Planet Earth First

Today, we face an existential threat unlike any before, at least in our lifetimes. The magnitude of the challenge we face could either shrink a chunk of land slowly but surely, jeopardize water quality and reliability in ways that would affect ecosystems and livelihoods, intensify heat waves, droughts, etc., causing colossal damage to agriculture, or, the challenge could become a clincher that spurs our race to take decisive, bold action to fight and turn the tide to ensure that all living beings thrive on Mother Earth. Will a concern for future generations engage our attention? Will justice be restored?

According to a study by the Pew research center, most Americans believe human activity as the major cause of Climate Change (CC). Now that sounds hopeful, but is it enough? Hope is contingent to how many from this majority are bringing about (or are ready to) the necessary changes at individual levels to stave off the climate upheaval? Just last month, I learned that WRI, an environmental think tank that works to ensure sustainable use of our natural resources- the foundation of economic opportunity and human well-being, has taken 2 bold steps- has gone vegetarian, and has turned away donors from the fossil fuel industry or who are corporate polluters. While institutional leaders like the WRI, the Natural History Museum in Washington DC, and a few other giants truly walk the talk, the monumental shifts in the climate of our habitable planet beckons a 7 billion population to do more.

Pondering over this enormous challenge, a question emerges: what are the motivating factors that might push us to ramp up our ambitions and change our convenience culture lifestyle to rescue our planet? While I cannot easily divine answers to the question, in the next paragraph, I’ll try probe into (i) what works, and (ii) what keeps some of us from making those necessary changes, even while we believe the science that backs the issue of CC?  

1. Goals and Feedback

“Would you tell me, please, which way I got to go from here?” asked Alice. “That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cheshire cat. (Caroll, 1963).

Conscious human pursuits are prompted by goals, and intentions sprout into action to actualize those goals. We marshal our resources towards meeting those goals through taking steps that cognitive psychology coins as short-term or proximal goals- i.e., near at hand goals. Now it is imperative for individuals to have a specific, measurable outcome in mind when they make any conscious choice to accomplish these short term goals. This outcome serving as feedback becomes a benchmark for future steps, adding a sense of tangibility to the goal realizing endeavor. Conversely, as cognitive psychologists suggest, without short-term goals serving as steps leading to the main goal, individuals lose the vigor to accomplish the main goal. Because short-term goals deliver feedback quickly that allows individuals to evaluate their efforts and track performance (Alderman, 2003).

Lack of tangible feedback is one of the crippling impediment that zaps the motivation to fight CC. Unless individuals can measure the impact of the changes they bring about in their lifestyle, a surging skepticism about whether those changes might save the planet withers their inspiration away. In this respect, long term goals are of an evanescent nature and get glossed over in the absence of motivating factors like feedback. Even through a school year, students work on assignments, brain storm ideas while working on projects, take midterm tests- all these serving as short-term goals to keep them on track, at least for most part, before they take the final exam and move on to the next grade.

2. Community Engagement

Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that people have greater self-efficacy when they work in a group than when they work individually (Bandura, 1997, 2000).

The following examples illustrate how engaging communities, setting short-term goals, and having tools to measure the outcomes of those goals can sustain people’s motivation to persist and squelch the catastrophic problems triggered by CC.

 (i) Measuring Carbon Footprint

Just last week, I learned in a conversation with a CC scientist that WRI, an Environmental Think Tank based in Washington DC, develops tools for companies to measure their annual carbon footprint. “That,” he explained, “encourages companies to monitor and subsequently reduce their carbon footprint,” backing his explanation with data. Measuring the carbon footprint becomes a short-term goal with a measurable outcome.

 (ii) Vision to Create CO2 - Neutral Growth Area for Citizens of Sonderborg

Project Zero, a Harvard Graduate School Initiative collaborates with citizens of Sonderborg to engage them in the vision of creating a CO2- neutral growth area before 2019, initiating them to creating and demonstrating innovative solutions, measurable CO2 reductions, new green jobs and a generation of creative young people (Harvard website, PZ). Encouraged by bracing ideas, town residents are collaborating on new green investments, while farmers are skillfully erecting their own wind turbines, demonstrating the support for the PZ vision. The example illustrates how short term goals with measurable outcomes can engage and spur communities to act.

(iii) Greenpeace Collaborates with Taiwan

When Jennifer Morgan from Greenpeace went to Taiwan, she was taken up with a surprise on learning how a supporter of clean environment was living a plastic-free life and was part of an online community of 19,000 people who shared ideas and tips how to do this.

To forge its way to a cleaner environment, Greenpeace is collaborating with schools, communities, and engaging the government to achieve a plastic free Taiwan by 2025.

3. Empowering with Education to Combat the Climate Challenge

One can discern from the examples above that education is a powerful tool that can reveal to people the significant perils as consequences of CC, ignite imaginations and nurture creativity to reach innovative solutions. Most of us have a sketchy notion about CC, even though scientists adduce facts that can be seen and/or measured to explain the situation. Even while we grapple between science and fiction, trying to find answers to questions like, in what way is CC likely to affect us, where will it directly have an impact and how might that impact me or the world in general etc., erratic and gibberish comments (or tweets) further add to the haze around the subject, attempting to explain away the seriousness of the challenge.

Just yesterday, an engineer walked into our home wondering aloud, “what might Al Gore say to this record low temperatures in D.C.?” Little do people know that Global Warming doesn’t necessarily mean every region getting warmer but the general rise in temperature that causes the climate to change in unexpected ways causing tornadoes, rise in sea levels, etc.

4. Conclusion

Denmark and Taiwan stand out as some of the role models, but how do we encourage all people, especially who struggle by every available means to achieve something, to pause and think what they can do to protect the environment, even while they struggle to protect and sustain themselves? 

The current climate crisis beckons us to examine the ways we employ to support young individuals in learning to think scientifically such that they can test hypothesis and develop evidence seeking behaviors (Perkins, 1994; Hetland and colleagues, 2007). Education should teach individuals to base their judgments on reason and evidence in lieu of political allegiance steering their decisions, to expand their awareness of the world and its people around them, to recognize the differences that exist between cultures so they can evaluate their actions in a broader context, and last but not the least, become aware of the common thread coursing through them all. The understanding of this commonality can add an emotional element and help find that personal hook that sustains people’s motivation to work together to avert CC. 

Without good leadership that sets specific targets, provides education that exalts imagination and innovation, and collaborates with communities, we will be floundering with challenges that will compromise our planet’s future. While we may argue and negotiate the paths we take, we shouldn’t have any problem in acknowledging the facts that necessitate our journey.

​Alderman, M. K. (2003). Motivation for Education

Harvard Project Zero. (web log comment). https://

Hetland, L., Winner E., Veenema, S., Sheridan, K. M., & Perkins, D. N. (2007). StudioThinking. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

​Perkins D. N. (1993). Why teach thinking Applied Psychology 42 (3), 223-225

​Morgan, J. (2017, December 20). Charting a Plastic Free Future in Taiwan. (Web log comment). https://

Ormrod, J. E. (2007). HumanLearning. Prentice Hall

Copyright. All Rights Reserved. Anu Bhatia 2018.