The GoGreen team recently interviewed GoGreen Portland Keynote, Renee Lertzman, Ph.D., Author of The Myth of Apathy. Click the link below to find out more about her educational background and motivation to engage communities of stakeholders through communications.
GoGreen: What was your defining moment that influenced you to go into communications surrounding issues with the environment?
Renee Lertzman: It really started out when I was an undergrad in college as a psychology major. What I experienced during that time was a cognitive dissonance where I was coming out of my environmental studies classes feeling really devastated and deeply concerned about what I was learning about – going into my psychology classes and anthropology courses with really kind of no mention of what was going on with our environmental situation.
I set out with a focus on connecting the psychological research world with how we communicate and educate people about environmental issues. My main interest is what we can learn and leverage from insights in psychology, specifically clinical or psychodynamic psychology – which has enormous insight into human behavior and how we relate with change, loss and anxiety. My perception is that when communicating about environmental issues we are raising literacy and awareness and need to be exceptionally mindful of the emotional impact — as we are directly informing how people engage with the information and then choose to act on it. It is fundamentally critical that we look at that dimension and not only what people’s values, beliefs and opinions are. We need to always include the emotional and experiential contexts if we want our work to be effective. We are well past the ‘information deficit’ approach, that if people only know more they would activate somehow.
GoGreen: As a communications professional have you seen a gap between individuals connecting and engaging on environmental issues?
Renee Lertzman: I have seen a gap between what people say they value and what they actually value. The orientation that I’m coming from is referred to as psychosocial – we can’t separate out the psychological and social context in which we live and so from that point of view it’s not surprising that we are contradicting.
We often say one thing and do something else. It’s not really a big revelation – the research tools that we use to identify that gap really only reinforces a perception of a “gap” – if we ask people questions, based on surveys, polls, even focus groups or interviews, we often get a very top of mind story, versus the actual, messier reality of how we make choices and negotiate particular dilemmas about how we live. So our methods and the way we are framing the questions have something to do with this “gap” – something I’ve written about extensively and is key theme in the book I’m writing, Environmental Melancholia.
We need to shift from a persuasion orientation and instead think much more about how we can support, facilitate and engage. It’s not about trying to force or coerce (hopefully). It’s about helping connect people with our own creative and caring capacities. One of the main techniques I focus on is designing into our work a way to acknowledge people’s potential experiences; and say we get it and understand that you might be unsure and that’s okay, then move on into what we can do together. If you skip the first step you’re not really connecting with people.
Communications is about humans and human behavior. I don’t think environmental communications is like any other communications — it’s totally distinct from other issue areas for a number of reasons. I think we need to be working to create basically a whole kind of unique and specific approach to the practice of environmental communications, that takes these psychological and social complexities onboard – this goes beyond just framing around values. It also includes insight into how people resist change, manage anxieties, and deal with losses, both actual and anticipatory. Focusing on inspiration and positive solutions is also important, but it is not the full story and is not as effective when we leave out the rest.
GoGreen: What is an example of a communication strategy that you have seen work to engage individuals in environmental issues?
Renee Lertzman: I think that humor, when practiced skillfully, can be a powerful tool. Humor has a capacity to both allow people to engage with difficult issues in a safe way but it also has the ability to be honest. An example would be Brand Cool’s creation of an energy efficiency media campaign called Irreconcilable Differences – a video series in which they used humor to communicate how people in their homes can get into conflicts about how much energy is being used with battles over control of the thermostat. I think using humor is really wonderful and powerful if it’s done right. The campaign has to have substance to it.
The other platform is the use of conversations. Conversations are an under-recognized, powerful behavior change resource, as we tend to learn, change and grow through social interactions. The Carbon Conversations project in the UK, or the Northwest Earth Institute are examples of bringing people together informally to simply talk about how we can face some of these challenges, and come up with some emergent solutions. Conversations provide the support we tend to need to engage with some of the more challenging aspects of responding to our ecological predicaments. We learn we are not alone in how we may be feeling. This is a way to support people to organize and express their own creativity, which is really important. I think we see glimmers of this through online tools where there are competitions of people sending in their own ideas or the model of the challenge. However, creating interactivity is also important. The things that invite people to get involved, engaged and feeling like they are a part of a conversation as opposed to just passive recipients is beneficial.
GoGreen: What are you hoping our organizational leaders at GoGreen will walk away with and gain from your Keynote Address at the event?
Renee Lertzman: It is important for us to think differently about behavior change. It is time for us to shift our orientation in which we’re used to thinking, such as how do we get people to change, towards how can we support and enable people to express their concerns and investment in our world? That’s a fundamental reframe – when we take that on it changes the nature of the work that we do, because it’s less of a sense of pushing against something and more about how we can leverage and support what’s already there. Our innate care, concern for our planet, and our desire to have efficacy, impact and creativity.
I believe every human being fundamentally has an investment in our world. It’s our job to find out what that is and how to really facilitate that. It’s not about pushing and persuading – it’s more about invitation, facilitation and support. For this, we can tap into human insights and specifically our emotional connections, to help us be profoundly more effective in engaging with people.
GoGreen Portland 2014, brought to you by the City of Portland, Multnomah County and METRO will take place on Thursday, October 16th at the Oregon Convention Center, Oregon Ballroom located at 777 Northeast Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. Tickets are available online at portland.gogreenconference.net or via phone at 503.226.2377. Early Bird rates are good through Tuesday, September 16th, 2014. Single Admission Early Bird Full Conference tickets are $175 and Group Rate Early Bird Tickets are $150 (groups of two or more). Student, government and non-profit registration rates are available.