The MAHB and Environmental Communication

An interesting letter from Paul Ehrlich circulated on some of the environmental mailing lists recently. Ehrlich and some colleagues have launched something called the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB). The purpose of this effort is to establish

a basic mechanism to expose society to the full range of population-environment-resource-ethics-equity-power issues, and to sponsor broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people. It would, I hope, serve as a major tool for promoting conscious cultural evolution.

The letter suggests that there isn’t really a need for more natural science on the issues, “but rather a need for better understanding of human behaviors and how they can be altered to direct humanity toward a sustainable society before it is to [sic] late.” Ehrlich then stresses “that it is human behavior, toward one another and toward the planet that sustains all of us, that requires rapid modification.”

Ehrlich goes on to cite both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as possible models for this effort because they are good examples of broad international collaborations. He suggests, however, that both lacked “broad open forums where people from different societies and with different viewpoints could discuss what humanity is and should be all about.”

If we take the letter at face value, there seem to be two competing impulses being expressed. One is that human behavior is the problem underlying environmental issues, so the bad behavior needs to be modified. At worst, this conjures up images of Pavlov and Skinner; at best, environmental social marketing. It almost suggests a “we know what’s best for you” approach to dealing with the issues. The second impulse seems to be toward large scale, inclusive, multi-stakeholder public participation. This would be a more collaborative approach. As many of you know, these represent very different philosophical, theoretical, and practical positions on effective environmental communication.

I decided to have a look at the MAHB web site to try to get a better understanding of what they are after. The MAHB mission statement expands on the letter. First it identifies some key environmental issues and implicitly invokes the IPAT equation in citing “population growth, overconsumption by the rich, and the deployment of environmentally malign technologies” as the “drivers” of environmental degradation. It goes on to say:

Through a MAHB inaugural global conference, involving scholars, politicians and a broad spectrum of stakeholders, followed by workshops, research activities, and the construction of a human dimensions portal, the MAHB will begin to re-frame people’s definitions of, and solutions to, sustainability problems. The MAHB would encourage a global discussion about what human goals should be (i.e., “what people are for”) and examine how cultural change can be steered toward creation of a sustainable society. A key task will be to get governmental buy-in and the support of other key decision makers in the media, industry, academia, religious communities, foundations, and elsewhere who can participate in the discussion and are in positions to amplify outreach and help to accelerate needed changes in public perceptions and institutional structures.

Guys from the Bio-DomeIt also talks about making humanities and social science research central to the MAHB program, especially with regard to “analyzing and evaluating the attitudes and practices of individuals and groups.” They also want to create an “observatory on behavior”  to gather up the research and do outreach. I know this isn’t what they mean, but “observatory on behavior” conjures up the image of a bio-dome like experiment.

In a spirit of goodwill, I will make a couple of my own observations about this. First, it seems to me that the project could be somewhat more clearly articulated so that it adequately takes account of the full range of humanities and social science perspectives on the environmental crisis. Unless they really want to focus just on behavior, they shouldn’t put that in the title or emphasize it so much. Parsing the letter and mission statement, I don’t think they are just interested in behavior. I think they want to consider the range of social systems that underlie environmental issues. This project is potentially very significant, so it seems to me that it should be articulated in a way that will be inviting to the widest range of environmentally-oriented social science and humanities scholars, not mention the public at large.

Secondly, I’m not sure exactly what the authors of the mission statement mean when they say they want “to re-frame people’s definitions of, and solutions to, sustainability problems.” This implies that we already know and agree on what the root problems underlying environmental degradation are. If only it were so! Not only do social science and humanities scholars not agree on the problem definitions, they can be blinkered by their disciplinary and discursive prejudices. It might be more productive, therefore, to undertake a process of multi-disciplinary mutual capacity building leading to an open discussion of both problem definitions and appropriate responses. It would be a well-informed process of multi-stakeholder deliberation that would, in-turn, lead to a variety of “good practices” vis-à-vis ecological sustainability.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the MAHB folks really do have something like this in mind and just haven’t articulated it clearly enough yet. Let’s hope so  because something like this is overdue. In environmental communication, at least, we now understand that simply putting the science out there and hoping for good policy outcomes is just not going to be enough.

Finally, however it plays out, the MAHB would benefit from the participation of environmental communication specialists.

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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One Response to The MAHB and Environmental Communication

  1. Pingback: Paul Ehrlich to AESS: It’s the Culture « Indications: Environmental Communication & Culture blog

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