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Oval Office Speech Only a Start

Humans approach problems from three neurological and behavioral patterns: the fear, incentive and affiliative systems. To resolve a crisis like the Gulf spill, Obama needs to engage all three mental systems.
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President Obama's Oval Office speech on the Gulf spill has been panned by some as a failure to show transformational leadership in the crisis. But it's really a reflection of a political system that demands simple solutions to complex problems. The BP spill is destroying vast local living economies and ecologies -- an indication of how closely both are intertwined. Managing the interlocking priorities of ecological and economic health requires whole-systems thinking and long-range, multi-scale planning, integrating local, regional and national objectives.

But we seem to have a national antipathy towards that. We prefer "get-tough" sound bites and punitive actions to understanding that complex, systemic problems need complex, systemic solutions.

Our single largest use of oil is for cars and trucks. We could be debating a coherent transportation policy that examines alternatives to the oil-intensive status quo. But instead, we're invoking superficial slogans like "drill, baby drill," leaving individuals little choice but to "fill baby fill."

Another big portion of our oil consumption is devoted to heating homes in the northeast. We could be implementing rapid ramp-up of single and multi-family home energy efficiency -- insulation, weatherstripping, new boilers and windows - to create green jobs, lower unemployment, a larger tax base, and lasting dividends (replace an old, 68% efficient boiler with a new 92% efficient one, and you use 35% less oil year after year).

But instead, we've proffered tax breaks and non-oversight to energy companies, enabling ever riskier, more destructive and carbon-intensive extraction -- drilling further offshore for oil, ripping off mountaintops for coal, hydrofracking for gas deposits, scouring and boiling land for tar sands.

The accumulating social, ecological and economic costs of these toxic choices undermine our health and prosperity. So why do we keep making them?

While China, Russia, India, Brazil and others implement forward-looking, integrated infrastructure strategies, investing in high-speed rail and state-of-the-art communications networks, America lurches from crisis to crisis without a coherent policy framework. Might the mental models underlying our recent fiscal disasters also lurk behind this ecological disaster?

Humans approach problems from three different neurological and behavioral patterns: the fear, incentive and affiliative systems. All three have a strong evolutionary basis. We often lead with the first two, but only the third can think productively about big systems and complex problems.

The fear system is very good at evoking quick, single-strategy actions to single threats (a mastedon attacks and we get a flight-or-fight response) and very bad at apprehending complex situations. It pumps our bodies with cortisol, which creates stress, clouds thought, and eventually destroys health. Fear drives us to look for single causes (gas prices) and single solutions (drill, baby, drill!). It works for simple threats, but not complex problems.

Our regulatory system, for example, functions in this fear-based way, responding to one perceived threat at a time, missing the big picture. Regulations help set boundaries against bad behavior, but regulation by itself will never create positive best practices or systemic solutions.

The brain's incentive, or wanting, system drives us towards food, shelter, material comfort and reproduction, as opposed to driving us away from threats. Like the fear system, it's a single-action driver, but positive rather than negative. Wanting floods our body with dopamines, which temporarily make us feel good. The gratification of a raise, for example, soon wears off. Tax cuts appeal to the wanting system, but once the new normal tax level kicks in, one seeks more tax cuts, regardless of fiscal consequences. Incentives such as cash for clunkers create short-term behavioral responses, not systemic ones, and are often exploited.

The brain's affiliative system is the only one that can enable systemic thinking. It grew out of successful evolutionary behavior, since collaboration and sharing offered much better chances of survival than selfish indivdualism. Think of it as a "we map" rather than a "me map." Affilation gives rise to complex, long-range relationships such as marriages, tribes, clans, communities, and eventually cities. Collaboration, altruism and affiliation flood us with oxytocin, evoking feelings of wellness and wholeness. The affiliative system is connected to whole-systems and long-term thinking. It helps us grasp the interdependence of complex issues and conceive optimal solutions that maximize the greater good.

Models do exist for applying affiliative thought to complex policy problems. The Garrison Institute's Climate, Mind and Behavior (CMB) project works with leading scientists, economists, advocates and businesspeople to apply new insights of behavioral, neurological and social sciences to climate change solutions.

One key behavioral insight is that tapping into the affiliative system unleashes pro-social solutions. It's much easier to motivate large numbers of people to change behavior and reduce their carbon footprints when they know they are not alone, when they're convinced what they do is part of aggregate effort that can make a real difference. The Garrison Institute and NRDC demonstrated that if every American took a few simple steps such as inflating their tires and turning off lights when they leave a room, that collectively, they could reduce US emissions by a gigaton, or one million tons, of carbon.

Individual incentives like rebates only motivate a small portion of the population at any one time. But collective feedback systems like the United Way fundraising thermometer are affiliative, and garner tremendous levels of participation.

To resolve a complex crisis like the Gulf spill, President Obama and government in general need to engage all three mental systems: fear, incentive and affiliative. We need strong regulations and appropriate fear of punishment to induce more responsible behavior (though I suspect that the drop in BP's stock price from clean-up penalties will influence the future behavior of other oil companies future behavior then weakly enforced regulations). We also need to give Americans positive incentives to make long-term energy efficiency investments, such as greening their homes, buying energy-efficient cars and local food.

But we especially need systemic policy thinking from the affiliative system. Only by following our "we map" and seeking the future common good will Americans make the choice to plan and implement integrated energy, transportation and other infrastructure solutions we need. President Obama needs to call on Americans to rise to this larger challenge. We will all feel better if we respond to it together.