Bennett: Hope leads to action

Elena Bennett (second to left) visited NRT students at their biweekly meeting, talking about their work and the importance of persistence and effective communication to have impact.
Elena Bennett (second to left) visited NRT students at their biweekly meeting, talking about their work and the importance of persistence and effective communication to have impact.

After delivering the first Heuermann Lecture of 2020, Elena Bennett, sustainability professor at McGill University in Canada, met with National Research Traineeship Program professors, students and the program coordinator from Jan. 15 to 16 to discuss her vision for a better future for our planet and strategies to get there.

While her Heuermann Lecture focused on possible ways people can manage ecosystems and agriculture to sustain both for another 10,000 years, Bennett spoke to the NRT also about her work with the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene organization and encouraged NRT graduate students to communicate science in a way that offers people hope and to develop persistence.

In her work on the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene project, Bennett and other researchers are collecting stories about people trying to improve the world around them at small scales.

“We call them ‘seeds’ because they’re not dominant in the world,” Bennett said. “They are things that people are doing or trying to do but that have potential to be transformational, and we’re trying to learn what makes some of them more transformational than others.”

The group has collected more than 500 of these stories, such as one about a group called “Health and Harmony” that is offering communities free or low-cost health care in exchange for commitments to stop deforestation.

“They have seen an 88 percent reduction in the number of illegal logging households,” Bennett said. “The loss of primary forest has stabilized, and habitat for 2,500 endangered Bornean Orangutans has been protected. Improved health care access for these communities has played a crucial role in achieving a stunning 90 percent decrease in the mortality rate for children under the age of five.”

Although the actions generally occur on a small scale, Bennett said she considers the project important now, when people constantly hear bad news.

“Why I’m doing that is I’m looking around and feeling that we’re just bombarded with stuff that is not going well,” she said. “Dystopian images of the future. It’s all really bad. There’s a climate emergency. And it’s not like those things aren’t true, and it’s not like I want to downplay those, but that’s all we hear.”

She told NRT students and the coordinator that especially regarding climate change, she sees people trying to ratchet up the pressure on others by telling them how terrible the world is going to be if they don’t take action immediately.

“There is this feeling that that’s maybe the way to get action, but the social psychology literature generally tells us that that’s a terrible way to convince anybody of anything, that what that does is sort of puts people back in their holes where they feel comfortable and people don’t like to act from that position,” she said.

Communications designed to scare people into taking action can be effective when you want people to stop doing something but not so much when you want people to take a new action, she said.

“If you want them to stop smoking, putting horrible pictures of burnt-out lungs on the cigarette package is good,” she said. “It’s scary and it makes people stop doing something. But if you want people to do something, like take a positive action, it doesn’t work very well to scare them. That tends to lead to freezing and inaction. So, climate is one of those places I feel like we are sort of in desperate need of shifting that conversation to something that looks more hopeful.”

She noted that the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene project was more in line with the type of communications she was thinking about.

“What people need is hopeful vision and something to shoot for,” she said. “It feels like collecting these stories and making them public gives people something to shoot for, to say, ‘I’m a doctor, too, and I could do a project like this,’ or ‘That guy was nobody and look what he did to transform his town. I could do that too.’ That just feels really important right now.”

Talking points she suggested for students to make their communications more positive and effective when addressing the public include, “Here are some things that individual people can do. Here are some things that we can try to push corporations to do. Here are some ways that we can devise policy. These are governance mechanisms that we think would have a real impact, and here’s the kind of impact we think will happen.”

She said another communications skill she sees as really important right now is empathetic listening.

“We tend to get in conversations, and we’re listening but we’re thinking about how we’re going to respond,” she said. “So, as I am listening to the person talking to me, I’m already thinking about, ‘How am I going to disagree with this? How am I going to stake out my territory?’ And it feels to me when talking about polarization and negativity, that a little bit more empathy might go a long way.”

Bennett also encouraged students to persist in the face of setbacks and said that when she considers graduate students for her lab, persistence is one of the qualities she seeks most.

“I often tell my students that getting a master’s or a Ph.D. isn’t about intelligence or having a great skill set,” she said. “It’s really about persistence.”

She said she wished she had known that back when she was a graduate student.

“I think it would have given me more willingness to stand confidently in my own place or made me realize how important that ability is to be knocked down and stand back up, to get a crappy review of your paper or your proposal or your annual review or whatever and just be like, ‘OK. There is some useful information there. I’m going to take on what’s useful, and the rest of it I’m just going to ignore, and I’m going to stand back up and keep going,’” she said.

She talked about how graduate students can struggle with a crisis of confidence every time they receive a bad review but said they should expect to be told repeatedly that they are not that good and to learn to persist in the face of that—and shorten their recovery time.

“It just can take weeks to like get back up to the table, which I think is fine, but shortening that down from that level of crisis to ‘I’ve done this before. I’ve got this. I need a day or two to wallow in this,’” Bennett said.

Students who can discern the useful parts of negative reviews and persist generally fare better, she said.

“Some of that is, how quickly can you turn around and stand your ground, and some of it is how willing are you to take the parts of that feedback that are useful,” she said. “The other part is if it causes a major crisis, it’s much harder to take anything useful out of that versus if it doesn’t cause a major crisis, it’s much easier to actually absorb the useful parts of that feedback. So, it’s a signal to me that someone who can take feedback without taking it personally is going to have an easier time.”

Learn more about the Nebraska NRT, funded by the National Science Foundation, here.

— Ronica Stromberg, NRT Program Coordinator

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