The secret to saving the world: How ordinary people actually can prevent global disaster

"Sometimes the most powerful changes are well within the reach of ordinary citizens," says Paul Steinberg

Published March 21, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)

A man stands in front of a factory building that was destroyed by Typhoon Rammasun, in Leizhou, Guangdong province, China, July 19, 2014.      (Reuters)
A man stands in front of a factory building that was destroyed by Typhoon Rammasun, in Leizhou, Guangdong province, China, July 19, 2014. (Reuters)

Let's face it: you're not going to save the planet by recycling. Or by riding your bike, or by bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. "Scientists tell us that one out of every five mammal species is threatened with extinction," is how Paul Steinberg puts it, "and we react by switching coffee brands."

To which you might add, if even that.

The realization that individual action has little to no impact on major environmental problems -- to say nothing of the existential threat of climate change -- can prompt despair, Steinberg, a professor of political science and environmental policy at Harvey Mudd College, says. But it doesn't have to. We could try, instead, consulting social scientists, who have spent a lot of time thinking about just this problem: How can a single individual can act in a way that effects large-scale change?

The answer, Steinberg says, requires understanding and taking advantage of social rules: those institutions, laws and norms that organize and regulate society. In his book, "Who Rules the Earth? How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives," Steinberg distills insights from the social sciences and presents them to would-be activists. Because despite all the evidence to the contrary, he told Salon, "sometimes the most powerful changes are well within the reach of ordinary citizens."

It's just a matter of knowing where to start. Steinberg discussed his approach to political advocacy with Salon; our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity, follows.

To start out, could you describe what you call "social rules"?

Social rules include a lot of things that we know by different names, from city ordinances to public policies, constitutions, product design standards and cultural norms. We tend to describe these in different ways. Different groups of professionals are concerned with different types of rules but in fact, when you look at these things as a whole, it becomes apparent that there is this vast network of rules -- I call it the world's largest machine -- that underlies society and that drives countries and communities to either embrace sustainability or to run in precisely the opposite direction.

So some of them are encoded or written as laws?

Absolutely. It includes the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, which makes it illegal to harm an endangered species, but it also includes a design standard for a home that determines what kind of materials are used in construction and whether poisons that can harm wildlife when they get into the waterways are allowed or not. It includes a cultural norm that shapes whether somebody believes it's appropriate to kill a bird or not; it includes city codes that would specify things like whether trees need to be protected on city streets that are providing habitats for wildlife. In the aggregate, these rules, which social scientists call institutions, take many and diverse forms. We're just not used to considering them as a whole.

You really understand their importance when you look at them that way. I was laughing at one of the examples in your book: the sign saying that employees must wash their hands before going to work. Sen. Thom Tillis recently said that he doesn’t think that restaurants should be required to have them. But when you look at it this way and think about all those things you can start overturning, it sounds pretty dangerous...

What libertarian commentators miss is that Thom Thillis' ability to express that point of view freely and in an open forum is the result of a rule known as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. When his point of view is shared through telecommunication, that's only possible through the regulation of telecommunication networks, and when he publishes his views in the format of a book, that is only possible because of things like contract law, that ensure who will get paid and in what manner as well as the other contracts that are guiding the provision of paper to his publisher or electronic components to his computer; presumably he expressed his point of view in English because there are existing norms about the appropriate language of communication within the American political class. I would say Thom Thillis' very existence depends very deeply on rules. The question is not whether or not we have rules but what sorts of rules we have and whose interests they serve.

So if these rules underlie almost everything we do, where do you even start when you talk about trying to transform them?

The best place to start is with really concrete questions. I encourage people to diagnose deeply to understand the outcomes in their communities. If you have to wait for an hour for a bus to get to work -- as is the case in many cities here in Southern California -- all that a person really has to do is arm themselves with the toddler's habit of asking "why?" and doing so relentlessly until they get to the bottom of it. Why do you have to wait so long for public transit in Southern California? Because decisions are made at city and regional levels about the funding levels for appropriate forms of transportation. Why is there no light rail in Southern California? Because it was torn up by General Motors and its front companies a half century ago.

When we ask questions like "Why are our sea levels going to rise as a result of CO2?", it's not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that it has to do with fossil fuel dependency. If we then continue to ask why, we see that fossil fuel companies benefit from rules that subsidize their activities. I encourage people to start at very concrete levels; in fact, I'm increasingly interested in bicycle advocacy. Biking is a fantastic way to quickly encounter the relevance of rules and of political change because people literally put their lives on the line in order to get from Point A to Point B. When they start asking why -- especially if they join forces with other people who share their interests -- it starts to resemble what we might call democratic accountability. I think that's the first step in bringing about real change.

Would you say it's a matter of finding rules that are easier to overturn before we can get at the ones that are more entrenched in either our legal system or our culture?

That's a great question. Obviously different people are going to have access to different sorts of rules. For the citizen who is concerned about sustainability and unsure whether they can effect change, I would say to start by attending city council meetings and exchanging ideas with other citizens who share those kinds of concerns. There are hierarchies of rules embedded within other rules, so the types of chemicals that are in makeup that someone wears, for example, are shaped by rules that currently do not require companies to reveal whether they are placing toxic materials in the makeup. Those rules stem from other sets of laws that delegate regulatory responsibility to the Food and Drug Administration; those rules in turn are ultimately embedded within larger sets of rules like the U.S. Constitution.

Where should you start to bring about change? I would say that sometimes the most powerful changes are well within the reach of ordinary citizens. There's this category of rules that I call super-rules, and these are the procedural rules that determine how other rules are made -- rules like who gets to sit at the decision-making table and whether the public is allowed to learn about what their government is doing. Sometimes super-rules — which are incredibly powerful rules because they reverberate through the entire system— are even easier to change than a specific substantive rule governing water quality or air quality. The reason why these super-rules can be easier to change is that sometimes those in power are more willing to make a concession to increase public participation, for example, rather than change a specific environmental law. That can result in a powerful, long-lasting change in the way that rules are made where, eventually, very deep shifts in environmental behavior result. It's not necessarily the case that the deepest, most profound rules are the hardest to change.

You argue that educating people about the environment, just raising awareness, isn't necessarily enough to enact change. What can scientists, the media or anyone else perhaps do differently to inspire action?

I think people need to be encouraged to get involved in political advocacy. I think there's a lot of fear among university researchers to broach the topic of politics, understandably, because researchers would like to maintain a reputation of somewhat objective distance from the clash and clang of politics.

In reality, we are already deeply enmeshed in political systems and in collections of rules that move society one way or the other, so I think that researchers should be less shy about speaking out with regard to the political dimensions of their work.

It's argued a lot that scientists aren't always the best communicators of their work.

Scientists are trained to be communicators. Academics are charged with developing ideas and with sharing them, whether to journals or conferences or in the classroom. But in many ways, university professors are poorly positioned to communicate ideas in the new social media environment because we operate as lone wolves. We have no staff -- university staff is typically dedicated to students and to cross-campus initiatives, not to sharing professors' ideas -- and we're not even capable of launching a decent-looking website because we don't have organizations.

In many respects, the very people who are dedicating every minute of their working lives to trying to diagnose the causes of our environmental problems and figuring out how society ticks, these same people are at a massive disadvantage in actually sharing those ideas more broadly with the public.

Do you think the people you call "polluters" have more of a grasp on how these rules work than the people who might be interested in changing them? Or do they just have more resources?

There is no major sector of industry that does not have a significant lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., so companies that are responsible for our worst pollution are acutely aware of the importance of rule-making and have a much greater presence in decision-making circles than do environmental groups or other citizens' groups. Robert Reich, in his book "Supercapitalism," has a very nice chapter providing empirical data on the growth of the corporate lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., in recent years, so there are data to back up the assertion that corporate America has a far greater presence in rule-making circles than do ordinary citizens.

Is that something you think about a lot when you're teaching people how to enact change on their own?

Yes. One of the challenges is that the environmental movement in the United States has only a tenuous connection to the grassroots. On the one hand, we have countless local citizens' groups -- some of which are engaged in political advocacy, and others which focus on familiar activities like community gardening -- and on the other hand, we have a small number of well-endowed environmental nonprofits that have some sort of lobbying presence in national and state capitals.

There is no concerted effort to, for example, provide training to grassroots constituencies in techniques of political advocacy. I have searched far and wide for any organization that would be willing to provide training to a citizens' group. If they read this book and view the film and get engaged and conclude that they're ready for policy advocacy, there is no organization I've been able to find that would provide that training unless it's tied to a particular agenda of the organization providing the training. So I don't think we have in place a mature mechanism for mobilizing the grassroots in the United States. It's either click here and pay your $2 or you're pretty much on your own.

A lot of citizens' groups on their own have done amazing work, and when you look at how people work for change at local levels you'll find that oftentimes it's more constructive, it's more multi-partisan than the sort of parade that we see every four years in Washington. There is a lot of change happening at local levels but I'm surprised at the weakness of a coordinated grassroots presence on the part of the U.S. environmental movement.

Well, on that note, can you tell me more about the Social Rules Project and what you're trying to do with it?

If you consider the thousands of social scientists who, over the past century, have been trying to figure out how society works, there is no idea that has received more attention than the topic of social rules or institutions. And yet the public has never heard of the idea! I decided I wanted to try and give that idea some light, and with help from some amazing, creative animators, computer scientists, policy analysts and other students from six universities across Southern California, we developed the Social Rules Project as a way to try and make this concept of institutional analysis more accessible and hopefully more engaging for a broad audience.

[You can check it out here.]

By Lindsay Abrams

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