Expanding and Contracting

I have begun to hone in on more specific areas of the complexity of understanding global environmental problems while simultaneously maintaining a broad perspective to take in different disciplines.  I still propose that environmental problems are related to STEM in that they are ill-structured and ambiguous; they include a multitude of variables, thus, there is a need for better methods of engaging society on these complex issues.  But upon deeper reflection, this interest does not extend from the perspective of an advocate of change or a particularly pro-conservationist mindset.  Rather, it is inspired by an interest in how individuals interact with one another to make sense of an uncertain world.

Social psychology has shown that behavioral modifications are effective in changing individual behaviors specifically through feedback mechanisms (Goetz, Thomas).  And by changing individual behaviors, one can presumably mitigate the cumulative effects of individual choices.  By and large, the latest literature shows that science communication has been ineffective in educating the public and in fact, it has largely increased public polarization around contentious issues (Hart & Nisbet, 2011).  So here we witness a scenario in which individuals do not respond well to scientific information; however, are moved to action by nudges (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge).

Some of the more specific questions that have come to mind are:

How can new technologies be designed and deployed to localize and individualize global problems such as climate change?  Have tools such as mapping and spatial analysis given rise to more participatory action by providing a place to self-report?  Given that individuals tend to align with an ideology to ward off uncertainty (Jost et al.), how could these tools possibly mitigate the chances of individuals adopting ideologies that may be inconsistent with reality?

More specifically, what are tribal communities in the Arctic and Pacific Northwest doing to have their local problems voiced in the context of global climate change?  How do these local communities transmit knowledge both within their network and to those outside of their network? For instance, the Local Environmental Observers (LEO) provide Alaskan communities with tools for mapping and monitoring climate change.  In these tribal communities, the residents rely on their own observations and communication with one another.  However, it is critical to have a liaison between local residents and state and federal governments.  The chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Billy Frank Jr., speaks about the importance of linking a direct observation of the natural world with scientific research. “Traditional knowledge is on the ground stuff; it’s not a theory,” says Ray Harris, a fisherman in Chemainus First Nation.  I might also look at how local fishing communities in South Louisiana responded to their plight post-Hurricane Katrina (and the BP Oil Spill)?

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I hypothesize that the problem of denial or lack of concern for global problems is not a problem of individual morality for all men desire to be virtuous (Aristotle) but of the social context in which one is embedded.  Furthermore, though the political regime as well as institutions and organizations may shape the incentives for sustainable innovations (North, 1990), “expert-driven, centralized and top-down approaches to problem solving are not nimble enough to effectively address global challenges characterized by high levels of complexity and uncertainty” (Westley et al., 776). When designing processes for citizen engagement, new technologies must diverge from the centralized, top-down approaches to problem-solving and take on a much more distributed and decentralized nature. But it is critical that we not be too quick to extol the Internet and its subsystem, the World Wide Web as the beacon of democratic technology.  There are many components that comprise these systems, some that may or may not be entirely conducive to democratic decision-making.

Self-regulation and reflection (Anderson et al) often referred to as metacognition (Flavell) will help inform the questions asked in my survey of individuals’ perception of their views in relation to others.  Additionally the social cognitive theory presented by Albert Bandura helps in understanding why people may not respond immediately to dire environmental issues.  Here it will be worthwhile to look at what scholars have said about perception (Eagleman).

Time and time again we see that change is happening most at the fringes. This research will explore what new information communication technologies can be employed to engage the social cognitive function of individuals, particularly in places marked by disaster and uncertainty.

All who are able, may gain virtue by study and care, for it is better to be happy by the action of nature than by chance. To entrust to chance what is most important would be defective reasoning.
-Aristotle

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