Posts from NZAEE (7): John Fien

Posted on March 4, 2008



John Fien is Innovation Professor of Sustainability RMIT in Melbourne. He spoke at the New Zealand Association for Environmental Education in Dunedin recently.

Fien extended the activity/action distinction made by Bjarne Jensen earlier in the conference. He talked about the Gould League Pledge, but suggests that an equivalent approach in abstinence pledges has had a poor track record (“varying results” says wikipedia but they look like negative results to me).

Fien praises Tim Flannery‘s material, organised according to Bloom’s taxonomy (eg weather maker’s website), He points out, however, that the “11 Realistic Ways You Can Help Reduce Global Warming” are, for children “at best indirect actions” – “Write to a politican about climate change” and “Walk, cycle or take public transport = Can reduce transport emissions” are the closest he gets to actions a child could reasonably expect to do.

Fien spoke about the information trap. He discussed Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond examines a range of past civilizations and societies, attempting to identify why they collapsed into ruins or survived only in a massively reduced form. In short, Fien says, “civilisations failed because they didn’t heed knowledge. Instead they were irrational and the crowd psyche was one of denial”. Paradoxically, though, Diamond’s solution is more information, to which Fien responds:

how can more facts overcome irrational denial?

Fein argues the assumption that irrationality and denial can be overcome by more information is a false assumption. Instead we need to recognise that emotions are themselves a kind of rationality. The focus should then be on considering emotional understandings. Scare tactics, for example, Fien argues have a disempowering effect. Similarly, while The Inconvienent Truth excited the educated, there are multiple annecdotes along the lines of:

after two hours of apocalypse, what’s the point of me buying special light bulbs?

Fien also explored the behaviour trap. Here he refers to the need to recognise the complex decision making that governs people’s behaviour. The trap is to think that we can specify what is responsible environmental behaviour without understanding the complexities of other people’s lives. In the quote of the conference, Fien referred to those of us living “lifestyles” (he may have used use the word “hippy”) as having a

more holistic than thou approach

in doing so, setting the entry barrier to sustainable living too high for most people to consider, so they don’t bother. Instead we need to carefully identify what structural changes we need to make to living conditions so that everyone can be a part of our sustainable future.