Commentary: Getting Past Fears to Enable Behaviors

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 08.01.2006


Seeing double, a tale of two visions


In previous Dovetail articles and commentaries we've expounded at length on the need for a vision of the kind of world we want to live in and to leave for our children. We've also addressed the perils of the commoditization of natural resources, including the threat to both the resources and the firms that utilize them. Overall, rising per capita consumption seems to be at the heart of the world's current economic and environmental stress and in some regions it appears as though people are engaging in totally unconstrained consumption behavior. The question arises as to why we are so willing to engage in what appears to be such an irrational and self-destructive behavior. Is it simply resistance to change from a long held pattern or something subtler?


Yet discussions of any change in these behaviors quickly become emotional. Also, it has been said that there are really only two base emotions, love and fear. Thus, the question arises, is it possible that at the heart of our drive to over consume is some form of fear? But if fear is involved - what could this fear be, where might it be coming from, and if it exists, how can it be overcome?


In America, it is likely that one major concern is the fear that we will run out of “something” in the near future. As an example, environmentalists are driven by the fear we will lose biodiversity and run out of clean water, or clean air. In parallel, the industry fears that we will not have enough food, or wood, or energy. All of these fears have great power because they have some basis in a reality where we know supplies of certain key materials are diminishing and competitive. These fears are encouraged and reinforced by everything from the evening news and newspaper headlines telling us about the negative trends in supply, to advertisements for consumer goods that remind you to “get yours before they run out!”


Today these basic fears of reduced availability often lead us to the assumption that we need more of everything. How many of us have more televisions in our house than people that live there? How many of us buy food in bulk only to throw half of it away in the end? But is there really a risk of things running out or are our behaviors of stockpiling and over consumption a result of counterproductive fear that is actually exacerbating the problem?


Considering food as an example, over the past ten thousand years most human populations have focused their agriculture and diets on less than 20 animal species and a similar number of plant species. Yet, most of the tens of thousands of plant and animal species on this planet provide some level of sustenance, and there is consistent and growing proof that a diverse diet is the healthiest option.


To add to the narrowing of the diversity of our food supplies, from these twenty or so species we keep trying to find the silver bullet. By that I mean we are seeking the ultimate single species – the high-yield steak that is perfect every time, or the perfect ear of corn that grows in prolific volume. The result is millions of cattle, and millions of acres of corn (much of it just to feed the cattle) that are genetically very similar.


The challenge to silver bullets is that the search for them is based on certain assumptions. For example, for many years we have been driven by the need for more basic calories in our agricultural programs, as well as by the limitations of traditional storage methods. Both of these basic needs have changed dramatically in America. Americans no longer need more calories and storage systems have changed in terms of what can be stored and for how long. The discussion about calories is complicated by the fact that it has turned into a vicious cycle; we needed more calories so we grew higher calorie food stocks. The food choices we've made as a result have made us grow larger as a civilization (both in numbers and individual size), which means we still think we need more calories. I recently saw a t-shirt with the statement, “I'm not Fat, I'm an American.”


To move toward greater global sustainability, could, for example, a nation like America cut its overall caloric intake by 20% or even 50%, thus freeing up critical calories for those regions with greater need? One way to look at this is to calculate the total number of calories consumed that do not contribute to the health of the individual or society, e.g. candy and other unhealthy snacks, and the resources devoted to their production. The average American drinks 46 gallons of soda pop each year; this translates to 60,000 empty calories a year per person [1]. There are enough calories in this amount of soda pop alone to provide the caloric needs of an average adult for nearly a month. In theory, if 12 Americans gave up these calories, another human being would have a year of her caloric needs available.


The total volume of calories consumed in the form of candy and junk food is huge, and many of these products have one thing in common – a basis in corn. That is, they are made with low-cost corn, corn oil and/or corn syrup. Why? Because we have an excess of corn. Why? Because we have been afraid we were going to run out! America has created such a surplus of corn that we have refined it into highly processed junk food, made it available to burn in stoves, and as a fuel and energy resource – all with substantial subsidies that encourage its continued expansion and production. A recent article again raised fears that there may be a future shortage of corn due to these increased alternative uses. The authors state, “…increased corn plantings almost certainly would need to come from reduced plantings of soybeans and/or from the long-term Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)… 5 to 6 million acres of the CRP could be used for corn production, although the exact amount is uncertain because some has been reforested.” [2] This is a direct example of a fear (of running out corn) being used to justify potentially environmentally harmful practices (reduced crop diversity, removal of the soil and environmental protections of the CRP program and reversal of reforestation efforts).


There is a huge difference between a concern that leads to careful planning and judicious action and an unchallenged quest for high volume and uniformity that leads to simplistic actions that don't even address the real problem. A world dependent on and willing to nurture the productivity of less than twenty species is scary. One where concerns lead to greater regional diversity and healthier lifestyles, including more responsible consumption levels is exciting.


Today, much of what we debate at Dovetail is concerned with how to resolve these seemingly conflicting visions and finding ways to see the structures that create our patterns of behavior. One vision is of a world that is dominated by a small group of highly productive and specialized species, from Eucalyptus to soybeans. Another vision is a world in which kohlrabi, horseradish, juniper, and countless other domesticated and indigenous species are important. To a certain extent it is about recognizing there are risks to either approach being taken exclusively; too much of a good thing versus not enough of anything. The goal in any visioning process is to first remove fear as a barrier in the process. Then it becomes possible to create a vision that incorporates the diverse aspects of the situation and to implement actions, behaviors, and social structures that lead to that vision being realized.


Dr. Jeff Howe

August 2006