Which comes first – sustainable policies or sustainable behavior? Neither – sustainable thinking must come first!

Last week one of my Sustainable Agriculture students declared “you’ve got to change government policies before you can expect people to change their behavior.”  Of course we know that policies such as tax incentives and regulations are effective in influencing human behavior.  But changing policies (particularly in the current divisive political climate) is a daunting task.  This blog post presents a framework for thinking about social change.  We’ll begin with an iceberg!

icebergpict1-250x239The “iceberg” model is used by systems thinkers to understand the root cause of human behaviors.  In this model, an “event” such as stopping your car at a red light, is influenced by the “pattern of behavior” of everyone stopping at the red light, which is caused by “systemic structures” such as the traffic light and state and federal motor vehicle regulations.  But the root cause of the entire systems is the “mental model” or the thought that safety matters and society has a right to regulate individual behavior.  Get it?

Lets apply the iceberg model to try to understand why so many of us participate in non-sustainable behaviors.  Another example…  An event might be something like putting a dollar in a vending machine and purchasing a bottle of water.  This simple action is part of a larger pattern of behavior in the industrialized world we might think of as “convenient lifestyle.”  It is so common that most of us don’t even think about it.  When we are thirsty, it is “common sense” to buy water delivered in a plastic bottle – so we do.

bottlesOf course environmental activists shudder when they think about this everyday act.  We buy millions of plastic water bottles daily, drink the water (it takes just a few minutes) and then……. we throw the bottle “away” (most plastic water bottles are NOT recycled in the U.S.).  We know that a plastic water bottle will not decompose in a landfill.  So for a few minutes use…… we toss out a product that will last a thousand years!   Yikes, not very sustainable, huh?


How can this be?   Well, lets look around and notice the systemic structures we have created to support this behavior.  I don’t know about you, but when I look around, I see Dasani vending machines EVERYWHERE. We buy plastic water bottles because we have created structures to make this kind of behavior easy.

To change behavior, we MUST change systemic structures, such as:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.


The dominant structures in the industrial world encourage non-sustainable behavior. For example:

  • a national highway system that makes individual driving more convenient than mass transportation,
  • fast food restaurants on every corner,
  • subsidized fossil fuel,
  • tax incentives for factory farms,
  • weak regulations on off-shore drilling, and
  • plastic water bottle vending machines EVERYWHERE,

…..are all systemic structures that encourage non-sustainable behavior.  And why have we created physical things, and organizational and policy structures that support and encourage non-sustainable behavior?

Right – mental models!   Mental models support systemic structures that in turn influence social behavior (patterns) and individual behavior (events).

Mental models are powerful!

The iceberg helps us to understand why it is so difficult to change human behavior.  Unless we look well “below the waterline” of the iceberg, we will never understand the root cause of non-sustainable behaviors.

icebergpict1-250x239Non-sustainable actions and patterns dominate mainstream society.  We burn fossil fuels carelessly, we allow toxins to enter our air, water and bloodstream, we purchase products that are cheap (because someone in a developing country isn’t paid a living wage).  People frustrated by this behavior, try to change regulations (structures) and encourage more sustainable behaviors (patterns).  But change comes slowly  – primarily because of mental models.

As a faculty member at a major agricultural university in the late 1980’s, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to change patterns of behavior within the conventional farming community by flying around the U.S. giving speeches about sustainable agriculture.  As a university administrator, I spent much of the 1990’s trying to change the structure of university research and extension education programs to be supportive of a more sustainable agriculture.  Neither strategy proved effective, primarily because of rigid mental models.

Maybe we need to try another approach.  While activists are working to change policies and educators are trying to help change personal behavior, we also need to change the way we think.   Unless mental models (common sense) shifts, changes in behavior and patterns won’t last.

When mental models begin to shift, structures, patterns of behavior, and events will follow.

This is basic systems theory (which I will explore more in a future blog).  For now, lets just say this concept is represented by the reinforcing feedback loop pictured on the left.

Not convinced?   Lets look at how a powerful mental model prevents us from protecting human health.  Remember the salmonella outbreak and egg recall that struck the U.S. egg industry last summer?  The industrial system for producing eggs not only treats live hens as if they were part of a giant machine, but can’t adequately protect human health.  Of course, industrial egg production is part of a larger pattern of behavior many of us think of as factory farming.  These farms make sense in the context of the industrialized worldview that is our dominant mental model of agriculture today.  Many of us believe this must change.

However, as long as most humans continue to pursue busy, stressed and competitive lives focused money, power and prestige, we will not likely take the steps necessary to change the way we grow food.  The mental model of “industrialized living” not only results in human stress but also recalled eggs.   Lets have a look at an example….

Can you identify characteristics of the mental models that result in BOTH industrial eggs and industrial human lives?  What attributes drive both of these systems?  Well, perhaps……

  1. a desire to increase productivity (at all costs)
  2. systems which focus on efficiency (at all costs)
  3. the belief that success is defined by how much money you make
  4. the belief that humans are not subject to natures rules
  5. what else?
  6. please share your ideas in the comment box below.

Systems thinkers know that while mental models are difficult to change, this is where we will find the leverage needed to create a sustainable human society.

The next logical question ishow?

I will attempt to deal with this question in a future blog.

For now, please share your own thoughts in the comment box below.  Thank you…..


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

11 thoughts on “Which comes first – sustainable policies or sustainable behavior? Neither – sustainable thinking must come first!”

  1. Bravo! Great article. To your list of beliefs, I would add: the belief that control and domination are economically efficient.

    As a huge believer in the necessity for mindset shift, I have recently reconsidered my stance. My eyes were opened when I read Dan and Chip Heath's brilliant book, "Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard." They go through many scientific studies and business examples of behavior change. Turns out we aren't just being stubborn and bull-headed; we are hard-wired to resist change. In a recent post, I extracted 7 nuggets from this book that are applicable to the shift to sustainability. One that rocked my world is that it IS possible to script behavior BEFORE mindset shift. In fact, giving people a new way to do things can actually help that transition. http://www.GoForChange.com/2010/09/30/7-simple-se

  2. I love the article, and it's perfect timing with everything! Thank you!! To add to your list, we often mix up necessity and desire, a lot of these industrial lifestyles have grown onto people as necessary in order to survive, most often making it extremely difficult to avoid.

  3. Thanks for this post. I had a thought; what if the concept of mental models was combined with emotional models? I don't actually believe that mental/emotional models are separate (although these can be awfully tricky to define). As an example, if the mental model of using plastic bottles is "convenient lifestyle," then the emotional model could be "I'm entitled to convenience; I deserve it because I work hard and I shouldn't have to go out of my way; whatever I can use money to pay for, I deserve to have." So it takes this concept of "I believe my life should be convenient" and takes it to "I damn well deserve it." Maybe this is already supposed to be subsumed under mental models anyway? Underlying the culture of destruction/exploitation is, I think, a fundamental, warped sense of entitlement, with a corresponding fear that if one is not a Somebody higher in the pecking order, then one is Nobody.

    Adding to the list of industrial beliefs:
    Humans and other living creatures are, essentially, objects to be used and possessing no inherent worth or spiritual meaning, unless the human in question is higher up in a hierarchy of supposed importance.

  4. I came over here from your Grist post. You have some very intriguing observations, I'd be interested in your "how" as well.

    Since it's aggregated behavior that results in non-sustainability. It becomes difficult to put faith in solutions that require shifted aggregated behavior as a truly better eventuality, let alone being sustainable. Our collective behavior consistently leads us racing to put out one fire while sparking the next. And intent rarely leads to a desired outcome when reliant upon the "behavior" of others. How to change this pattern becomes our challenge as we helplessly watch our planets' natural and social systems erode.

    Social engineers and marketeers alike tend to promote the pyramid archetype. So too does the creationist and darwinian thought merge in this same model. I'm not sure if it's escapable, but pyramids like icebergs do eventually climax.

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