Let me start by saying that literally every social problem humanity now confronts will benefit from taking a rigorous, evidence-based approach to developing interventions that work. If I believe this—you might wonder—why would I title an article this way?
The answer is simply that I have been trying to manifest into the world a science of large-scale social change for 18 years. During that time I have repeatedly found that almost no one gives preference to being effective over the feeling of “being right.” This has been true as I’ve interacted with academic researchers, the staff of numerous nonprofit organizations, program officers and boards of directors at foundations, government personnel providing public services, and among social-impact businesses of various kinds.
So I am shifting gears and no longer attempting to build this grand visionary work. I simply don’t see it as feasible anymore and am going to introspect deeply about what I might do that is of service in times as serious as these when in my heart I now accept that my life’s work cannot succeed. In the spirit of the foundational challenge named in the opening of this essay, I invite you to prove me wrong. Critique and analyze my assumptions. Gather your own data to confront and challenge the argument laid out here. See if you can find a way to birth such an ambitious vision where I have failed to do so.
I would much rather be wrong and see effective solutions emerge than to be right and feel the hollow gratification of saying “I told you so” as the world goes into full-scale systemic collapse in the next few decades.
Why I Am No Longer Attempting to Build A Rigorous Science of Social Change
Why I No Longer Attempt to Build A Rigorous
Science of Social Change
Director of the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution
June 1, 2018
Let me start by saying that literally every social problem humanity now confronts will beneﬁt
from taking a rigorous, evidence-based approach to developing interventions that work. If I
believe this—you might wonder—why would I title an article this way?
The answer is simply that I have been trying to manifest into the world a science of large-scale
social change for 18 years. During that time I have repeatedly found that almost no one gives
preference to being eﬀective over the feeling of “being right.” This has been true as I’ve
interacted with academic researchers, the staﬀ of numerous nonproﬁt organizations, program
oﬃcers and boards of directors at foundations, government personnel providing public
services, and among social-impact businesses of various kinds.
The single most important barrier to creating eﬀective social change projects has been the
conventional way of thinking that treats rigorously validated expert knowledge as being
on equal footing with personal preferences and opinions. Almost never have I found people
systematically critiquing their own methods, gathering data to test their assumptions, and—
most signiﬁcant of all—updating their assumptions when the data is inconsistent with habitual
beliefs or normative judgments.
Historians of science will not be surprised at all by this observation. Nor will cognitive and
behavioral scientists who study human decision-making. Yet there it is, in our modern
institutions, as a widespread behavioral buﬀer against cultivation of the very same abilities that
people all over the world so desperately need to manage huge challenges ranging from
environmental destruction to the use of propaganda to corrupt governing institutions. Time
after time, I have seen that no amount of pointing to the massively accumulated bodies of
research was able to make a dent in the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or actions of governments
or businesses, foundations or universities, nonproﬁts or community groups.
All of this would suggest that a rigorous science of social change is more urgently needed than
ever. And this is deﬁnitely the case. Yet I have reason to make the determination that it is no
longer worth the eﬀort—and this has to do (unsurprisingly for those who take empiricism
seriously) with the observed trends of large-scale change that drive the global systems of
Earth. My reasoning has two parts: the ﬁrst is about consequences that are already “built in” to
futures scenarios due to inertia in various dynamic systems. The second is speciﬁcally about
what our cumulative knowledge about cultural evolution reveals as the likely consequences of
these ecological drivers of social behavior at institutional scales in the foreseeable future.
Global Drivers of Irreversible Change
A foundational concept from the physical sciences that I ﬁnd is almost entirely unknown among
social change practitioners is hysteresis—which can be deﬁned as the amount of work that
needs to be done on a physical system to undo changes that already occurred. Hysteresis can
be measured easily for magnets placed in an electric ﬁeld. It is the amount of energy that
needs to be generated to “demagnetize” the material after it was charged. This is where the
concept is best known and is routinely taught to physics and engineering students who study
electromagnetics as part of their training. The thing about hysteresis is that it is a way to
quantify how irreversible a particular system change is by measuring how much work must be
done to take the system back to where it was before.
Applied to the Earth and human societies, it is much more diﬃcult to measure directly (or even
determine where hysteresis eﬀects might be observed). To illustrate the importance of this
little-used concept I will give two types of examples. One has to do with the geophysical
systems of our home planet. The other has to do with the feedbacks across political systems
where policies carve pathways of discernible outcomes that are not easily undone. The key
thing about hysteresis is that a system that has had work done to it will not automatically revert
back to the way it was before the work was done. Thus we can think of it as being
“irreversible” in this way.
The examples from geophysical systems include such things as extinction events (where it is
often impossible to bring a species back from the dead) and the thermodynamics of the ocean
and atmosphere (where time lags exist that set a minimum timescale for undoing harms that
have already taken place). I will elaborate more with two speciﬁc situations—the thermal inertia
of the World Ocean and the release of methane as permafrost melts in the Northern
Hemisphere. Thermal inertia is the measure of how long it takes a material to cool after it has
been heated. It is well known that liquid water has a high thermal inertia. This is why you can
pour hot water into a bath tub and enjoy its warmth for extended periods of time as you lie in it.
When applied to the World Ocean, we have in eﬀect a VERY large bathtub. If it is heated up the
period of time for it to cool must be measured in decades (for small changes) and centuries or
millennia (for large changes). There are two consequences of thermal inertia that are directly
relevant to the management of human aﬀairs. The ﬁrst is that it takes time to heat up this huge
body of water. Much longer than it takes to warm the (relatively speaking, much lower thermal
inertia of) the atmosphere. So as we watch global warming play out as “average daily
temperatures near Earth’s surface for the atmosphere”—as is typically done for climate policy
discussions—we are seeing a heat signal that is decades apart in time from what is happening
to all the water surrounding the land masses of the Earth. A simple metric to have in mind is
that the World Ocean is heating roughly 40 years slower than the World Atmosphere.
What this means is that the extreme weather events we experience today (things like
intensifying typhoons and hurricanes) are impacted by an ocean that has absorbed greenhouse
gas emissions up to the early 1980’s. Sit with this for a moment. It is a profound realization with
The second thing about thermal inertia for the World Ocean is that the consequences of our
actions today will play out slowly and far into the future. During this multi-decade period of
time, other changes will occur (like the burning of even more fossil fuels or cutting down of
even more forested lands) that are likely to intensify the consequences of what we do today.
They are all connected and overlapping processes playing out in parallel. Thus these time lags
make it very hard to intuitively grasp how nonlinear and chaotic the changes will ultimately be.
When we consider the second example—that of methane release from melting permafrost—it
gets even more frightening. The main thing to know is that a single molecule of methane is able
to trap 20 times as much heat as a single molecule of carbon dioxide. As permafrost melts, it
will release huge amounts of methane. So much that the amount of global warming caused by
burning fossil fuels over the last 150 years may be doubled in the span of a few decades as the
release of methane speeds up the melting of permafrost in a runaway trend of rapid change.
Think of this like letting a genie out of the bottle or opening Pandora’s box. Once the process
begins it is unlikely to be stopped. The longer we wait to stop it after it starts, the more diﬃcult
it will be to turn oﬀ such a powerful feedback dynamic of the planet.
The hysteresis eﬀects of ocean warming and melting of permafrost create the scenario where
ecological harms from altered planetary climate will continue at intensifying pace and scale
even if we stopped burning fossil fuels instantaneously today. Of course, with so much
“political capture” and institutional “lock-in” by fossil fuel infrastructure, it is not possible to
turn oﬀ the fossil fuel switch. This leads us to the hysteresis eﬀects that can be seen in human
A well-known phenomenon that is irreversible for humans can be seen in the developing brain
of a child. Structures emerge in the developing brain through a process of pruning synapses
(the gaps between neurons) as structures emerge and wire together. Developing into an
emergent structure has diﬀerent physical constraints than developing from an already-existing
structure. It is here that hysteresis can be seen—with such consequences as never acquiring
vision if light does not stimulate the eyes to strengthen and build the optic nerve and never
acquiring language skills without social interactions to scaﬀold the learning process in early
Take this perspective and apply it to the emergence of political, economic, and social
structures and it becomes possible to see hysteresis in the patterns of societal change all over
the place. I mentioned the “lock-in” eﬀect for fossil fuels just a moment ago. Let us now go into
this phenomenon in more detail. There are several kinds of hysteresis that make it diﬃcult to
transition away from burning oil and coal—even as the evidence grows to mountainous
proportions that continuing on our current path is a recipe for planetary disaster. One kind of
hysteresis can be seen in the social structure of transportation systems. In the United States,
there was a period of time when automobile manufacturers got together with tire manufacturers
and oil companies to set up holding companies that went around the country and (a) bought up
public bus and railway systems; and then (b) dismantled and removed them while (c) colluding
with government oﬃcials to fund massive public works projects to build highways that could
only be used by automobiles.
What this produced was a systematic patterning of urban development that required people to
own cars and drive them on a daily basis. Public transit options (where they existed) were left
in the margins to be ineﬀective and expensive while cars and oil were subsidized through tax
incentives of various kinds to get people oﬀ their feet and into gas-guzzling vehicles. The
further this developmental process advanced, the more work would be needed to dismantle or
“shift modes” from one form of transit to another. Today we see that it will take decades for the
United States to catch up with Europe and other regions of the world that did not lock
themselves into these structural arrangements that are very diﬃcult to change. All the while this
will play out against the backdrop of melting permafrost, intensifying climatic shifts, and
gradual warming of the oceans—irreversible drivers of global change that move us farther from
Another kind of hysteresis is the political capture of policy development as the industries
beneﬁting from fossil fuel use (those above plus defense contractors needed to invade and
access oil reserves and other “aligned” business interests like the clandestine black markets
used for drug running, gun smuggling, and human traﬃcking) became extremely wealthy and
powerful throughout the modern era. They could easily hire public relations ﬁrms and media
companies to tell stories amenable to their agenda. Similarly, they could set up a revolving
door where politicians who received campaign donations to pay for media coverage (essential
for getting elected) would then work with industry lobbyists to enact policies that beneﬁt these
industrial partners. As their political terms in public oﬃce came to an end they would
immediately be hired as lobbyists themselves or receive astronomical speaker fees to
proselytize this agenda. The money would ﬂow in such a system as a parallel circulation
alongside that of crude oil.
Here we see that hysteresis is in the ﬁnancial assets, points of access, and modes of inﬂuence
for public policy that all serve the increasingly entrenched fossil fuel infrastructure.
Environmental advocates have attempted to build their own countervailing systems of inﬂuence
but they lack resources and access even to this day. As a result, the system remains deeply
resistant to change its course.
Many other examples of hysteresis could be named. I will not attempt to be exhaustive here.
My goal is simply to describe how it can be known that the timeframe for building up the
institutional capacities for a science of large-scale change is incompatible with the “built-in”
drivers of global change that are already deeply entrenched in the world today. Said another
way, even if we could build these institutional capacities (I will explain why this can’t be done at
present in the next section), there are inertial processes driving ecological collapse that
reinforce and mutually feed the military-industrial complex of fossil fuels that easily quell
change eﬀorts mobilized against them. We don’t have the time that we need. And the time we
do have will continue to be driven by past and present feedbacks for at least the next several
Why Our Institutions Cannot Build A Science of Social Change Today
One of the more powerful frameworks for studying the irreversible patterns of development for
human systems is known as “cultural scaﬀolding”. I will now use this framework to explain why
I believe there to be too many entrenched institutions that would need to be more agile than
they are at present for an applied science of large-scale social change to emerge within the
timeframe that we have to work with.
Before going into the discussion of cultural scaﬀolding, let me speak to this timeframe
speciﬁcally. In the previous section I explained how the thermal inertia of the World Ocean has
already gotten pumped into it several more decades of intensiﬁcation and that a runaway
heating process from melting permafrost has already begun and cannot easily be turned oﬀ.
These two examples allude to a larger story—which is that a global convergence of change
processes is driving us into an unavoidable culmination of planetary collapse. Other change
processes contributing to this include, but are not limited to: depletion of topsoils worldwide,
overshoot of the human population beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity, over-production of
chemically reactive nitrogen from industrial agriculture, conversion of landscapes for human
uses that displace entire ecosystems, over-ﬁshing of rivers and the oceans, consumption to
near-depletion of numerous mineral inputs, release of thousands of novel chemicals (plastics
and hormone disrupters being the most notorious) into every ecosystem on Earth, and so forth.
What we are seeing is an epochal change in planetary geology, ecology, biology, and
chemistry. All of it is driven by human systems as they are embedded within and interact with
other ecological systems. The changes have been developing for thousands of years, with an
exponential “pulse” of explosive growth in the last 200 years. We are now planetary in scale
and so will be the consequences of our collective endeavors.
Forecasting the future is a tricky business. But I think it is safe to say that it would take
decades to replace existing infrastructure with replacements that ﬁnd dynamic harmony with
the Earth’s biosphere. During that time, we will experience the collapse of the world’s largest
speculative debt bubble in the ﬁnancial system and are already in a “post-peak-oil” world of
declining productive yields that will make the ﬁnancial system more volatile and unstable—all
the while there is an uptick of intense storms and greater damage to the built environment
because it is now much larger than it has ever been in human history. In other words, the next
half century will be a time of unprecedented turbulence and disruptions.
Just when we need all-hands-on-deck for planetary management, our systems for managing
will be strained (and many broken) in the same period of time. This is where cultural scaﬀolding
comes into the picture. In simple terms, a cultural scaﬀold is the emergent web of feedbacks
between agents, tools, knowledge, and environments to guide evolutionary change for social
practices and institutional structures. Think of the example for teaching mathematics. A
student must learn the basic concepts, become skilled at using tools like reading and writing
implements, and have pedagogical guidance from teachers who support their learning process
as it moves through its stages of development. They need support structures that assist the
evolution of their tools and knowledge as they go through a series of diﬃcult learning activities.
Remove these supports at any critical juncture along the way and the eﬀectiveness of learning
diminishes greatly. This is because the scaﬀolding is what enables the learning process to arise
and be sustained in its development.
When we assess existing institutions through the lens of cultural scaﬀolding, two things
become immediately evident. The ﬁrst is that we can see what the aﬀordances (system-level
capabilities) are for institutions in their present modes of functioning. This enables us to see
where things are working well, which functions might be maladaptive, and where gaps need to
be ﬁlled. For example, we can look at universities and see how they structure themselves into
academic programs that enable people to specialize in existing domains of knowledge but are
ill-suited for cultivating expert practitioners who synthesize and integrate knowledge across
disciplinary ﬁelds. We can also observe that the globalization of work forces has led to a
structural decontextualization of knowledge in academic disciplines—meaning that what is
learned in ﬁelds like psychology, history, political science, engineering, and physics is treated
as contextual-to-its-ﬁeld rather than deeply embedded in the place of learning. A consequence
of this is that students enter a given university from all over the world, then leave it and depart
to wherever they ﬁnd suitable employment afterwards. Universities are not embedded in the
learning ecosystems of their own cities and bioregions. Thus they are not set up to respond to
the systemic complexities of social dynamics around them where adaptive management will
need to be implemented.
The second thing we can see is that existing institutions are developmentally entrenched just
like the fossil fuel infrastructure outlined previously. There are pathways available for their
continued evolution and pathways that hinder further development in other directions. Just try
to join a university and secure federal research funding and you will discover that you are
disallowed to apply if you don’t have a doctoral degree in a recognized program of study. This
again hinders the synthesis and integration of knowledge. Similar assessments can be made
about electoral systems in democratic societies, communication systems for multimedia that
shapes popular culture, pathways of professionalization for gaining employment in nonproﬁt
organizations, the “acceptable” funding streams from governing boards at foundations set up
by wealthy families, and so forth.
As I have scanned this landscape of institutions over the years, I have found time and time
again that there are developmental pathways that entrench institutional development to
alignment with status quo trajectories in every domain of social life. The creation of a science
for large-scale social change would require a diﬀerent direction of coordinated development
across educational programs, media institutions, systems of governance, and ﬁnancial
investment (plus more) to have a chance of taking root at the scales that are needed for
managing planetary crisis. Yet what we are seeing is patterns of increasing scarcity and hyper-
competition across all of these societal sectors because most of the world’s wealth has been
hoarded away among roughly 1400 billionaires and a clandestine network of tax havens. The
mechanisms for bringing synthesis to existing institutions have already been coopted by the
military-industrial complex as it has been gaming political systems around the world for an
“end game” of planetary ecocide.
With every passing year there are fewer funds available for basic research, more unemployable
knowledge practitioners with advanced degrees in competitive labor markets, higher levels of
global and personal debt, various kinds of intensifying structural inequality, and more that all
together are driving institutional evolution away from the cooperative structures that would be
needed for this epic scale of intervention. What I hope to convey here is that there is a pattern-
level of social development that precludes the possible emergence of the cooperative learning
ecosystems that would be needed for people to become adept managers of the immense
complexities inherent to social and ecological systems. This is not a conclusion I come to
lightly. I have struggled and fought against these currents for nearly two decades. Every step of
the way, I found the direction of institutional evolution to be like the tidal forces of pull from the
Moon upon the Earth—they deeply pull existing patterns of entrenchment farther in the same
direction and will not alter course without a profound capacity for disruption (that would do a
great deal of harm to infrastructure globally) to rip them away from their current entrenched
Add to this the developmental entrenchment of human potential that has aligned with the
cultivation of people as market-saturated consumers of purchased goods and services. There
has now been nearly a century of professional practices in marketing, advertising, and public
relations—with tens of billions of dollars now spent every year to inﬂuence social behavior in
service of corporate proﬁts—that shape human behavior toward mindsets of emotional
insecurity that (these consumers are told) can only be remedied through “brand alignment”
with the consumption of marketed wares. As the human population has grown throughout this
hundred year period, there have been many more people (in total numbers) who develop
through psychological stages of maturity that move beyond this adolescent-like stage. But they
are overwhelmed in numbers by the much larger total population that has entrenched and
mutually reinforcing dynamics of creating debt burdens, shaping the consumer mindsets, and
thus inﬂuencing how people think about their own identities and how they act out motivations
in the world to get their needs met. As a result, the material footprints of consumable goods
has grown exponentially while stripping the ecosystems of the Earth.
Here we ﬁnd that the combination of skills required to regulate one’s own emotions and those
for gaining the psychological ﬂexibility to evaluate diverse perspectives (both of which are
validated by decades of evidence-based prevention science and public health research as
fundamental to human development) are inhibited from being acquired as children grow up in
environments that lack basic support systems of nurturance that are known to be necessary for
their development. This is egregiously evident in the United States where there are now on
average one school shooting per week as children act out extreme violence against other
children in profoundly impoverished social environments.
This kind of cultural entrenchment is particularly limiting for the emergence of rigorous
practices to guide large-scale social change. When entire generations of children grow up
without nurturant environments, there will be greatly limited capacities for self-governance and
collective decision making at societal scales. Not only do we lack the institutional capacities for
coordination, contextualization, and adaptive learning—but we also have a “debt bubble of
social impoverishment” in the human capacities to create, manage, and dynamically guide the
evolution of change for these institutions around the world.
Lessons I’ve Learned on My Failed Journey to Birth the Field of Culture Design
There is much more I could say about the evolutionary dynamics of social and ecological
systems that are relevant to this topic. My goal here is not to be exhaustive, but rather to
express that I have gained a deeply troubling collection of observations and insights about the
developmental processes guiding change on Earth today. What I want to share in this section
is some of what I have learned while attempting to build a large and capable ﬁeld of intentional
social change over the last two decades. This will require that I share some of the feelings
associated with living out such a diﬃcult life journey.
Firstly, to place oneself on a course to address systemic problems in the world (while most
people are educated around isolated problems deﬁned by existing bodies of knowledge—
meaning they take a disciplinary or ﬁeld-based approach) means leaving behind the
established communities where people ﬁnd lifetime friends and colleagues. If I had chosen to
become an atmospheric scientist while studying in graduate school, I would have an existing
pool of colleagues to work with at conferences and hosted meetings as well as new waves of
students coming in each year as cohorts to learn about my ﬁeld in the numerous universities
around the world. When I left my PhD program in atmospheric sciences to go out into the
world and work on systemic applications to address global threats, I found myself without
institutional supports and without a shared community of practice.
A lesson learned from this is that without cultural scaﬀolding it is impossible for social
development to thrive. My life has not been a journey of thriving. It has been a journey of
depravation. Every step along the way I became less employable and less likely to secure
ﬁnancial supports to do the things I was attempting to do. Just as signiﬁcantly—and perhaps
more important—I have found that it is diﬃcult to cultivate the social supports from
communities of practice as most people are already committed elsewhere. This has to do with
many inﬂuential factors—not least of which being that people generally lack the conceptual
frameworks to construct simple narratives that are already familiar to them that could be
mapped onto me and my work. I have seen this same pattern in the lives of other social
entrepreneurs and now recognize it as what naturally unfolds around those people who step
outside of social conventions to serve a need that their communities have not recognized yet.
Another common experience I have had is the social exclusion of those who are diﬀerent that
functions in many respects like the way your immune system will reject foreign bodies that are
potentially threatening or dangerous. By rejecting disciplinary structures that didn’t serve my
purposes, I found myself in the position of being a potential threat to those people who beneﬁt
from having gained high status and prestige within their own (already established) professional
domains. There are many good reasons why this kind of conformist feedback dynamic
emerges in human groups, mostly having to do with the stability and persistence of reliable
beneﬁts within a community that its members seek to preserve. And yet the recurrent pattern
of exclusion by those who presumably should be allies has shown how powerful the cultural
aspects of institutional entrenchment can be for resisting structural changes even when these
changes are urgently and systemically needed.
We are living through unprecedented times with threats that are fundamentally unlike anything
our communities have had to deal with in the past. Thus we lack adaptive responses to dealing
with the kinds of crises associated with growing the human population and its social
complexity to planetary scales, as has transpired in the last few hundred years. The
preservation dynamics of community from the past were well-suited to the typical scales of
size and pace of change that were commonplace back then. But they are profoundly ill-suited
to the scales and pace of change we are all experiencing today.
Another lesson is something I learned by studying calculus and diﬀerential equations while
training to become a physicist earlier in my life. It is the lesson that the human body has no
perceptual feedbacks for feeling and intuitively grasping changes in acceleration. We can feel
forces. We can even feel what are called impulse forces (like when a car we are riding in slams
into a wall). But what we cannot readily perceive is changes in the intensity of impulse forces.
Yet this is exactly what we are living through during this time of cascading, mutually-
reinforcing, exponential change.
Add to this that our social networks are bombarded with cascading threats on a near-daily
basis. I have observed that a new “global crisis” spreads across social media roughly every 5-7
days—meaning that people do not maintain the ability to orient themselves for taking strategic
actions on the much longer (decadal) timescales they need to be working at. Even less capable
are these same people to think in century timescales while planning out and taking actions on
decade-length timescales. Instead what we see are institutions built around response cycles
for quarterly earning reports (publicly traded corporations), annual budget cycles (municipal
governments), and election cycles (national governments)—all of which are myopically short-
sighted on their time horizons. And this all unfolds across communication systems that are
routinely ﬂooded with highly emotive content, artiﬁcially constructed media content, and other
forms of propaganda that have “weaponized” the information age in service to powerful elites.
Beneﬁciaries of the status quo have a great deal to lose by structural changes and are more
than ready to deploy unethical campaigns to divert attention, plant seeds of confusion, and
simply overwhelm people with crisis-oriented information.
Taken together, these lessons have taught me that the road to building a science of large-scale
social change is one that leads to martyrdom (at best) and obscurity (at worst). It is slowly
destroying me as a person while having declining prospects each year of ever being realized.
The currently entrenched institutional landscapes continue to evolve along the pathways that
shape and select for their future developments in the same directions that shaped them in the
past. I simply do not see prospects for this endeavor to succeed. This is despite making
Herculean eﬀorts for the duration of my adult life.
I hope this answers the question from the title and opening of this essay. I have shed blood,
sweat, and tears to birth into the world a body of knowledge and social change practices
worthy of the times we are living in. Yet for all my eﬀorts, there is nearly nothing impactful to
present that is remotely operating near enough to the scales that are needed. And time has run
out for the decades-long buildup of institutions that would be needed for such a vision to
manifest at the planetary scale.
A Closing Comment About “Best Practices” Today
In March of 2007 I joined the staﬀ of a think tank called the Rockridge Institute that was
located in Berkeley, CA. Our mission was to apply insights from cognitive linguistics to help the
progressive political movement in the United States with strategic communications and values-
driven engagement eﬀorts.
My primary focus at that time was to begin what would become a decade-long inquiry into the
framing of global warming and other environmental issues. I wrote editorials and blog articles
about the various ﬁndings in the cognitive and behavioral sciences that help explain why so
little traction has been made addressing the planetary ecological crisis. That was eleven years
ago and I was like a lone wolf in the wilderness—for there were not yet any institutions in place
that focused on the behavioral and cultural dimensions of these issues.
Flash forward to the present and the “best in class” work at formal institutions can be
represented by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that routinely conducts
surveys of the US population to garner insights about beliefs, values, and attitudes related to a
host of policy issues for addressing global warming. What I ﬁnd disturbing and sad is that their
approach employs what is known as methodological individualism (a deeply ﬂawed perspective
at the heart of Neoclassical economics) that treats the behaviors of people as something that
arises from them as individual people engaging in decision-making processes of various kinds.
They do not seek an integrative social science perspective that explores the situational factors,
institutional structures, and other kinds of cultural patterns at the larger-than-individual level
that powerfully shape and constrain behavior. In eﬀect, they are employing social science tools
that were cutting edge back in the 1970’s. And while these tools have strengths that merit
commendation, they are both grossly inadequate for the task at hand and fail to incorporate
the numerous advances in other social scientiﬁc ﬁelds over the last half century.
As one example, consider what would be considered standard practice in user-centered design
today. This approach to creating eﬀective solutions emphasizes the situated experience of the
user to observe their desires and motivations, as well as detailed analysis of their behaviors. It
was initially developed for web design but has since been expanded to much more complex
arenas like making improvements to transportation systems, participation in policymaking
processes, and a lot more. One thing that would quickly be learned from a user-centered
design approach is that numerous structural constraints exist in the lives of people that cause
their behaviors to diverge from things they claim to value. In other words, measurement of
values and attitudes is a poor predictor of behavior because it fails to expose the foundational
causes of social behavior from moment to moment in deeply scaﬀolded (and thus entrenched)
The second example comes from cultural evolutionary studies and employs what is called
cultural multilevel selection to identify the numerous levels of hierarchical organization in a
social system (e.g. individual, family, business ﬁrm, neighborhood group, municipality, etc.) and
the speciﬁc cause-eﬀect mechanisms at each level that contribute to the spread of social
behaviors. This framework was utilized in one study to show how an environmental policy
implemented in New Guinea failed to gain adoption because it presumed the wrong level of
social organization (by providing mechanisms at the federal government level when a cultural
analysis revealed that the most important regulatory feedbacks were expressed at the level of
chiefdoms that remain prominent in their society). What this framework reveals is that the
situated structures of social change vary from one cultural context to another and interventions
need to be tailor-made for each context informed by the evolutionary processes of social
change that operate in each of them.
Note how these two examples reveal a great deal about how much has been learned in the
social sciences—yet due to the fragmented and internally competitive environments of
universities, there are no cultural selection mechanisms for knowledge synthesis and the
cultivation of integrative applications. We may have learned a great deal in aggregate over the
years about how to guide large-scale social change, but our institutions are not set up to make
use of this vast amount of knowledge in the ways it is structured and used today. We continue
to see “issue silos” and fragmented ecologies of knowledge because the prior structures of
universities and funding agencies select for advancement at the topical or disciplinary level.
What I continually ﬁnd as I watch the bubbling up of things like this piecemeal approach to
behavior change relating to climate policies is that they only arise where some forward-thinking
funder (usually a private philanthropist) has a pet issue that he or she cares about. When we
look to the much larger funding mechanisms of federal programs like the National Institutes of
Health or really big foundations like Gates and Robert Wood Johnson, we see that they may do
excellent work on speciﬁc interventions or programs but fail to see the forest ecosystems of
possibilities that their programmatic trees are but a tiny part of.
Progress in this area has been very slow in the time I’ve been doing my work (roughly from the
year 2000 to the present, in various stages of development). And every time I ﬁnd myself at
least a decade ahead of the best institutions in the eﬀorts I seek to put in place. This is
because I explicitly take the approach of (a) thinking systemically and looking for root causes;
(b) gathering all of the information I can ﬁnd that may be relevant, regardless of which ﬁeld it
comes from; and (c) learning by doing that continually challenges me to update my
assumptions and evolve the ways I go about what I am doing. As a result, I am able to work
with what is emerging across hundreds of research programs in ways that we do not set up
institutions to manage or promote. So when I say that the cultural scaﬀolding processes
combined with global systemic hysteresis eﬀects will keep the scale and sophistication of
cultural management from manifesting, I fear that I am a proper Cassandra who sees real
future harms but is powerless to do anything about it.
So I am shifting gears and no longer attempting to build this grand visionary work. I simply
don’t see it as feasible anymore and am going to introspect deeply about what I might do that
is of service in times as serious as these when in my heart I now accept that my life’s work
cannot succeed. In the spirit of the foundational challenge named in the opening of this
essay, I invite you to prove me wrong. Critique and analyze my assumptions. Gather your
own data to confront and challenge the argument laid out here. See if you can ﬁnd a way
to birth such an ambitious vision where I have failed to do so.
I would much rather be wrong and see eﬀective solutions emerge than to be right and feel the
hollow gratiﬁcation of saying “I told you so” as the world goes into full-scale systemic collapse
in the next few decades.
Onward, fellow humans.