Blog

Sep 16, 2011

By Jennifer L. Sokolove, Program Director, Compton Foundation

Why is it that so many people know we’re facing multiple environmental crises, but so few people are actually doing anything about them?

This question has been asked in multiple ways, about many topics having to do with the environment, and increasingly about climate change as it becomes more apparent and urgent. EcoArts Connections (EAC), one of the Compton Foundation’s grantees, is trying to address this question head on, girded with the findings of social and behavioral sciences, by linking artists, scientists, and nonprofit organizations.

Studies have observed that to generate effective action, intellect and emotion must be engaged simultaneously.[1] Yet most attempts to address environmental problems focus on cognition—“We have a problem, let’s come up with a solution.” While this has resulted in lots of solutions, without emotional engagement there is little will to put the solutions into practice. Nor can great passion stand alone. Without scientific underpinnings to ground it in meaningful action, affect dissipates relatively quickly, and the lack of rigorous science or ‘facts’ can make solutions less credible.

EAC’s founding director, Marda Kirn, has a lifelong background in the arts, and has paid particular attention to creativity as a catalyst for both social change and personal transformation. Historically, the arts have been valued not only as entertainment, but also for their ability to inspire people to ponder, question, and reflect, and their affective power to nourish, attract, and move people to action.

Kirn wondered, “Could we bring together the cognitive power of science with the affective power of the arts to co-create performances, exhibits, and other events? In that hour that the marketing people say we have, between when people are deeply affected by something and then go back to their stressed out, busy, doing-the-best-that-they-can daily lives, could we capture their imaginations—engage their minds and hearts—and then offer them practical, non-partisan things they could do (from recycling to running for office) that would close the gap between awareness and action?”

She created EcoArts Connections to bring together science and the arts to advance understanding of climate change and speed the shift to a sustainable future, in essence combining cognition and affect for greater effect. Since 2006, EAC has produced three festivals based in Boulder, Colorado involving as many as 28 collaborating organizations that have presented, co-created, or linked their efforts. EAC activities have been a great success, generating widespread local and national media attention, three to four times the attendance typical for festival events, and new and increased funding for many of the collaborators.

Inspired by EAC in 2006, Jason Neff and dancer/performance artist Michelle Ellsworth team-taught a course called “The Art and Science of Climate” at the University of Colorado. Neff reports, “The students learned the science more quickly, more thoroughly, and more accurately than at any other time in my history as a teacher.” In 2007, EAC initiated a collaboration between the Curious Theatre’s youth playwriting workshop and scientists from CIRES (the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences). After seeing the 10-minute plays written by high school students and performed by professional actors, one audience member commented, “I’ve been reading about climate change for months. This is the first time it’s affected me personally. What can I do?”

Boulder, where EAC is headquartered, has the highest density of climate scientists in the world due to the international labs and research centers based there (among them EAC collaborators: National Center for Atmospheric Research, NOAA, Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, and Denver Museum of Nature and Science), and the news about climate change grows worse every day. Due to the urgency of the problem, EAC has recently shifted from producing local festivals to working nationally to help others explore the opportunities generated by new combinations of art and science.

EAC has inspired innovative organizational and funding partnerships along the way, from small to large. These include a major exhibit that designed and presented with the American Meteorological Society called “Forecast: Communicating Climate and Weather,” which will hang at the convention center hosting the Society’s annual conference and will remain in place for several additional months

Blog of the American Meteorological Society; an EAC-inspired NOAA grant to an arts/science project called FLOW, spearheaded by Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology with artist Mary Miss and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, that will work to make sustainability personal, visceral, tangible, and actionable on the White River in Indiana; and the EAC-initiated national Arts-Science Working Group, which brings together people working in more than 15 national associations and federal agencies in the arts and in the sciences to explore the possibilities for collaboration on climate change and sustainability.

Environmental Education and Attitudes: Emotions and Beliefs are What is Needed,” by Julie Ann Pooley and Moira O’Connor,Environment and Behavior, September 2000; Online version available at: http://eab.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/32/5/711. “Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change,” edited by Susanne C. Moser (UCAR) and Lisa Dilling (CIRES), Cambridge University Press, 2007. The Affective Domain: http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/affective/index.html. “Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009: An Audience Segmentation Analysis,” by The Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, 2009. “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aids, and the Interested Public,” Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University, 2009, CRED.COLUMBIA.EDU/GUIDE

Sep 16, 2011

At the Environmental Grantmakers Association Fall Retreat last week I tried two “stage gimmicks” that I derived directly from reading Nick Bilton’s new book, I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works.

First, since we were at Asilomar, I got a 10 gallon bucket and filled it with sand. I dribbled a few grains of sand into my hand and said:

“This is how much information an 18th Century professional would have dealt with in his lifetime.”  I filled a small bag with sand and said, “This is how much information is contained in a week’s worth of The New York Times.”  I tilted the entire bucket toward the audience, and said “This is the amount - 4 exabytes (10^19 power) of unique information created each year nowadays.”

Turns out I was wrong about that last bit—I should have used Bilton’s quote about how “American households” collectively consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008” A zettabyte is, of course, 1000 exabytes.

That’s why your head feels like it is going to explode after being at a conference nowadays.

Then I held up a paper roadmap of California. Pointed out that when you use one of these maps you have a clear picture of the roads in the state and the first thing you have to do is locate yourself in that picture. However, when you use a map online or on your phone the first thing the software does is zing a little pin onto the map. That pin shows you where you are. That pin is you. The map is oriented around you, not around the state of California.

The session at EGA was on “Tools that Move the Needle.” We heard from Bradford Smith of The Foundation Center, Jon Cracknell of The JGM Foundation and Environmental Funders Network in the UK, Rachel Leon speaking on behalf of the Gulf Coast Fund, and Rick Reed talking about the REAMP project. These are great examples of using data and data visualization to make sense of existing information, using technology to see information in new ways, and using technology to involve new voices in decision making conversation. We saw the world premier of “Bridging the Gulf” a fabulous 3 minute short on the Gulf Coast Fund‘s community data project.

Here’s another way of looking at the amount of data we deal with daily. (from GOOD Magazine)

Having milked Bilton’s book for my role in moderating this panel, its only fair that I share some broader thoughts on the book. First, let me note that I’m writing this book review while watching Giants/Braves game #4, cooking dinner, and checking on the progress of the City’s 4-day, 24-hour-a-day trolley track replacement project that is happening within 50 feet of my front door. I just finished Bilton’s book, which, contrary to the research he cites on multi-tasking while pleasure reading, I was able to finish with the ball game on the TV.

Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times Bits column. He’s engaging, funny, clear, and significantly less arrogantly tech-savvy then many in his position. His book is more than a book. Each chapter opens with a QR Code (that black and white box thingy at the top of this post, click the link to learn how to use it) that leads you to online content, discussions, and other community oriented tools related to the book. This is cool, though not as cool as the book app that Stephen Elliot developed for his memoir, The Adderall Diaries or The McSweeney’s App for the magazine. I read the book on the Kindle app, so theoretically you can read what I highlighted online here.*

His book, I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, is one of those rarest of rarities these days—a business book that is a good story. Bilton takes us from the porn industry to classrooms, from Gutenberg to MRI research, to surgical theaters and data visualization hubs. He has a penchant for making up terminology—consumnivore and technocondria are both self-explanatory and useful.

As he weaves together his observations from his own life, his work in the New York Times Research Labs, all sorts of other research (sociological, psychological, medical, and anthropological) he keeps an important perspective in place—technology changes things in creative ways, we don’t change as fast as technology does, and, “Paper is still gadget number one for reading content.”

He also points out that it is experience we are after, not just content. Now that everything is digital, we may not even be aware of the original source of the information we’re reading. I have Flipboard on my iPad and know just what he’s talking about. Flipboard deliberately pulls tweets and blog posts, news stories, and Facebook posts all into one place and makes it all look good. The professionally curated and the amateur curated all swirls around me as I organize these feeds to include only what I want. This may be one of the snazzier tools with which to do it, but essentially we all do this all the time now when we set up a Feed reader, Twitter lists, or iGoogle homepages.

The more the sources of the content fade to background, the more “I” get the ability to organize it all, and the more mashable content becomes, the more we seek a unique and powerful experience. The more we are relying on our own selected filters for information, whether that be the people we follow on Twitter or the editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal. Storytelling—using all of the tools at its disposal in whatever time period we find ourselves—still reigns supreme. In this moment, that storytelling needs to account for screens, click-away alternatives, video, other voices, game structure, and our ability to multitask.

After presenting a wide range of examples and scientific research about our brains on technology, Bilton flips the unexpected card and points out that “most of the scientists I’ve interviewed agree that the brain’s thirst for stimulation drives the technological advances of each innovation.” In other words, we’re dopamine fiends bringing this rapid change on ourselves because we can. We can dream it, we can adapt to it, we can keep up with it. We always have.

While Bilton thrives on technology, he doesn’t claim to read tea leaves. He won’t predict the future of newspapers or other content providers. He does offer up some insights for the workplace of today and tomorrow:

  • Most of the generations that are fully native to digital environments have not yet joined the workforce. Watch out—the changes are just beginning.
  • People will do the right thing (pay for content and experience) if you make it easy for them. If you don’t, they won’t.
  • There’s no going back.
  • Companies will have to take the leap of eating their seed corn in order to thrive. He points specifically to Apple’s transformation from a computer company to a music distributor.

I think Bilton’s insights are right on for every workplace. His insights about the malleability of data and the need for stories and filters (trust and anchor communities in his parlance) are as relevant to those in the social change/philanthropy sphere as they are to car salesmen, reporters, film makers, and fiction writers.

  • How do we know what we know?
  • How do we determine who will get to define the problem?
  • How does that, in turn, shape how we define the solution?
  • How do we interact with all the information around us?

These are key questions in shaping how philanthropy works. The technological infrastructure on which those questions are being answered and the cultural assumptions of the generations using today’s digital technologies are fundamentally different than those of “command and control, broadcast television, movie theater” generations. The “future” Bilton describes explains the difference between Kickstarter and Network for Good, between Ushahidi and the AP and between The Extraordinaries and a Volunteer Center.

Read it.


Lucy Bernholz is the founder and president of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc, a strategy consulting firm that helps philanthropic individuals and institutions achieve their missions. She is the publisher of Philanthropy2173, an award winning blog about the business of giving and serves as executive producer of The Giving Channel on Fora.tv.

Cross-Posted on the Stanford Social Innovation Review