09 March 2011


SOURCE OF CHANGE. We all arrive at our set of beliefs and values from a variety of influences, the most fundamental being the family and community within which we grew up, and the issues or ideas which spark our imaginations as adults. So the question becomes, what if something we take for granted is wrong, mistaken, out of date? What is most likely to induce us to question our assumptions, to revise our view of things -- to change?

In a provocative article which uses climate change as a setting, David Roberts asserts that two primary models emerge for inducing change. The default model is persuading people to change their minds by providing information. The assumption is that once people believe that climate change (or any other intractable problem) is real, they will act rationally and alter their behavior in ways that address the problem. Trouble is, people rarely do this. We may respond by denying that a problem exists, or by minimizing its importance in our lives, or even by attacking those who brought up the issue (killing the messenger). Those of us who hear new information, think rationally about it, then decide to believe it and change our behavior, are a minority of the overall population. Most folks prefer to stick with the comfort of familiar beliefs.

So what to do if the problem is indeed real, and urgent? Roberts suggests an alternative approach -- "Changing a behavior requires understanding, in a fine-grained way, the barriers and benefits. It requires changing people's circumstances in smart ways and carefully measuring the results .... Beliefs tend to be reverse engineered, as it were. People tend to construct an identity around what they (and their tribe) do. That suggests that they will only construct a different identity when they start doing different things.

"So imagine the same guy who rejected human-caused climate change [when polled]. Imagine that bike riding were made convenient and useful enough that he started doing it. Imagine that his neighbors started getting solar panels, to the point that he felt pressured to do it, and he became a power producer. Imagine he's in the military and his platoon started insulating their tents and carrying solar water purifiers.

"Next thing you know, he's a guy who uses solar power and rides a bike. His behavior has changed, so he's telling a different story about himself. That new story, that new identity -- the guy who rides a bike and uses solar power -- is much more likely to incorporate climate change concern than the previous one."

"In other words .... belief doesn't come first, action comes first."

I can see value in the lateral thinking which Roberts employs. I'm persuaded that change is not an either-or, black-or-white proposition. We should continue to use credible information and respectful dialogue to appeal to the intelligence of the listener, in an effort to change behavior. We should also do as Roberts suggests, making it practical and desireable to change behavior first, trusting that belief will follow. It strikes me that this approach is useful in many contexts, from righting social injustice to weaning children away from their addiction to electronic devices. I would like to hear what you think -- simply click on "comments" at the bottom of this post.

YOUR OWN SHUTTLE. "Condition: 27 years old, 150 million miles traveled, somewhat dinged but well maintained. Price: $0. Dealer preparation and distination charges: $28.8 million. So, does anyone want to buy a used space shuttle?"

A NYTimes article provides an emphatic answer. If you yourself have the space (so to speak) and the financial wherewithall, you'll still have to get in line. On April 12th, the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launching, NASA will announce the final destinations for the three soon-to-be-retired shuttles. Among the contenders are a Who's Who of institutions, including NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in Manhattan, and the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

One destination appears assured. NASA offered the shuttle Discovery to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum three years ago. Although the Smithsonian has been oddly reticent about its intentions, it would be foolish to turn the offer down, especially since it comes with a zero price tag.

According to the article, "After the Discovery lands, only two shuttle flights remain. The Endeavor is scheduled to launch in April, and the Atlantis in June. Then the three will become museum pieces, with delivery expected next year. Each weighs about 170,000 pounds and is 122 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet." (Click on the image below to enlarge.)

Deep sigh. Even though the Space Shuttle represented a disappointing retrenchment from the excitement and vision of the space program in the 1960s and 1970s (being little more than a truck with wings, possessing the flying characteristics of a brick), nevertheless it was our only human presence in space. At present there is no plan or funding for a replacement deep-space vehicle, and precious little for space probes. It is a national disgrace that our interest in space has virtually disappeared -- and a practical mistake, given how other nations and private companies are stepping in to fill the gap. What happened to the dream?

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