Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Adaptive muddling

Summary - Understanding the need for localization is not the same as knowing what steps to take and how to take them. To respond well to an energy and resource descent, climate disruption and soil depletion, a great many small experiments must be conducted, and very quickly. Adaptive muddling is a process that innovates rapidly yet carefully. It emphasizes small experiments, not the small steps common in more formal procedures. The difference is subtle but important for a successful transition. This paper, focused on averting the tragedy of the commons, introduces adaptive muddling as a psychologically compatible decision-making strategy.
In Garret Hardin's 1968 parable of the tragedy of the commons we were given a warning of what the future may hold. The response to date has been ambiguous. While there have been small scale advances and losses, no overall strategy for dealing with serious environmental problems has emerged. This paper will outline previously proposed strategies and their weaknesses, and offer a new strategy based on what has been learned.

Garret Hardin proposed "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" to make us force ourselved to behave responsibly. Others have suggested authoritarian solutions, in which environmental planning and enforcement are centralized. One problem with both of these approaches is the natural resistance humans have to the elimination of choice. We don't like to do what we are forced to do. Both also lead to grim images of the future, and such images are already part of our motivation problem. Another approach suggested by Warren Johnson is called "muddling through," has many things to recommend it, but also some serious weaknesses, including slowness and a tendency to compromise.

A new approach which builds upon the last 20 years of environmental experience and new findings about human cognitive functioning and behavior can be called "adaptive muddling." It draws heavily on muddling, with the difference that the slowness, tendency to compromise and lack of direction of muddling are overcome.

Current studies of human behavior show that people desperately need to be needed, to have a voice in their destiny, to take action to help themselves and others. People need hope a vision of a future that is worth striving for, ideas on how to create such a future, and the support to test out those ideas, and the confidence that good ideas will be used. Adaptive muddling takes all of these factors into consideration.

Features of adaptive muddling are exploration, stability, and distributed leadership. Stability and support from the larger context, the state or nation or other insitutions, encourage multiple small scale explorations of appropriate responses to environmental challenges. Distributed leadership is based on ths skills of leaders at local and state levels, and in many disciplines.. These leaders, many of whom will appear at the grassroots level, will have three functions. First, they will provide the vision to create a shared understanding of our urgent situation, the possibility of a solution, and the challenge it offers to everyone. They will show that a decent lifestyle can be salvaged, and that there is the possibility of improving our quality of life in the process. They will create and support the complex process for meeting environmental challenges, clarify the role of exploration and stability, and show that the failure of explorations is an acceptable, and even necessary, outcome of the process.

Adaptive muddling is not utopian, and not a panacea. It cannot deal with multi national issues such as acid rain or atmospheric pollutant buildup, nor does it offer quick and easy answers. What it does is offer an orginized way for individuals in all areas and at all levels of expertise to make significant contributions to ensure our survival and hope for a livable future.

Read full paper at: De Young, R. & S. Kaplan (1988) On averting the tragedy of the commons. Environmental Management, 12(3): 273-283.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: September 10, 2006 at:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Attention Restoration

Restoring the capacity to direct attention:
A pre-condition for civil and stewardship behavior

Listen: Interview on mental vitality and localization (from Radio EcoShock)

Directed attention is a foundational mental resource that allows us to voluntarily manage the focus and direction of our thoughts and to regulate our emotions and behavior. It is useful for dealing with the short-term versus long-term choices involved in our effort to remain effective, productive, clearheaded and helpful. We use it to inhibit the power of the immediate environment and our internal/personal distractions, so as to allow consideration of less salient, perhaps mundane, but nonetheless valued information.

Directed attention allows for a variety of prosocial and proenvironmental behaviors. It allows us to pursue an important goal despite interesting competition in the immediate setting, to help others despite our own unmet personal needs, and to resist temptation so that we can maintain devotion to a larger concern. In short, the capacity to direct attention is an essential resource for achieving both civility and environmental stewardship.

Recent research shows that directed attention is a scarce and finite mental resource. When placed under continual demand, our ability to direct the focus of our thoughts tires, resulting in a condition called directed attention fatigue (DAF). This condition reduces our overall mental effectiveness and makes consideration of abstract concepts and long-term goals difficult, at best. A number of symptoms are commonly attributed to this fatigue: irritability and impulsivity that results in regrettable choices and statements, impatience that has us making risky or otherwise poor decisions, and distractibility that allows the immediate environment to have a greatly magnified effect on our choices and decisions. The symptoms of DAF can be summarized as a reduced ability to make and follow plans, and the inability to mentally restrain impulsive thought or action. Directed attention fatigue makes both proenvironmental and prosocial behavior much less likely.

If we value community, civility and environmental stewardship then taking action to manage our capacity to direct attention is not optional. Since it fatigues regularly, we must restore this resource regularly. The references below provide details on this precious mental resource and give advice for its support, management and restoration.

Related documents:

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Slow change for a durable transition

Summary - Some people despair at the unsustainability of human behavior; however, such despair may come from taking far too narrow and pessimistic a view of human nature. Behavior change does happen but lasting change happens only slowly. Since the problems we face are urgent, such slow-to-change behavior can give rise to frustration. But, in fact, the opposite response is needed from us; we need to be patient. The transition we face must be done well the first time with the changes made durable; it is unlikely we will get a second chance.
The converging of climate disruption, energy descent and economic instability is stressing civilization, perhaps foreshadowing a downshift to a lower level of complexity [1]. It is easy to despair of the unsustainability of human behavior. However, such despair may come from taking too narrow and pessimistic a view of human nature, such as believing:
  1. Unsustainability results from a motivational drive to reduce cognitive dissonance which leaves us floundering in collective denial;
  2. Behavioral inertia is an immutable force making us unable to shift direction;
  3. Much of human behavior is reducible to the actions of one neurotransmitter; our demise will result from hijacking dopamine pathways; or
  4. Humans are egocentric, short-term gain maximizers, consuming resources with little concern for waste, passing costs on to others and forming exclusive groups that neglect outsiders.
While each is based on valid insights, the mistake is our believing that any one is the root of human nature. Such reductionism harkens, unfortunately, to an earlier period, when a then-dominant behaviorism argued that the existence of a behaviorist explanation made all other explanations irrelevant. This notion that an explanation at one level usurps the possibility of a useful explanation at another level was widespread enough to have received several colorful labels, such as “nothingbutism” and MacKay’s more elegant “fallacy of ‘nothing buttery’.”

After over a century of research, it would hardly seem necessary for us to argue in support of multiple determinants of behavior. Yet, single determination theories abound. Their oversimplification is no more acceptable now than it was then; if indeed there is a demonstrable role for one view, this in no way eliminates the possibility that there is a role for other, and more positive, views as well. That humans can act in unsustainable ways is irrefutable. But when discussing human behavior, saying that “our species’ motivation is X or our behavior is to always do Y” is simply wrong. There is no scientific basis for so narrow a view of human nature. The brain is more malleable, and behavior more adaptive, than such statements allow.

The fallacy is compounded by the advice that typically follows: due to the alleged unsustainability of human nature, people’s behavior must be manipulated; they must be managed using incentives, disincentives and tight prescriptive rules; and the content of their mental models (e.g., attitudes, knowledge, worldview) must be reformed. The flaw here is our assumed privilege as reformation experts. With rhetorical and condescending questions (e.g., are humans smarter than yeast?) we dismiss the possibility of the public voluntarily changing behavior in time to avoid catastrophe. But strangely, as experts, we are held above this contempt. We arrogate to ourselves a rarefied psychological nature and a noble obligation to make them behave. Alas, even if this assumed entitlement is granted, research shows that the manipulations we commonly employ are not reliable and rarely durable [2].

We must correctly define the problem being faced. The issue here is not whether human nature leads inexorably to sustainable or unsustainable outcomes; we are capable of both, neither is inevitable. What we are challenged with is specifying the conditions under which humans behave more reasonably [3].

Read full paper at: De Young, R. (2011) Slow wins: Patience, perseverance and behavior change, Carbon Management, 2(6):607-611.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: April 18, 2011 at: