Joe Brewer on How To Bring About Real Change

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Interview conducted by Bhavani Prakash with Joe Brewer on Cognitive Policy:

"EWTT: Politics and economics go hand in hand, and powerful interest groups and lobbies create resistance to change. What then is going to bring about change?

Joe Brewer: At first pass, changes in society are always lead by culture, so if you change the culture, you change the politics, you change the economics. It’s actually much harder to use politics to change culture. One good example is how in 1865, all of the slaves were freed. It was a hundred years later that in 1965 that the Civil Rights Act was passed. There was a legal change, but the culture hadn’t changed yet. And then it took a hundred years to change the culture enough to accept a change in policy that would secure the rights, that would make it legally defensible to protect the rights of minority citizens. We only started dealing with racial inequalities in a systematic way since the 1960s onward, so the culture changed first then the politics followed.

So one thing that is very important for us to think about when we talk about changing behaviour is that ultimately yes, we have to change our politics, we have to change our economic systems because the way they are set up now cannot lead to sustainable outcomes, but to make those changes in political and economic systems we have to look at culture, we have to look at the stories that people tell themselves about where they come from, and what it means to lead a good life.

There has been a major global trend in the last century which has been the rise of global consumerism and consumer marketing. Consumerism tells us stories of opulence and material success as measures of meaning and quality and happiness. So those stories are antithetical, they are the opposite of what we need to have to lead to a sustainable outcome. So we need to change consumer culture, that’s something that gets deep into the lives of people. When we talk on a global scale, it doesn’t mean we need one big monoculture that’s the same everywhere, but we can celebrate the unique features of different cultures that are resonant with sustainability.

India, I discovered during my visit, is an incredibly diverse country with so many different subcultures and languages and religions. Biodiversity is actually very healthy for sustainability because one thing we need is resilience. We need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and if all of the cultures of the world are too similar to each other and if the way they all align is not healthy, then we are more at risk, and global civilisation could collapse completely. When we talk about cultural change driving change in economics and politics, then we can find the strength of culture at different places and bring them together and drive innovation by plugging into places where cultures come into contact with each other.

We’re seeing that now in this global social movement, that firstly has been called the Arab Spring and then Occupy Wall Street, people from different cultures are describing it in a local way. Members of this movement in Spain are dealing with issues that have to do with Spanish culture, people in Greece are dealing with Greek culture, people in Lebanon are dealing with Lebanese culture, people in the US dealing with US culture. At a deep level, they are taking the paradigm of the global economy and they are suggesting a different way that people can come together to solve their problems, which means they’re suggesting an evolution of culture.

EWTT: You enjoy studying deep history, and since you’ve mentioned Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, do you think change comes about in a disruptive way, or is it a gradual process that leads to a tipping point? How do you think change is going to come about now when we most need it, in the face of the climate crisis?

Joe Brewer: Well, the way that big change always happens is there are periods when it doesn’t seem like things are changing very much, and then are short periods of time when things change very quickly. You could think of it as a ‘preparation’ stage and a ‘release’ stage.

Looking at globalisation as a process that goes back to the 1500s, and even the 1400s, there was global trade and then in the 1600s, we saw the global rise of corporations and in the 1600s and 1700s we had the creation of nation states. We had these big structural changes over several hundred years. And then we had the rise of market economies – they’ve only been around a few hundred years. There have been markets, there have been bazaars, the bazaar in Delhi has been around for much longer than a few hundred years, but the idea of a global market economy has been fairly new, it’s maybe only four hundred years old.

Given this deeper context, what we’re looking at now is a big change that has been coming for quite some time. I actually go deeper than that, and I like to think of it as three major periods of human cultural evolution. There was the period before agriculture, where we mostly lived in hunter-gatherer societies, and then we had the period where people learnt to domesticate plants and grow food, and that allowed human settlements to form and to grow. An interesting thing about human settlements is that if you have more food than you need, then you can grow your population. And if you can grow your population, you need more land, and that is the dynamics of empire and conquest. So empire emerged from agriculture.

About 10,000 years into the age of empire is coming to an end in one of two ways. Either it is going to end by collapse of human civilisation, that we basically wipe ourselves out and there will be an Easter Island kind of story. Or we change to a different paradigm that is not conquest. Now conquest and empire is now called ‘economic growth.’ It’s the same thing. We have an economic model that requires that the value of the currency for the economy must grow. And then if it doesn’t grow it becomes static and collapses just like when your heart – your heart has two dynamic modes – it’s either beating regularly or you’re dead, and there’s nothing in between. Once your heart stops beating regularly it or it becomes rheumatic. You have a heart attack. Either it starts beating again or you’re dead. For a growth economy it’s the same thing, it keeps growing at an exponential rate, or it collapses.

So the changes that have to happen have to happen at a very deep level, at the level of a paradigm. An interesting thing that can make us hopeful is that a paradigm level change happens very quicky. It’s like an earthquake. There’s a slow buildup and then an unpredictable release, and that change, that dynamic of slow build-up of pressure and release is how all physical systems change their state of matter. It’s just like when you start heating up water, the temperature continuously rises to a level where it very quickly goes from a liquid to a gas and vaporises the water. That time of change happens over a very small change of temperature, in a short period of time.

So what we’re seeing now with these global social movements, is an acceleration of change that goes back at least 3 decades. In a global sense, we can see the rise of the environmental movement, which started about a hundred years ago and catapulted in the 1960s with Rachel Carson, and what’s called the modern environmental movement. We’ve seen the beginning of the collapse of the empire with post colonialism, from the independence of India, the rise of nation states, and social democracies. Going back 70 or 80 years, fairly quick and big changes have been happening. Now it’s much faster still.

Let’s take ‘Occupy Wall Street’ – it has been incredibly successful, in a short period of time. It has been only with us for a few months and it has already changed the way that people talk about the economy and social issues all around the world. Now maybe Occupy Wall Street won’t lead to the changes that we need, but the scale of impact would have been very difficult to predict. Imagine you were sitting and watching the world in the beginning of August 2011, you probably wouldn’t have anticipated that something like Occupy Wall Street would have come into being and have such an effect in the last few months.

That is an indicator of how quickly change is coming and the fact that change is coming quickly tells us that we are in the middle of one of those phased transitions. Change is happening very quickly because the entire system is reorienting itself. I think there’ll be a much bigger, deeper change in the next few years.

EWTT: Do you think that social media has played a role in this?

Brewer: Absolutely, social media plays many roles. Even one step deeper than social media is the global digital communications system- the internet, satellite communication systems, mobile phones – the whole system, and in all of that, the software that lets people in creative ways – facebook or twitter or email or whatever else you’re thinking of in terms of technology.

What that digital communication system does is it democratises information. If you go back and look at what the printing press did to organised religion in the 1600s and 1700s, where prior to that the Catholic Church in Europe did everything in Latin. All the information was kept secret from people as they didn’t know Latin. They were only told what the leaders of the church wanted them to know. With the printing press it became possible for a lot of people to learn how to read, and share information. That automatically changed the way that organised religion worked.

A similar change is now happening with the digital communication system, social media and the internet. Information is now being democratised just as profoundly as the rise of the printing press. The fact that we can have instantaneous communication and that we can organise ourselves at effectively zero economic cost really helps – it takes very little time, money and energy to send a tweet, or post a link on facebook, and people can organise themselves around what they are concerned or passionate about. That ability changes the fundamentals of the economy, as now the economy is now driven by what is called pull marketing instead of push marketing. It means that people are able to seek out what they find desirable, rather than selecting amongst the choices that are presented to them. It’s much easier to find like-minded people and we’re seeing that in social movements, that people are able to organise themselves very quickly, in real time, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of people organising themselves over small periods of time, like a few hours. Social media is allowing that to happen, and the organised powers in the political and economic system are not that fast , they’re not able to keep up. The pace of change in that dynamic is faster than they can control, that is what is causing the breakdown of the systems under control – it is allowing change to happen.

EWTT: What are your suggestions to become more effective at a community level?

Joe Brewer: One of the frameworks that I was honoured to get to be a part of was “Identity Campaigning.” The basic idea of identity campaigning is that people’s collective behaviour in society is shaped by their social identities. Social identities are in two forms. One form is the way that individuals see themselves as good or bad, and the other is at a community level, where there are shared identities, and where there are role models.

It is important to consider social identities, because they include emotions. Think about the social identity of what it means to be a good parent. It’s going to change from one culture to another, one community to another. But the social identity is understood collectively by the people in the community. So as you’re thinking about how to be an effective advocate, be mindful of the social identities that you select, that you want to highlight, and want to draw attention to, both in terms of the social identities that are positive , that people will resonate with, that you think people will want to be like, and also the identities that are negative, the ones that they don’t want to be, that they would be against. In order to be effective, you need to orient people around a different set of social identities than they had before.

With the “rational actor” theory in economics we are taught that being selfish is good, because if you’re selfish you’re being productive, and as a trickle down effect, it brings wealth to other people. Now we’ve figured out, that doesn’t actually work, but unfortunately that idea is still very common. When people aspire to serve themselves, the social identities they are elevating is individualism, and suppressing identities that have to do with their communities.

One way that comes out is that they feel responsibility to themselves but they don’t feel responsibility to others. To get people to feel responsibility to others, we need to remind them that they have identities that they consider to be already a part of themselves, like being a good parent. A lot of people will recognise that as being a part of their identity, that has a social responsibility component, that is responsive to the needs of others around them.

I think in a deep way, it’s all about activating empathy and compassion in people. The more that they feel compassion and the responsibility to act in compassion towards others around them, the more they will work together to solve collective problems. As you’re thinking about social identity, one way to answer yourself is, out of the identities that I am elevating in conversations, which ones are increasing compassion and responsibility toward others and which ones are decreasing the same? Just asking that question will orientate your thinking quite a lot, and help you become more effective." (