Is conservation communication using the right language? Read this post from George Lakoff and reflect on the messages our profession has used and how we might change.

George Lakoff

Journalists are bravely standing up to Trump’s attacks on the free press, as they should. Yet one way in which they’re expressing their solidarity and resistance shows how little most journalists know about political framing and messaging.

Case in point: Trump has labeled journalists as “enemies.” So, journalists have responded by labeling themselves “#NotTheEnemy.” This hashtag is currently trending on Twitter, which is unfortunate. Adopting this slogan is a big mistake that helps Trump.

Anyone who has read my books or taken my classes at Berkeley will immediately understand why. For those new to political framing and messaging, I’ll explain briefly here.

Quick: Don’t think of an elephant!

Now, what do you see? The bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant. You can’t block the picture – the frame – from being accessed by your unconscious mind. As a professor in the cognitive and brain sciences, this is the…

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Mr. Trump and I Agree…Tremendously…Believe Me

On November 22, 2017 the next president of the United States met with staff of the New York Times and said this:

I will tell you this: Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important. Safety is vitally important.

And with that statement I found common values with a person who will be my next boss. This discovery is fascinating to me so I decided to explore those values a bit and the federal legacy he’ll be inheriting.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

We agree clean air is vitally important. According to the World Health Organization air pollution kills more people than any other environmental reason – more than seven-million men, women and children in 2012 – with about half dying from outdoor air pollution.


Graphic courtesy of the EPA

In the US emissions from road transportation and power generation caused the highest number of premature deaths (cutting a person’s life short by about a decade). While one death is too many, 200,000 US deaths out of about four million worldwide may show we’re on the right track.

We have this information because US voters and taxpayers have made America great by funding efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency and others to reduce pollutants, and study and monitor air pollution and human health in compliance with the Clean Air Act.

We agree again! Clean water is vitally important. Here again from a global perspective contaminated drinking water kills nearly one-million people per year and sickens over 200-million more.

Here at home, the federally-funded Center for Disease Control, reported “32 drinking water–associated outbreaks… accounting for at least 431 cases of illness, 102 hospitalizations, and 14 deaths [2011-2012].” Sources of those outbreaks are broken into two categories – community and non-community. The main source within community drinking water was unregulated plumbing within hospitals and hotels. The main source of non-community water pollution was unregulated drinking water contamination from ground water sources.


Graphic courtesy of the United Nations

Again, fourteen deaths are regrettable and should have been prevented. But when you look at the overall quality of our drinking water thanks to the Clean Water Act and the EPA you have to believe America has great water and is the envy of most nations.

I’m thankful president-elect Trump values clean air and water. I believe every child has an inalienable right to those things as well as healthy food to eat and natural areas in which to play and learn. I hope he does too. And I hope he learns what has led America to have perhaps the greatest set of environmental protection programs on the planet and makes them even more tremendous. Believe me.

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Deserving of Our Best Work

I made an interesting discovery thanks to a wonderful writer and friend Julianne Lutz Warren. Her 10th anniversary edition of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey includes a new 2016 preface. Within this note to readers, Warren describes a meeting Leopold attended with a small group of concerned scientists in 1947 – almost a year before his death.


For two days they talked about the current state of humans and their relationship with the planet. By the end they agreed to form the Conservation Foundation. The Foundation’s purpose was to inform public policies that at the time were ignorant of the peril facing humans if our relationship with the planet didn’t change. “It’s safe to predict that civilization will be faced with a series of mounting crises unless a powerful movement counteracts present trends,” said the Foundation’s 1948 Statement of Purpose.

Today many resist this notion and propose conspiracy theories in resistance. For example some claim today’s climate scientists gin up false data and conclusions to keep climate change research dollars flowing. This seems plausible until we see from the outset there was genuine concern and curiosity – not financial or political motive – from scientists that suggested fossil fuel combustion was warming the atmosphere.

Here again, Warren brings forth a gem of environmental history by highlighting the alarm bell the Foundation was ringing long ago. She points readers to a 1963 conference convened by the Foundation. The purpose was to “discuss the problem of rising carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere.” In the conference report summary, Noel Eichhorn wrote,

It is known that the carbon dioxide situation, as it has been observed within the last century, is one which might have considerable biological, geographical and economic consequences within the not too distant future. What is important is that with the rise of carbon dioxide, by way of exhaust gases from engines and other sources, there is a rise in the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans.…It is hoped that the publication of this summary of conference discussions may contribute to further examination of the carbon dioxide situation. The subject should be one of considerable concern and controversy.


Weather Extremes and Climate Change Graph from EPA

Reading the report today leaves me with a sense of optimism. Climate change conversations have expanded from the laboratory to the kitchen table. We have come so far in our understanding of the planet and ourselves. We can predict weather and climate change with accuracy unexpected in 1963. We have mapped the human genome – over 3,000,000,000 DNA nucleotides – and can change genetic mistakes that cause some diseases. And we understand how we think and can predict how we react to problems like climate change. This pursuit of knowledge harkens back to the period of Enlightenment and the great minds that agitated for and helped create the United States of America.

In his book Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall describes why we may deny climate change is happening or just choose not to talk about it:

It is complex, unfamiliar, slow moving, invisible, and intergenerational. Of all the possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss in order to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss.

Shishmaref  Erosion

Coastal erosion in northwest Alaska (Photo courtesy State of Alaska)

Thankfully the impacts of climate change are becoming less invisible than ever. Either through published reports or first-hand observations, more and more people can see the climate is warming and weather, as predicted, is becoming more extreme. Whether it’s extreme rainfall in Fairbanks or heat in Yuma we don’t have to be a scientist to comprehend record-shattering weather events.

This is good news. Iris Bohnet, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is an expert on human behavioral science and resistance to change. In a recent interview in Harvard Business Review she nailed succinctly something others have documented stating, “For beliefs to change, people’s experiences have to change first.” Experience leads to comprehension, which leads to change. The people of Alaska are experiencing climate change in a very real way. Back in a 2006 survey, 81% believed in climate change and a majority linked it with fossil fuel emissions.


2014 was the rainiest summer in Fairbanks and 2016 appears set to become the 2nd wettest. (Photo courtesy Fairbanks Daily News Miner)

The odyssey Leopold began and shared with us continues and expands around the world. Julianne Lutz Warren believes so too saying, “We are members of humanity rigorously comprehending the ecosphere…We actively participate in an uprising odyssey of global land health.” She asks her readers, “When our own odysseys return us to the starting place, what patterns and values do we find and can we share in that make life worth living and deserve our best work?”

I believe life is worth living when we can do something beyond ourselves, for the born and unborn. My hope is we will take note of what is happening around us, and share our observations and experiences with each other – that is worthy of our best work.

If you don’t own Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, buy one…and when you’re done with it pass it to a friend. When you do, share your climate change experiences.

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A Legend Remembered

On May 26, 2016 an American conservation legend passed. Jack Ward Thomas represents perhaps the most successful conservationist of the post-Leopoldian generation. In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold helped us be aware every “cog and wheel” in Nature had value. Since the 1960s, Dr. Thomas was on the front lines of conservation figuring out how to intelligently tinker with Nature without losing all those pieces.


Most Americans remember the spotted owl controversy. This conundrum was symbolic of that tension Leopold spoke to…attempting to keep all species while milking what we could from the Earth. Jack Ward Thomas is most widely recognized (and despised) as the spotted owl biologist.

Last year Dr. Thomas completed his autobiography, Forks in the Trail, that I highly recommend to every conservation professional and those interested in conserving Nature. In one of the most honest and riveting sections, Dr. Thomas describes his empathy for the loggers that feared logging restrictions needed to save the spotted owl (and other species dependent upon old growth forest). I include a few passages below to give a sense of his ability to diagnose the situation he found himself…his ability to manage his triggers and see the big picture – and to mobilize and inspire others to do what the law required.


“The leaders of the USFS made it clear to successive administrations and Congresses that timber was being harvested from the national forests at unsustainable rates, given inadequate coincident investments in forest management….The full funding for intensive timber management and road management never came, so it was inevitable that timber yields from the national forests ratcheted downward and then essentially collapsed in the early 1990s. That collapse was abetted by the USFS’s difficulty in meeting politically imposed timber targets while trying to simultaneously comply with a veritable onslaught of environmental laws.”

“It was clear that impacts on the timber industry and on county and federal treasuries would be sudden and dramatically negative…..Significant social, economic, and political adjustments would be required in the status quo to implement the ISC [Interagency Scientific Committee] strategy….hard core activists of the environmental persuasion accused the ISC of ‘selling out to the timber interests.’ Those concerned with the welfare of the timber industry regarded the ISC report as ‘overkill’ and ‘collusion with environmental extremists.’

“Those whose economic welfare depended on continued harvests of old-growth timber, along with their rightfully concerned elected officials, desperately wanted to believe that there has to be a better – cheaper way – than that prescribed by the ISC….that would allow continued cutting of significant amounts of timber from old-growth forests on federal lands…Then in an unprecedented move the ISC was put ‘on trial’ in an adversarial hearing in front of an administrative law judge in Portland…The ‘trial’ was arranged by the secretary of the interior, Manual Lujan….The situation was bizarre – and becoming more so by the day. The Bush administration was putting its own employees – scientists and experts that it had assigned and charged with the task – through a hearing with the full hope and intent of shredding their credibility. After my turn on the witness stand being ‘defrocked’ for several hours, the hearing officer declared a recess. As I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air, I was approached by the grand old man of timber industry lobbyists in the Pacific Northwest. For many years he had been the industry’s primary spokesman, advocate, and dispenser of support to favored political candidates….He focused his ire on me as the nominal leader of the ISC. He stood close and said in his deep gravelly voice, ‘I know you boys think you’ve saved the old growth. Shit, kid, we’ve already cut the old growth! Live with it! What you’ve saved is nothing but the leftover crap. And in the end we’ll get that too!”

After the ISC recommendations were ignored by the Bush administration the courts called for enforcement of a ban on logging of old growth. During this time, Dr. Thomas was a hated man. He was vilified in the press and in yard signs. A dummy with his name hung in effigy in one logging town. Yet, he took those insults as data that told him how people were feeling about the situation – about him in his professional role. His humor was inspiring and on display in one interaction in an airport: “Say, mister, did anybody ever tell you that you look just like that spotted owl biologist guy – Jack Ward Thomas?’ ‘Well, yes, several people have told me that over the past few months.’ He gave me a sympathetic look. ‘Geez, man! That must really piss you off!’ I nodded, ‘Sometimes.”


His humility and courage surely helped prepare him for the toll the situation would take on his personal life: “Our family had lived in La Grande for nearly two decades. Margaret and I were active in the community and acquainted with hundreds of people. Margaret was perhaps better known locally as the result of her musical endeavors, church activities, and club work than I. Most folks, and nearly all of our friends, treated us as they always had. A few, however, ceased to speak to us or otherwise made their negative feelings toward us obvious. That was painful. On the other hand, we could not help but empathize with their distress.” Speaking of tampering with his vehicle and Molotov cocktails left on his doorstep he remarked, “The message was clear, I should be afraid – very afraid!”

After a chance encounter and courageous conversation with the owner of a small logging business he wrote, “I drove away. Several miles out of Forks, emotions welled up that I could not choke down, and I pulled over and let the tears come. People, real people – with hopes and dreams and families – were paying a terrible price for what, as ordained by law and court decisions and belated concern for ecosystems thousands of years in their creation, now had to be faced. The steadily increasing timber harvest from public lands had evolved from being considered ‘good forest management’ to ‘sins of the past’ to a new and belated paradigm of ‘ecosystem management.’ It didn’t matter how right and how logical those ‘sins’ had seemed when committed. Time and circumstances change. The bill, long delayed and even denied, had suddenly come due. My colleagues and I were simply the delivery boys. Being on the receiving end, no doubt, was dramatically worse.”

From what I can gather Jack Ward Thomas was the right person for the job of leading us through a pivotal adaptation. He was a rare bird. He understood and retained an ability to think like a scientist. Yet he was emotionally intelligent too. He understood people.


Maybe it was his humble, rural roots. He could relate with blue-collar people. He seemed to never forget his roots in rural Texas. But he could see the power of science. His ability to adapt yet appreciate, and understand, those who wouldn’t was perhaps a key to his success. I can’t know. But maybe it was a combination of those reasons that he was selected by the Bush administration to tackle the spotted owl mess.

With Forks in the Trail, conservation professionals can understand what helped Jack Ward Thomas rise from a state biologist to the head of the US Forest Service to university professor. Readers will have a sense for what today’s conservation professional can expect to face in a world of increasingly controversial conservation conflicts. Saving every “cog and wheel” is becoming more political. As more humans inhabit the Earth and consume more resources conflict is inevitable. But with humility, curiosity and courage, the women and men on the front lines of conservation will be as successful as Dr. Thomas – the conservation legend that led us through a pivotal period in American conservation.

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Are you in the “sweet spot?”

The March 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review revealed research results that got me thinking about conversations I’ve had lately… and questions emerging in my mind, “Do we hire and promote for the wrong reasons? And does this contribute to problems and ultimately staff departures?”

According to HBR, a recent study found that the most competent undergraduate students underestimate their knowledge and the less competent overrate their knowledge. Sound familiar? Another study found that people in a group that followed someone that projected more confidence, was taller or louder, performed worse than their peer groups. Even after being told the group was on the wrong track, 45% continued listening or deferring to this “leader.” What is going on here? Does this happen in your organization, civic group, or board? Or in politics?

Another study surveyed sales reps and managers to determine who were best at forecasting their revenue. Researchers discovered the most accurate forecasters depend upon both logic and intuition. The least accurate rely overwhelmingly on intuition and obviously don’t bother with logic guided by facts. The salespeople surveyed were asked to rate their confidence in their forecasts. Interestingly the most confident forecasters were as inaccurate as those who expressed little confidence. The best predictors of future revenue were the salespeople and managers that expressed a “middle-of-the-road” confidence – holding to the notion their position is guided by facts while recognizing they might be wrong. It’s been said that exhibiting leadership on tough issues requires holding equally to the possibility that you could be wrong as you could be right.


Olaus Murie (image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

What lessons can we learn here? Do we follow or promote people that are humble or that project certainty? Is there a “sweet spot?” How many find and stay in that spot? Are we more likely to defend ideas expressed by an outspoken, charismatic person or someone that isn’t so certain they’re right? What role has “leader” bias played in appointments to the upper ranks of our organizations? And if this bias is at work in those appointments, what’s the long-term impact?

When I reflect upon the more notable conservation professionals in American history I sense they were in the “sweet spot.” As scientists they maintained a sense of humility that spurred their curiosity and learning. They listened and offered an opinion when asked. They didn’t rise to the top of their organizations. But what if they had? Would they have retained their humility or over time would they have become overconfident?

My purpose here is to surface a tough issue I hear about quite abit in my circles… to try and move the conversation from the individual to the system so we can make progress. I’m curious what you think.

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Excuse me, Mr. President…

I appreciate what you said during a recent interview for Popular Science. I too want to reach the end of my days knowing “the planet’s going to be in pretty good shape” and that I helped keep it that way. But I’m afraid you’re approaching global warming as if it’s just a technical problem. You seem to be missing the critical fact that it’s also a huge adaptive challenge.

You might have learned about adaptive challenges while you were at Harvard Law School between 1988 and 1991. A few blocks away at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky were lecturing about a pattern of repeated failures and successes they detected in tough social issues. In research they found we humans tend to not make much progress on complex problems. The pattern of failures includes:

  • waiting and hoping for a technical fix;
  • ignoring what people may have to give up; and
  • waiting for authority figures to solve the problem.

They found progress is made when people begin owning the problem, taking risks, experimenting with new ways of being, and engaging others – what Heifetz termed adaptive leadership.

Let’s think about this idea within your own life. You were a smoker once upon a time. At some point I’m sure you decided you needed to quit. You probably tried all kinds of quick and easy gimmicks – 10-step program, chewing gum, etc. You probably hoped scientists would develop a miracle cure. At some moment did you realize it wasn’t going to be easy? Did you realize part of the problem was smoking was a part of who you are? I bet you were finally successful when you accepted smoking was an adaptive challenge. The adaptive work was letting go of, psychologically, smoking cigarettes. I bet you took some risks – maybe you had to disappoint a fellow friend and smoker? You probably enlisted the help of others too.


Photo courtesy of http://www.rollingstone.com

Mr. President I support the use of science and technological innovations to reduce global warming. But sir, we can’t just count on technical fixes. We have to adapt too. We have to change the way we live and work. To do so we need your help…we need you to exhibit leadership.

If you asked, Heifetz, Linksky and the folks at the Kansas Leadership Center they might suggest you help us diagnose the situation – help us see this isn’t just a technical problem. Identify who needs to do the work (hint: it’s not just politicians and scientists). Be ready. You will get major blowback when you go down this path. We want our authority figures to tell us we can go on about our lives. We want government to make problems just go away. So get used to uncertainty and conflict. The stress could be intolerable so don’t forget to take care of yourself.

Because this is adaptive work for every human on the planet, you’re gonna have to work across many factions. You will have to give the work back to us. In adaptive challenges the people with the problem have to be part of the solution. You’ll need to dial back on the rosy talk about how innovations will save the day. Tell us what we need to hear not what we want to hear. Speak to loss – acknowledge what you, me and others may have to give up. But to make the discomfort tolerable speak from your heart. Inspire a collective purpose – a peaceful, hospitable planet for our children is an excellent place to start.

Thanks for listening Mr. President. Good luck.

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Case Study – Leadership in Flint

The following article does a good job of illustrating facets of leading in an adaptive challenge. You’ll find people dancing on the edge of their authority for something they care passionately about. Can you name one person and what she or he did that was risky but purposeful?


(Photo courtesy of the washingtonpost.com)

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has elements of a technical problem and an adaptive challenge.

Solving the technical problem is straightforward:

  • Collect water quality data
  • Determine required solutions and funds needed
  • Authority figures provide direction, protection and restore order:
    • immediate acts provide clean water and protect health
    • long-term acts provide clean water and mitigate health impacts

Unfortunately there’s resistance to the technical solution. This indicates adaptive work and requires:

  • Bringing all stakeholders to the table
  • Understanding the competing aspirations held
  • Staying in the game despite the frustration
  • Finding a collective purpose among all
  • Speaking to what has to be given up to make progress
  • Identifying and doing what needs to be done

As you reflect on what is happening in Flint, think about a tough issue you’re facing in conservation. Are you treating the issue like a technical problem or an adaptive challenge?

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