Melissa Everett's Professional Site

A sustainability maven explains what she actually does for a living…

Archive for August 2011

Conditions for Intervening in a System

leave a comment »

A widely shared,  mind-opening commentary is “Places to Intervene in a System,” by the late Dana Meadows.   Framed as the learning process of a systems scientist and passionate communicator, this piece explores the many approaches to changing systems – whether they are economic, political, social, familial, whatever. Her “aha” moment is described beautifully and honestly in the full paper.  As I understand it, the progression is from “dumb” interventions that achieve change only when they are continuously enforced and heeded, to “smart” ones that engage members of the system as partners and agents of change.

With apology for a little bit of systems analysis lingo, here is the list of “places,” as Dana developed it:

Places to Intervene in a System (in increasing order of effectiveness)

12. Constants, parameters and numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards);

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows;

10.  The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks,  population age structures)

9.  The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change

8.   The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against;

7.  The gain around driving positive feedback loops;

6.  The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)

5.  The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments and constraints)

4.  The power to add, change, evolve or self-organize system structure;

3. The goals of the system;

2.  The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises;

1.  The power to transcend paradigms.

In my own quest for effective leadership, and for the language to guide students and volunteers, I have delved into many psychosocial disciplines including the psychologies of group loyalty and dissent, social movement participation, social diffusion of innovations and community-based social marketing…. and the psychologies of altruism and prosocial behavior, peak performance, and organizational learning (that magic by which learning happens, not only for individuals in their knowledge-intensive silos, but for organizations that are able to turn shared understanding into nimble adaptation).  I cobbled together a Ph.D. thesis on the phenomenon of “social capital” – best understood as the glue of trust and shared norms, that holds societies and economies together without overly constraining individuals.

From this exploration, I want to propose some aspects of social and organizational systems that make any intervention as effective as it can be:
1.  Receptivity of the audience
a. salience of the issue (is it hot?)
b. perceived relevance of the issue (Is it hot for me and those I care about?)

c. audience’s literacy on the issue (understanding enough about exponential growth, for example, to be worried if a glacier is melting or a new pattern of storms is emerging)

d. absorptive capacity of the audience (ability of individuals to assimilate new ideas – aka “bandwidth”)
e. community channels of communication (ability of community as a whole to assimilate new ideas by bringing them into a common forum or forums)

2.  Fit of the messenger and the message
a. Familiarity of the messenger
b. Perceived credibility of the messenger – both authority and integrity

c.  Cultural fit of the messenger

I am certain there are other dimensions of this, and details to be added to this discussion.  With apologies to any perfectionists who may read this, I am going to take advantage of blog format to share it in this embryonic form and ask the world for comments!


Written by melissaeverett

August 22, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Commentary

Moving Planet/ Moving People Part 2

leave a comment »

Framing the Message

Once the messengers are ready and focused, (as discussed in the previous post)  what’s the message?   I propose two elements:

1. This place — our home, wherever we are — must be a model for clean energy economic development — not as a package of dry policies designed to go under the radar of most people’s caring, but as a set of opportunities to be vibrantly debated by citizens, discussed in schools and workplaces, and reflected in entrepreneurship in our communities.

2. The people of this place can and must guide the change, as citizens and entrepreneurs.  It’s not a change that can be driven by a cabal of investors and CEOs and policy people. They can guide, strategize, invest, problem-solve, and generally plant seeds. But the critical path forward happens when communities bring the change process home, when people not only wish for clean energy but buy it, with their household dollars, at work and through their local governments.

This brings us to one more aspect of pattern recognition, and that is the significance of  scale.  In a cheerful little book called God’s Last Offer, Ed Ayres tells a story about how people come to acknowledge wildly unknown, unimaginable things.  When the Europeans were colonizing the South Pacific, a huge ship approached a tiny island.  According to the captain’s journal, there were residents calmly fishing on shore and in canoes. They seemed to look at the ship but didn’t acknowledge it – didn’t wave, didn’t interrupt their work.  Then some of the Europeans got into smaller boats and started coming closer to the natives. As soon as the smaller boats appeared, the natives  started brandishing their fishing poles and fleeing.  The big ship didn’t compute the way the small boats did.

In dealing with energy and climate change, while important work is done and needed at the global, national, and multi-state level, there is a certain nimbleness and innovation that is occurring distinctively at the local level, because people can see options and take direct action. Cities, towns and villages are big enough to make a difference and small enough to engage with.  So in the days after September 24, what we do directly to influence change in the transportation, buildings, infrastructure and enterprises of our cities, towns and villages matters just as much as what we may direct our higher levels of government to do on our behalf.

There is much going on already, from local energy challenge campaigns to state climate action plans.  These are points of light, models to help us get  started.

The spark

To grow participation, I have hatched an idea that could be integrated into any state or regional or local 350 action…  a call to action and a pledge to respond: the  Business Leaders Energy Action Pledge.  It is an invitation to every company, large and small, to commit to sharp reductions in fossil fuel use for heating and cooling, electricity, transportation and their own processes. And there’s a second commitment:  to source the necessary products and services from local  companies whenever possible.  And a third dimension:  to involve your entire work force in generating ideas and opportunities.

Business is where we see changes in the uses of products and services.   Of course, we can interpret business loosely so that the universities and colleges, hospitals and arts organizations, can take part.  If this idea takes hold, we have a framework for reaching into the workplaces of most citizens, opening up a much broader conversation about energy action.

That conversation can’t just focus on signing a petition, voting for a candidate, or any other yes/ no choice.  It has to open up ongoing dialogue and involvement, so that the public is invested in making Connecticut number one in energy efficiency and excited about creating leaner, smarter lifestyles to be part of that picture.  It isn’t enough to capture people’s attention for a day.

Where attention links to impact is the psychology of peak performance.   Whether you’re looking at athletes or educators or entrepreneurs, those who sustain success find ways to engage people’s attention that are ongoing.  Peak performance comes when you are stretched just about to your max, but not so much that you are unable to regroup and regenerate.  Rather than dumbing down the public conversation, we have to amp it up with peak performance psychology.

One more Bill McKibben story.  Of all his books, my favorite is actually not about climate change, but about living with flair in the face of sadness.  Long Distance is Bill’s story of the year he took up cross-country ski racing, in his 40s, while his father, Gordon McKibben, was fading and finally dying.  Like many movement leaders, Bill doesn’t have the luxury of a smooth or easy life – he has the sensibility of using the challenges we face, as a catalyst for peak living and a reminder why we need to keep this planet livable for those we love.

If we can get this part right, September 24 won’t be an endpoint but a springboard for new energy in our economy and communities.

Written by melissaeverett

August 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Moving Planet / Moving People, Part 1

leave a comment »

One of the delights of working to deal with climate change is the annual outpouring of people-power orchestrated every fall by  As many of us know, 350 parts per million is the highest safe concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, a level we already exceed. is science in your face via people-power to call for swift transition out of the fossil fuel economy.

To achieve that goal, tens of thousands of little decisions will need to be made by homeowners and small businesses and local governments, building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, upgrading energy efficiency and reducing energy waste.  With state energy plans crafted by several northeastern states, government has done a good job of creating incentives and opportunities. Now the people need to buy in.

But the people are actually kind of checked out.  Nationally and in many communities, we have been struggling with two problems – economy and environment. A few years ago, a dynamic figure named Van Jones came on the scene making the case that they were one – tied together by the need to transform our energy system, and the labor, craft and talent that would be needed to achieve that.

Progress has been made, even in an austere economy.  Solar is bigger than steel – but, oh yeah, steel is practically dead.  The standard by which we are evaluating our progress hardly matches the need for rapid change.  Consider Europe, where they have a visionary plan to squeeze 80% of the carbon out of their energy economy by 2050, adopted by the EU with national plans that have national government buy-in.  For Iceland it’s geothermal and for Germany it’s solar and for Copenhagen it’s carbon-neutrality by 2020 using a variety of means.  And in the U.S. it’s a broken national political system – which I would argue is the third dimension of “the” problem that can’t be solved in isolation.  The toxic nature of the political “debate” right now – with climate “hawks” and deniers doing heavy battle – leaves a majority of citizens bewildered and disengaged.

Getting the psychology right

So how do we begin to bring these enormous issues, and their potential constituencies, together? How do we help make the connections?  To address this, I need to back up and talk a little about psychology – specifically the psychology of pattern recognition.  People are not whiz-bang at this.

I learned that lesson in a building fire.  Early in my career I was receptionist for an agency with offices on the fifth floor of a Boston brownstone, a building that burned down one day.  I was making copies at the top of the stairwell, smelled the oil burner in the basement which had caught fire, saw smoke and remembered what they taught us in first grade fire drill – remain calm and get out.  I grabbed my belongings and said to the room of cubibles, “Hey, there’s a fire in the building, let’s get out.”  I moved down the stairs, calmly knocking on the door of every office, moving to the door with a growing parade of people behind me and flames coming through the floor.  On the sidewalk outside, we assembled, and realized that half our colleagues were missing, including our 62 year old executive director with arthritis.  With hearts in our throats, a few minutes later, we saw them all coming out the fire escape.  And we learned the delay was because a group of social science PhDs had stood on the fifth floor of a burning building, dialing 911 and being put on hold.

In the time since then, I have been exploring psychology and communication to understand the factors of human nature that contribute to our understanding of risk factors in our midst, and our capacity to translate that understanding into action.   I have realized that my calm warning backfired because – although it was factually clear – it lacked the emotion that was appropriate to the situation, so it didn’t convey the meaning I intended.  And as we move through our days in a stagnating economy, an unraveling global climate system, and a last-century energy system,  I am concerned that the conversations we’re having about it are a little like my sedate fire warning.  The content may be strong, but the style is conventional and the meaning of the message gets lost.

Moving Planet Day, coming up September 24,  is a potential turning point – or symbol of a greater turning in our communities.  It’s a day of massive positive public commitment to move beyond fossil fuels with the same kind of nimbleness that we needed to get out of that building back in Boston.  Thousands of people will walk, bike, take public transit, and oh yes carpool into a central gathering in New Haven, Connecticut and on the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie New York, two of my stomping grounds.  Similar actions will take place in Chicago and Sacramento, Buffalo and Boise.   If we who are getting involved in leadership do our jobs well, those people will go home with a sense of what to do next, who to call, how to plug in.

It’s a time for organizing – and for soul-searching about the ways to engage people. Yes, organizing and soul searching can go together well.

Knowing Our Constituents

There’s a lot of information out there about what people are thinking and feeling.  In spite of unprecedented attacks on scientific evidence, around 60% of the population holds steady in being concerned or alarmed about climate change.  A market segmentation study called The Six Americas finds that people differ, not just on their beliefs about the issue, but the degree to which they care and feel connected to the political system.  Some people are skeptical, others uncertain, about climate change itself – about 18% of the population – and there are also disengaged citizens who might care deeply but don’t have a way to plug into the civic conversation.  So it’s important to reach to people sensitively and understand all those sensibilities.

I remember when I first got involved in taking stands as a citizen, signing petitions, participating in rallies and marches, publishing opinions, testifying before legislative bodies. It was intimidating – as well as heady.  “Oh no, I’m a dissident,” I remember thinking.  “What will that do to my career?”

For perspective on that topic, I am going to go back to the fire and one of my companions in the escape, Peggy McKibben.  Peggy’s son Bill is one of the architects of and these annual events, author of 8 or 9 brilliant books, a visiting scholar at Middlebury College, a frequent guest on major network television.  At the time of the fire, I was just out of college; Bill was just finishing high school. Peggy, who sat at the desk next to mine, was gently obsessing that her son’s activism might harm his career.  It is amazing, and important, how often we see risks in change, but we don’t see opportunity.

I’m not suggesting that anyone ignore the potential risks in taking a particular stand — but we cannot forget the benefits.  This too has to do with pattern recognition.   F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the hallmark of a truly superior intelligence is the ability to hold two opposite ideas in mind at the same time, and retain the ability to function.  We are in a very dire situation, economically and environmentally. We have let the trance of the PhDs in the burning building slow down and mute our response to the climate and energy challenge.  And yet we are emerging into a fabulous opportunity, to reinvent a dynamic state economy with cooler jobs for us and our friends.  Can you hold those both in mind, and not just function but use that dynamic tension to amp up your creativity?  I hope so, because that’s what we need.

See Part 2 for further analysis and a proposal.

Written by melissaeverett

August 22, 2011 at 1:28 am