NJ Learns | From Action to Thinking and Back Again!

Repost from: http://blog.grdodge.org/2010/03/01/new-jersey-learns-mondays-4
Original Post Date: March 1, 2010

David Hallowell

By David Hallowell, President of Sustainable West Milford

When I first learned of the NJ LEARNS Educating for Sustainability opportunity, we were well on our way to making changes in West Milford. We had established a nonprofit called Sustainable West Milford and grown our membership from 6 to over 400 people in just one year. We had a variety of action-oriented and educational programs including: monthly educational presentations; “Buy Local” campaigns; an organic community garden: and an annual GreenFest.

We were excited with the prospect of learning more, getting some new tools, and making some connections with other groups around the state to help move our efforts forward. The NJ Learns program delivered all that and more. I was in the first year of the training, and even continued my training for a second year! Not that I’m all that remedial, (well, maybe a little!) , but that fact is, I learned even more in the second year. And more importantly, I learned different things that have shaped the way I think about sustainability.

After the first year of Educating for Sustainability (EfS), my focus was on using the wonderful tools and information provided to better engage community members and convince them of the need to change their actions, for as Jaimie Cloud points out, “everything you do or DON’T do, makes a difference.” After the second year of the EfS training, I have become keenly aware of the need to change the thinking of our community in order to change their actions.

Often during presentations on sustainability, I am asked to describe what sustainability “looks like” in the community or in a school. My old answer used to include the usual suspects – they recycle, use renewable energy, buy local, compost, etc. In short, promoting different actions. Now, my answer begins with “they think differently – and that thinking leads to different actions”.

The old expression, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” provides a wonderful analogy to describe our shift. We have done a great job of leading the horses (tons of information and reasons why we should be acting more sustainably) and providing the water (actual opportunities to act differently through our programs), but not all were drinking. Many were, and indeed, many more did with each additional opportunity we provided. For example, Sustainable West Milford’s Farmer’s Market initiative was so successful last year that we attracted 14,000 shoppers. That is 14,000 people promoting our local economy, local agriculture, and effectively acting more sustainably.

But how do you get more people to drink the water? The answer is in helping them to start thinking differently. If we follow the problem of unsustainable actions “upstream,” to their source, we find faulty thinking. For example, in our culture, we tend to focus relieving the symptoms of a problem rather than the problem itself – we take a pill to lower our blood pressure while ignoring our lack of exercise, poor diet, and excess weight. This is an example from EfS of a phenomenon called  “Shifting the Burden”. It is an Archetype in the system dynamics lexicon. Using this thinking leads you to working hard to resolve the symptoms of a problem while essentially ignoring the fundamental problem. With that approach, we address the symptom in the short run, but over time, we make it harder and harder to address, and then we create new problems. Similarly, SWM’s efforts have targeted community member actions while largely ignoring changing community member thinking – the fundamental problem.  By addressing the fundamental problem, you can achieve win win win solutions. This is a better idea. [This paragraph has been editted for clarity: original text at http://blog.grdodge.org/2010/03/01/new-jersey-learns-mondays-4]

Make no mistake: this strategy of changing community members’ actions by providing information and opportunities to make real changes has been extremely effective and essential in building momentum, exposure, and support, but like most strategies, it has its limitations. For one thing, it is not fast enough – our window for change is a narrow one, and for another, we can only do so much!

So, this year, in addition to our action-oriented strategy, we introduced a companion strategy to address this need for a change in thinking. If community members change the way they think, they will lead themselves to make the choices that will result in a truly sustainable community. As Jaimie reminded us during our training, there is never just one reason for a problem and there is never just one solution!

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