Questions…on Integral Sustainability for Annie Wilson
Political science lecturer Annie Wilson has described herself as an environmentalist since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until she came to study Integral Studies while completing her Ph.D. in Political Theory and American Politics at Texas A&M that she started to understand that only when others’ worldviews are considered can such issues make headway. Wilson, who teaches “Global Planning Futures” and “Public Opinion and Propaganda” within CBAPP, explains here when Corporate America will go green, why the spotted owl still prompts hard feelings in Oregon, and why environmentalists should start thinking like marketers.
What’s the basic idea of the Integral Approach and how it relates to environmental issues?
You need to understand others’ points of view, their worldviews, and their collective behavior in order to get anything accomplished. You can’t expect anyone to do anything that doesn’t work for them. So looking at business, you can’t say, “it’s up to you to give us products and services that are sustainable and don’t pollute,” if that’s not going to help them financially, because their primary objective will always be to make money. And you can’t look at consumers and say, “don’t buy anything that’s not recyclable, pollutes, or leaves a carbon footprint,” if that means they can’t drive to work in their car. You have to meet people and organizations where they are according to their needs. You must work with them. It’s like the idea of “marketing mirrors.”
What do you mean, “marketing mirrors”?
That’s an idea coined by social scientist Don Beck that too many marketers use, which is, “it sounds good to me, so it should work.” It’s inherently flawed. You’ve got to think from your consumers’ perspective. We need to think of the environment and sustainability in the same way – approaching the issues from various worldviews.
Any examples of how this wasn’t done in previous environmental fights?
Back in the 1980s, environmentalists created a tremendous public relations disaster in Oregon over the spotted owl. They invoked the Endangered Species Act to stop loggers from clear-cutting old growth forests by contending that they were threatening the habitat of the endangered spotted owl, which was illegal. The problem is that this area is home to mostly family-oriented, blue-collar workers making a living off the land – many of whom are loggers. So to come in and say, “you must ruin your livelihood for a bird,” just wasn’t going to work. You can’t come in with a foreign concept and shove it down people’s throats, and that’s exactly what happened, so the spotted owl only generated an incredible amount of resentment that, if you ask many Oregonians, still persists today. A better approach would have been suggesting alternative industries for the area, fostering tourism or suggesting selective cutting, or explaining how clear cutting could threaten their communities through mudslides and other environmental problems.
Are we still seeing mistakes like this today?
In my view, approaching the issue of global warming by focusing on issues such as polar bears drowning is not close enough to home. I don’t think you can expect your average American, politician, or business to care about polar bears except for those who already care about polar bears – again, that idea of worldviews. But if you approached global warming from different perspectives for different worldviews – “your child may get asthma because of dirty air,” and things like that – that’s where progress can be made.
How does a non-Integral Approach – not thinking from others’ perspectives – play out in Washington, D.C.?
Regulations. It depends on the administration that is in power, but it flip-flops from regulations by those that want to impose environmental constraints, and then a removal of those regulations by those that don’t see these issues as critical. Really, regulations are just like the spotted owl, it’s only a deterrent that is not talking to people in their own language. For example, a business might look at the regulations, evaluate what would be more costly – to abide by the regulation or to simply pay the fine that would follow non-adherence – and then move on. Instead, I think we need to balance regulations with incentives.
What’s an example of an incentive that might work to get businesses to go green?
One example would be subsidies for the auto industry to not only produce hybrids, but rewarding them for making hybrids affordable. The rewards speak to their bottom lines, and then from a consumers’ standpoint, you would be offering them a way to drive to work that would cost less by using less gas. Most people may care about the environment to some degree, but they care about their personal livelihood more, so if you can get cars that make not only environmental but economic sense, then we’re getting somewhere.
But green issues are certainly getting more attention now. Are we at a turning point in terms of people’s world views toward environmental issues?
It’s been building slowly so it’s not a turning point. A better word might be tipping point, the idea that we might finally be reaching critical mass where it starts to be accepted by mainstream society, because that’s when ideas really spread. It has to become a social norm first. I think a great example of that was found in the hotel industry. They did some research into the placards they placed in bathrooms to encourage people to reuse their towels to save on water and energy. People didn’t respond to a “it will save the hotel money” approach; an “it will help the environment” approach had a bit better response; but the one that had the most success was one that said, “other customers are doing it,” and suggested that it’s the expected norm to reuse your towels.
So you think we’re at that tipping point?
I think we’ve just hit it. The United Nations report that came out this spring that says there’s irrefutable evidence of global warming has prompted significant action on a global scale. There are certainly still a lot of people who don’t agree or don’t agree to the same degree, but the problem of global warming is gaining steam with advocates within business, within government, and within communities.
How will that sense of a tipping point carry over into Corporate America?
Well, like I said, businesses respond to the bottom line, which turns it into a basic study of supply and demand. An increased demand by consumers for green products will make it then worthwhile for companies to go green – an increase in supply and a reduction in cost as economies of scale develop.
How does that then cycle back to a responsibility to consumers?
If people start demanding green products, companies will respond because they’ll recognize there are profits to be made. But again, it should not be assumed that merely saying, “okay, everyone, buy green products now” will solve the issue. We still have work to do as to how green ideas are marketed to the public. You can’t just tell people it’s their “responsibility” and get them to respond.
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