Compassionate Systems presentation at SCARP

This is a talk I gave at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning in 2015. Panellists were behaviour change practitioners, and I was asked specifically about Community Based Social Marketing and the behaviour of water conservation.


  1. Thank you! This is probably one the most important things I have ever heard and it makes so much sense! I really needed this today. As someone who has been collecting clean non recyclable things to take to after school programs, washes out baggies for reuse when not using glass containers, recycles, tries to limit plastic, pesticides, all the things, I get why it is so hard for me and not important to many others. I don’t get anything else done in my life because I am making decisions about all this stuff which also has to be waahed, moved, stored and transported and dropped off at the appropriate locations.

    I already knew systemic change was more critical and effective than personal effort, but how can I help without becoming a school board member, city council member congress person etc., myself? Do we write to people that matter? Congressmen and women? Company CEO’s? I once shipped 5 strawberry containers back to the manufactures at a cost of $25.00, to make a point about their not being recyclable, compostable etc, but didn’t include a return address. I wonder what they thought? A big thanks to J.D.E. for posting about your blog today…

    • I see these things as parallel, both kind of strange and wonderful.

      By both, I mean shipping plastic containers back, or running for office. If you want to run for office, bless you. And if you are a garbage geek, high fives. We all have our manias.

      Sadly, I think the biggest pain comes from our societal myth that we can just DO something. We can write a letter, or make a video, or start a petition, or go to a protest…and after all that we will get rid of plastic trays and not have to deal with them ever again.

      It is just that is not how things happen. Lots of change never happens, on a timeframe that is meaningful to us. And lots of change happens for reasons that we don’t like—like plain business decisions.

      All of which to say, go easy on yourself. The myth of change is too heavy a burden.

      And also, one powerful way to make change is just to be publicly doing things different. Sure, you alone is not very infectious, but you and friend, maybe a few friends… these things can add up.

      I don’t expect to make huge impact in my life—but I do grow my tomatoes in the front yard, and people stop to admire them when they walk down the street, and a neighbour down the block says she wants to garden now.

      High gives to the garbage geeks, and, go easy on yourself.

  2. This was a great talk. Sorry I am so late in checking your site. You post far too rarely.

    Your behavior pyramid illuminates the folly in expecting everyone to suddenly pay attention to the state of the world and rise up to demand systemic change. Even those, like me, who pay far more attention than most to the issue of sustainability, seem to just “go with the flow” and let systemic structures guide our behavior more than we would like, even when we are aware of it happening.

    A prime example is plane travel. My wife and I live in Hawaii for perfectly sound reasons. My mother and my children’s families live in Portland, Oregon. There are structural reasons why the careers my son and daughter chose have led them there and my mother has lived in the same house since 1970, so they have perfectly good reasons for being there.

    We all fly across the Pacific to see each other at least once a year (except for my 92 year old mother). Shame on us, but unless we never are to be with each other again, we must use aircraft to do so. The last sailing passenger ship left Hawaii a long time ago and creating a public infrastructure that either allows sustainable travel methods or enables people to stay in the same small area for their entire lives is beyond the capability of any individual.

    And devoting much of my time to banging the drum for abandoning jet planes so we can return to sail would just be time wasted. No one would pay attention at all.

    • Thanks for reading Joe—I always find the gardening to be higher priority than the writing.

      In his book Heat, George Monbiot called what you are describing Love Miles.

      And yes, the implications of reality of human behaviour is a little depressing…

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