To Create a Humane World We Must Understand People

We humane educators and concerned citizens know that the challenges of the world -- poverty, cruelty, suffering, destruction, hatred, oppression, etc. -- are enormous, and can't be overcome by any one person or small group of people. It will take the voices and actions of many to change enough habits and transform enough systems. But, how do we encourage and inspire others to look beyond their own daily bubbles and start making choices that support and nurture and compassionate, sustainable, just world for all? The 4 elements of humane education are:

1. Providing accurate information
2. Fostering the 3 Cs of curiosity, creativity and critical thinking
3. Instilling the 3 Rs of reverence, respect and responsibility
4. Providing positive choices and tools for problem-solving

These are all necessary elements of positive social change. But a recent article in the New York Times highlights the necessity of understanding people and what motivates them to act (or not), and of eliminating the barriers to positive action.

As the article says, "...people's attitudes do not translate into action. But most environmental activism remains centered around the assumption that changing behavior starts with changing attitudes and knowledge." Psychology professor Doug McKenzie-Mohr notes that "To bridge the gap between attitudes and action, people must first address the barriers that stand in the way of action....Barriers include not knowing what actions to take, not understanding the benefits or having mistaken information...."

One key, note psychologists and activists, is cultivating connections and relationships. Personal interactions and social networks "have significant power to affect people's behaviors." An example given in the article is a community that wanted to reduce vehicle idling around schools, when parents wait to drop off or pick up their kids. When signs went up in the area, there was little change, but when someone went around and spoke to the waiting parents personally, "the frequency of idling dropped by 32 percent, while the average length of idling dropped by 72 percent."

McKenzie-Mohr also notes that it's important for advocates to get empirical data about what works and for communities and groups to share successful strategies.

A most important strategy, says, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, is vision: "I think we have become very, very good at describing that we're against. ... We're terrible at describing what we're for. We're against climate change, we're against biodiversity extinction, we're against land-use change, etc., we're against pesticides ... but what are we for?"

This article has important lessons for we humane educators and social changemakers. Sowing seeds of information and inspiration isn't enough. We must make personal connections and build relationships; we need to be creative about how we reach people and critical of the efficacy of our methods; we must offer a positive vision of the world we want and convenient, meaningful ways to get there; we need to eliminate any barriers preventing people from taking positive action; and we must continue to promote both personal and systemic change as solutions to creating a humane world.

Read the complete article.

~ Marsha

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