Thursday, June 10, 2010

As the cultural anthropologist in a consulting team that works for non-profit clients, I find myself rambling across a mind-boggling array of different issue areas.  It's true that in one sense our work is very consistent:  nearly always looking into the cultural and cognitive models that people use to understand policy issues -- and using those insights to help advocates communicate better with their audiences.

But the particular issue areas that we're working within on any given week can run from racial health disparities in Kentucky, to progressive taxation in Alabama, sustainability of food systems in the US, France and Belgium, climate change, building support for arts programs in Ohio, youth programs in New York City, unionization among retail workers or meat-packers, changing national security discourse in DC, or building momentum for democracy and good governance around the country.

I'm grateful to put food on the table with what amounts to do-goodery.  For most of these projects, it's pretty low stress.  I enjoy solving the puzzles that we design and solve with our research.  I enjoy translating our insights into words that can reach and teach people new and more constructive ways of understanding things.

But when the work deals with the environment -- and particular with sustainability -- I begin to take the topic deadly serious and find the work more stressful and the challenges more distressing.  (I wrote recently about my anxieties about not preparing for what I see as a coming breakdown -- and partly that's a reaction to once again working with the Union of Concerned Scientists to educate policy makers about some of the ways we are destroying those underlying foundations that our survival depends on.)

I know from personal experience how little I like truly acknowledging the repercussions of our current rampage of unsustainable consumption and extraction.  It's hard to imagine how we convince the larger public to wrap their minds around it.  Upton Sinclair observed that:

“If is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”

How much more difficult is it to get an entire society to understand something when their entire way of life depends on them not understanding it?