Incentives, Behavior, Choice, and Healing the Planet

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein gets at something really interesting in a long, political-science-oriented post on collective behavior vs. individual and group choice:

…[W]e need a vocabulary which simultaneously speaks the truth about “behavior,” about the way that large numbers of us can be described — accurately! — using statistical laws, while also allowing for action: the possibility that each of us, at all times, actually retains the capability of purposefully and deliberately doing what we wish. We are part of a large populations; we are individuals with choice; and we are also members of groups, with the capacity to affect and be affected by others within the group through action.

This is difficult to get right!

Bernstein goes on to use the example of the civil rights movement as “one of the great instances of people breaking out of mass behavior to really begin something anew”.  And I think we can see other global movements of the past 30 years through that same lens: the LGBTQ liberation movement, the relocalizing-agriculture movement, the cultural renewal and sovereignty movements within indigenous communities around the world.  The leading edge of healing the planet lives with these groups of people, who’ve decisively charted a new direction and made clear, compelling offers for other people to travel in that direction with them.

But, as Bernstein says, it’s hard to get right.  If we focus just on the unlimited power of choice available to us, we miss the big structural incentives, cultural patterning, and historical momentum that play such a big role in guiding the conduct and decisions of people and groups.  If we focus just on those structural incentives and historical patterns, we deny people their uniqueness, power, and agency.  I think the invitation is to hold both truths in front of us, strongly and flexibly, and incorporate both understandings into our strategies and decisions.

Which brings me back around, once again, to regenerative agriculture.  I spent a while on the phone this week with an alternative agriculture specialist at a large land-grant university in the eastern US.  He expressed to me that he had largely given up on agroforestry in the past decade – management too complex, installation costs too high, returns too long-range and uncertain, market demand too low.  All very fair, valid, sobering, important points!  And ones that especially make sense from a rural-economic-development view of agroforestry, and from a strategy of operating within existing institutions, incentives, and precedents.

Zooming out from this specific example, though, we can see the basic story played out worldwide.  It’s true that right now, in our current economic system, healing the planet and rebuilding deep local resilience is in most cases not financially profitable.  It’s also true that this would be a crazy, rigid, defeated rationale to stop moving in the direction of what we really want.  We’re going to have to invest – in money, time, work, living capital, and more – if we want our descendants to have mature, overyielding food ecosystems to nourish from for their lifetimes.  We’re going to have to take risks and do things that aren’t comfortable or easy if we want to create real social and cultural healing where our communities are most wounded.  And we – especially people in positions of economic and institutional power – may well have to accept slow, gradual, and sometimes non-financial returns on our investments if we want to see real resilience take root bioregion by bioregion.

Again, I think what this all suggests is a strong both/and understanding.  If we’re drunk on possibility, grounding down in looking at systematic incentives and historical patterning will help us find the actionable ways forward for our visions.  If we’re chained to precedent and existing systems, zooming out into creativity, possibility, and the power of individual choice will help us liberate ourselves from the well-worn tracks we’re currently walking in.  We can breathe in and out, day and night, between the current world and the new one we’re creating, and maybe get closer than we would otherwise to the world we envision by doing so.

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One Response to Incentives, Behavior, Choice, and Healing the Planet

  1. Pingback: Financial Permaculture for New Year’s Eve | Renewing the Commons

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