“Talking Sustainability” – to change how we think!


Last week I posted a blog claiming that “mental models” (our worldview, the stories we tell about ourselves, and core values) must change before we are likely to see a significant shift towards more sustainable human behavior.  That is, before we are able to change social policies or large scale behavior…. we must change how we think!

Well, if that is true….. the next question might be….. “how do we change human minds?” I will use the same iceberg model to describe a process for creating a convincing argument for change.   Remember this?

If not, be sure to read my earlier blog to become familiar with the model.

One of the core competencies of a successful human in our world is the ability to create a convincing argument for your perspective.  Another critical competency is the ability to listen and learn from others.  To convince someone they should change their behavior to be more sustainable, the first necessary condition is trust (which is built by learning to listen respectfully).   Without trust….  don’t even bother to present your case!  This is where “cor ad cor loquitur” becomes really important.

Of course, it can be pretty frustrating having to listen to folks who are not interested in learning, growing or changing.  I will deal with how to think about people who are “just not interested” in a future blog.  For now, lets focus on how to talk with the many people who already know “something is wrong” but aren’t quite willing to change their behavior (yet).

Know any of these folks?

Maybe you are a student, headed home to visit Mom and Dad.  Or perhaps you are just hanging out with good friends.  In either case, here is how to go about presenting an argument which might convince people who already trust you to change their behavior.


First, turn the iceberg model upside down!

We begin by talking about mental models.  If you share what you truly care about with someone you trust, you set the “frame” for the discussion.

But remember, honesty is really important.   This is not “spin.”  Speak from the heart…..

If I am trying to encourage a friend to consider a new and more sustainable behavior, I might begin by getting their attention with some facts that seem inconsistent with their own mental models.  Like this…

“Did you know that the Walmart Corporation is the largest grocery retailer in the U.S.?  Yup, they seem to be ready to take over the world!”

Walmart?   A grocery store?  Hmmmmmm…..  Now, most people are overwhelmed with information today and are no longer surprised (or even interested) in facts.  If we spend too much time talking about facts, our listener is likely to get bored.  So we change the subject quickly (now that we have their attention) to an expression of our core values.  We talk mental models and speak from the heart…..

“You know, as corporations get more and more powerful, I keep wondering about what happens to ‘the little guy.’  I mean, do individuals even have a chance today to create a good live without being owned by these corporations? “

At this point, we hope our listener is engaged.  If so, we continue…..

“I’ve been thinking about the things I really care about…. like people having enough food to eat.  I care about clean air, water and a living soil.  I care about children having chance for a decent life.  I care about Mother Nature.  I care about the place that I live, my family, and my work.  These are the things I hold most dear.  I don’t think the corporation cares about these things.

What do you care about most deeply?”

Getting someone to talk about their own deeply held values begins to set the frame for the rest of the conversation.   So far, we are talking at the level of mental models.  As we work down the “upside down” iceberg, the next stage is systemic structures.  These are;

  1. physical things,
  2. organizations,
  3. policies, and
  4. rituals.

Changing structures has the power to change behavior.  But I would try to avoid talking about structures in the abstract. Rather, lets share a story about a particular structure that is consistent with our professed core values.  For me, it might be the North Amherst Community Farm.  This is what I’d say….

“Did you know there is a group of crazy people in my neighborhood who got together and bought a farm?  Yup, it seems that about 30 acres right in the middle of my suburban neighborhood was about to be sold for housing development.  My neighbors got together and raised enough money with help from the state and town governments to save the farm.

“We’ve still got a mortgage of course.  But this little neighborhood group saved this land from development and it is now being farmed by two terrific families who live right there on the property.  They have a 300 member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) the world’s best vegetables, grass-fed beef, sheep, pigs, and chickens.  It is very cool….. and it is right in my backyard!”

NACF represents a real life structure that is consistent with my core values.  It represents a “reasonable” change option (because it is true), even though none of us ever thought we’d “own a farm.”

Now that I have my listeners attention, I talk about a pattern of behavior that emerges out of the structure I’ve just described.  And once again, I do it by telling a story…..

“One of the biggest surprises that grew out of  saving this farm was all of the people in town who got interested in raising egg laying chickens in their backyard!   The farm has about 200 laying hens as part of the CSA.  Once folks were introduced to fresh eggs, it was difficult to go back to industrial eggs.  And several of them are now raising their own!

This “hopeful story” represents a pattern of behavior that grew out of the structure and mental models we’ve been talking about.  We continue….

“We organized this workshop around Mother’s Day last year, called ‘Homes for Hens’ and 50 people showed up.  Parents and grandparents and lots of kids came to learn how to have a few hens in their backyard.  We let them hold the hens and talked about how to take care of them.  It was really fun!  There were lots of good questions and stories being told by the teachers as well as the participants!”

“And now, we’ve got a half dozen or so families in the area raising hens and teaching others.  We are not changing the world of course, but it sure does show kids something valuable about where their food comes from!”

I’d keep the story short and let my listener ask questions.  At this point, we continue to move down the “upside down iceberg” and suggest an action, consistent with the pattern of behavior (raising chickens), the structure (the new farm), and the mental models we have been talking about.

The key to shifting mental models – is taking action. Unless we “make it real” – nothing changes.  So maybe  next I’d say…

“Hey, you want to run by the farm and help collect some eggs?  I’ll bet the farmers would appreciate some help, and maybe give you a few so you can try them out for breakfast tomorrow.  If you want a little exercise, we can pull some weeds while we are there too.  Anyway,  I’d like you to meet the farmers.  They are great folks!”

That’s it.  Simple but it can be effective.  To change how people think:

  1. we begin with an expression of common values (mental models),
  2. share a success story of a real life structural change,
  3. tell a story about how behavioral patterns have shifted, and
  4. conclude with a suggested action (consistent with those values).

Mental models don’t change when we tell someone they are doing something wrong.  Arguing with people who just don’t want to hear it will fail!

For example, we know that the world is full of cynicism, selfishness and irresponsible behavior.  Telling someone not to behave in this way will not result in systemic change.

When we see someone throwing a plastic water bottle in the trash for example, simply shouting “hey, don’t do that” will not shift mental models, but rather cause people to retrench and protect their own worldview.

To change an old mental model, it needs to be replaced with a new mental model that is more empowering.

“Out with the old and in with the new” is a tactic that can change mental models.  The new worldview must be compelling and honest.  It must be based in possibility and consistent with commonly held values.

This can work!

Or at least, it is worth a try.  Take the iceberg and “turn it upside down.”   To convince a friend or family member to shift toward more sustainable behaviors, why not try John Henry Newman’s motto:

“Cor ad Cor Loquitur”  – heart speaks to heart


As an example, I’ll close with one of my favorite short videos.  Notice that Paul Hawken begins with an expression of values and a new compelling worldview (mental model) and then introduces thousands of structures (organizations) that are real (realistic).  He presents a pattern of behavior represented by these structures and closes by claiming that “human kind knows what to do.”  This is a clear call for action.   See if you are moved by the story……


I believe the shift in mental models that Hawken is talking about is possible  – and in fact is happening now…….

Do you?


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

4 thoughts on ““Talking Sustainability” – to change how we think!

  1. Thanks John. I agree that change begins with expressions of common values, especially when these values are core to our genetic and evolutionary make-up, such as "community", "ecology", and "spirit". Watching Paul Hawkens "Blessed Unrest" video, I get the sense we are all like ants in an anthill and when we each follow our bliss and do what we feel is deeply right, we are helping develop this larger planetary consciousness that, as individuals, perhaps we are only dimly aware of. This is why I get so excited about bringing students to ecovillages through Living Routes; because I feel that communities striving to create sustainable lifestyles help awaken and nourish these basic needs of community, ecology, and spirit and are developing and sharing stories of our fundamental interdependence with each other and all life.

  2. Hey John, thanks for sharing this. I think you're absolutely right, and I guess I was getting too caught up in the "let the information speak for itself" mentality. I mean, while that notion certainly fits in with what you're saying, there's a right and a wrong way to go about doing it. I find it hard to simply give up on people who don't have any interest in changing, particularly when they're people I care about…but efforts towards a lost cause can be better put towards open, receptive people. And the upside down iceberg is a great concept to boot!

  3. Great walk-through John. I would like to share that incredible patience is required for these changes to gain momentum. In our bodies and minds we can only take one small step at a time! Looking for trust, looking for wisdom and brilliance in another and in ourselves makes trusting the pace of change much easier. We are always finding what we’re looking for; look for love. That’s my goal today.

  4. Reading about The North Amherst Community Farm as an example of a grassroots structure really struck me. I’m not surprised, of course, and always vaguely knew the backstory behind it. However, when I first arrived in Amherst about two years ago, I perceived the farm (The Simple Gifts portion of it) to be a very solid entity, with a questionless presence. This is good; it means that the farm has established itself to such a great extent that a newcomer to this area would assume that its existence is not at all precarious. This notion, of how structures are perceived, is important to me because it gives me optimism about future endeavors. Understanding that not too long ago the NACF was a vision rather than a structure is empowering. It means that there is the very real potential for myself or one of my peers to start something that ten years down the line, can be seen by others as something solid to rely on and build off of.

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