 2007 I joined the staff of a think tank called the Rockridge Institute that was located in Berkeley, CA. Our mission was to apply insights from cognitive linguistics to help the progressive political movement in the United States with strategic communications and values-driven engagement efforts.

My primary focus at that time was to begin what would become a decade-long inquiry into the framing of global warming and other environmental issues. I wrote editorials and blog articles about the various findings in the cognitive and behavioral sciences that help explain why so little traction has been made addressing the planetary ecological crisis. That was eleven years ago and I was like a lone wolf in the wilderness — for there were not yet any institutions in place that focused on the behavioral and cultural dimensions of these issues.

Flash forward to the present and the “best in class” work at formal institutions can be represented by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that routinely conducts surveys of the US population to garner insights about beliefs, values, and attitudes related to a host of policy issues for addressing global warming. What I find disturbing and sad is that their approach employs what is known as methodological individualism (a deeply flawed perspective at the heart of Neoclassical economics) that treats the behaviors of people as something that arises from them as individual people engaging in decision-making processes of various kinds. They do not seek an integrative social science perspective that explores the situational factors, institutional structures, and other kinds of cultural patterns at the larger-than-individual level that powerfully shape and constrain behavior. In effect, they are employing social science tools that were cutting edge back in the 1970’s. And while these tools have strengths that merit commendation, they are both grossly inadequate for the task at hand and fail to incorporate the numerous advances in other social scientific fields over the last half century.

As one example, consider what would be considered standard practice in user-centered design today. This approach to creating effective solutions emphasizes the situated experience of the user to observe their desires and motivations, as well as detailed analysis of their behaviors. It was initially developed for web design but has since been expanded to much more complex arenas like making improvements to transportation systems, participation in policymaking processes, and a lot more. One thing that would quickly be learned from a user-centered design approach is that numerous structural constraints exist in the lives of people that cause their behaviors to diverge from things they claim to value. In other words, measurement of values and attitudes is a poor predictor of behavior because it fails to expose the foundational causes of social behavior from moment to moment in deeply scaffolded (and thus entrenched) environments.

The second example comes from cultural evolutionary studies and employs what is called cultural multilevel selection to identify the numerous levels of hierarchical organization in a social system (e.g. individual, family, business firm, neighborhood group, municipality, etc.) and the specific cause-effect mechanisms at each level that contribute to the spread of social behaviors. This framework was utilized in one study to show how an environmental policy implemented in New Guinea failed to gain adoption because it presumed the wrong level of social organization (by providing mechanisms at the federal government level when a cultural analysis revealed that the most important regulatory feedbacks were expressed at the level of chiefdoms that remain prominent in their society). What this framework reveals is that the situated structures of social change vary from one cultural context to another and interventions need to be tailor-made for each context informed by the evolutionary processes of social change that operate in each of them.

Note how these two examples reveal a great deal about how much has been learned in the social sciences — yet due to the fragmented and internally competitive environments of universities, there are no cultural selection mechanisms for knowledge synthesis and the cultivation of integrative applications. We may have learned a great deal in aggregate over the years about how to guide large-scale social change, but our institutions are not set up to make use of this vast amount of knowledge in the ways it is structured and used today. We continue to see “issue silos” and fragmented ecologies of knowledge because the prior structures of universities and funding agencies select for advancement at the topical or disciplinary level.

What I continually find as I watch the bubbling up of things like this piecemeal approach to behavior change relating to climate policies is that they only arise where some forward-thinking funder (usually a private philanthropist) has a pet issue that he or she cares about. When we look to the much larger funding mechanisms of federal programs like the National Institutes of Health or really big foundations like Gates and Robert Wood Johnson, we see that they may do excellent work on specific interventions or programs but fail to see the forest ecosystems of possibilities that their programmatic trees are but a tiny part of.

Progress in this area has been very slow in the time I’ve been doing my work (roughly from the year 2000 to the present, in various stages of development). And every time I find myself at least a decade ahead of the best institutions in the efforts I seek to put in place. This is because I explicitly take the approach of (a) thinking systemically and looking for root causes; (b) gathering all of the information I can find that may be relevant, regardless of which field it comes from; and © learning by doing that continually challenges me to update my assumptions and evolve the ways I go about what I am doing. As a result, I am able to work with what is emerging across hundreds of research programs in ways that we do not set up institutions to manage or promote. So when I say that the cultural scaffolding processes combined with global systemic hysteresis effects will keep the scale and sophistication of cultural management from manifesting, I fear that I am a proper Cassandra who sees real future harms but is powerless to do anything about it.

So I am shifting gears and no longer attempting to build this grand visionary work. I simply don’t see it as feasible anymore and am going to introspect deeply about what I might do that is of service in times as serious as these when in my heart I now accept that my life’s work cannot succeed. In the spirit of the foundational challenge named in the opening of this essay, I invite you to prove me wrong. Critique and analyze my assumptions. Gather your own data to confront and challenge the argument laid out here. See if you can find a way to birth such an ambitious vision where I have failed to do so.

I would much rather be wrong and see effective solutions emerge than to be right and feel the hollow gratification of saying “I told you so” as the world goes into full-scale systemic collapse in the next few decades.

Onward, fellow humans.

Joe Brewer is co-founder of the Design School for Regenerating Earth. If you would like to get involved in this work, consider becoming a member. Also, you can support me on Patreon if you feel inspired to do so.

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