Mindset Barriers

Mindset Barriers to a Greening Economy

Beyond this or that policy or activity, deep but (sometimes) quiet attitudes can exist that make seeing and achieving the possibilities of a green economy much harder. Here are 14 of them:

  • The focus by some on the issue, as they see it, of “over-regulation,” “onerous regulators/enforcers,” lost equity due to regulation creates such anger that it makes it hard to even engage a discussion of a green economy
  • The apparent and certainly welcome-sounding agreement on just about all sides of debates that “we can have both economic vitality and environmental protection,” with perhaps one or two examples given, can hide that we’re not necessarily all talking about the same thing. If we’re inadvertently talking past each other, we’re not going to do our best in actually achieving “both.” Further, we may not know how to do that, or what the best of “both” even looks like
  • There is little knowledge (among all sectors) that there is such a thing as a sustainable business field; it has journals, conferences, graduate programs; that there has been an expansion of the range of sustainable business actions, including those which are unexpected, innovative, and bold (see above); and that the field has the potential to help address stubborn environmental and social problems. One consequence is the public and environmental groups don’t ask or pressure their political representatives or policy makers about it. Therefore, the latter may think no one cares about the subject
  • While not necessarily true on any given issue, particularly when there is an emergency, and environmental groups certainly address certain issues, there is surprising, perhaps, lack of shared knowledge in the state about the urgency of the overall global environmental crisis. For instance, Lester Brown’s work on global environmental trends rarely comes up. The biodiversity crisis rarely comes up. On the other hand, this has fairly recently changed for climate change, but for decades interest was very modest
  • There is also, perhaps, surprising lack of shared knowledge that protecting ecosystems is requisite for economic development (although it has been argued that the reverse is true, as well)
  • There has been the expression that New Jersey is already a leader when it comes to businesses practicing sustainability, although there is limited evidence for it
  • There is a strong belief that small businesses cannot be expected to do very much that is sustainable; they are pre-occupied with survival, have to tend to conventional operational matters, or don’t have the capital to invest in environmental actions—all of which are not necessarily fully accurate, at least not all the time. As an example, the good news of welcoming small business to sustainability is countered with implied limited expectations as in this article from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA): “…the most successful sustainability strategies often start with simple, low cost initiatives that even the smallest business can accomplish” (Smarth, n.d.). While certainly not wrong, as is typical it leaves it there. To see more imaginative views of the possibilities for small businesses, view this video: “A Passion for Sustainability” (Stacey, 2008)
  • As discussed in the earlier summarized, “A Look at Sustainable Development in New Jersey” (Polsky, 2014) [there is] a widely shared and bi-partisan attitude: “there is nothing new under the sun.” Certain things everyone is familiar with could never change: businesses and environmentalists will always fight, and the same for Democrats and Republicans; degrees of regulatory aggressiveness just goes through cycles of “toughness” and “flexibility,” and that’s just natural; there aren’t any new ideas, and journalists won’t look to cover them; there’s not much to be learned from looking outside of New Jersey, or especially Europe; the public might say they support environmental protection, but don’t want to be inconvenienced in any ways, or pay more taxes or fees to get there
  • Lack of apparent familiarity with systems thinking, at either modest or deep levels, and how it can relate to topics under discussion
  • Strong preference in policy circles for values like practicality, political feasibility, legality, what is seen as “the real world;” over vision, creativity, what is seen as “academic,” explicit mention of “values” (not the numbers kind of value), or asking “What is really possible…if?” or “What is really needed here?” Other sectors (business, environmental groups, academic, local government) have their own preferences. This makes it difficult to be open to the possibilities for productive hybrids made up of combinations of those favored and those not, such as “practical idealism” (Polsky and Lipoti, 2016), which could help in the pursuit of creative ideas
  • A sense that big, transformational changes are not feasible, or not necessarily even desirable; that incremental, even baby-step changes are all that is necessary, or doable
  • Not quite a mindset but an expectation—or a lack of one, senior managers in government do not seem to think they owe staffers an explanation of the status of reports completed and sent to them, or why their recommendations are not being considered or have been rejected. Further, staffers seem to not even expect a response. This is not an atmosphere conducive for innovation. In addition, such reports may or may not be posted on the agency’s website, or done so without special notice. So there also little expectation the public might benefit from knowing about and, if they choose, seeing the new ideas, even if these are not under consideration. Perhaps an occasional “What’s Coming Across Our Desks” blog entry on agencies’ websites would be a partial solution, and even better if it encourages informal public comment. However, as the public might assume the completion of such reports means the agency must be serious about incorporating their recommendations, it would have to be made clear when that is not the case. Perhaps the public, if it knows about, reads and gets excited about the contents could persuade government to change its mind on its importance
  • Relatedly, while “stakeholder input” is widely practiced by these sustainable business initiatives at forums, it can tend to be process-heavy, with policy choices already made, and unquestioned implicit borders to input and discussion. At times, those administering these initiatives are only modestly engaged, with little chance by stakeholders to move new ideas, particularly those that are out-of-the-box. Instead, engagement needs to be the norm, new ideas encouraged, and if possible criteria set for when initiative administrators will ask stakeholders to help them “co-create” new policy in a difficult but important area. The absence of environmental groups from the stakeholder processes of these sustainable business initiatives is not noticed (at least by most), but changing that has to be a two-way street
  • Finally, while also not necessarily rising to the level of a “mindset,” there are a number of “language” and “framing” issues, and sometimes commonly held understandings associated with communications which could be obstacles. These are:
        • “Successful” sustainable businesses are sometimes seen that way just because of that feature, and “failed” ones also for the same reason, when that may or may not be the main reason for those outcomes
        • It is commonly asserted that “business is against XYZ regulation or policy,” when that isn’t necessarily true for, say, the NJSBC. Business should not be assumed to be monolithic (which is also true for the other players)
        • Any environmental claim at all by a business is seen as “greenwash” automatically in some circles, assumed to be illegitimate or fraudulent, which, among other things, does not provide much incentive for trying something new in an environmental area needing improvement and innovation
        • While sustainable business and CSR are called “Voluntary” in this Proposal and Appendix, this term and its opposite: “Mandatory” are not fully exhaustive of the possibilities. A basically voluntary system could still work better at times if complemented with carefully considered regulations. Conversely, while voluntary and “Deregulation” are not the same thing, under four tightly circumscribed circumstances, some degree of the latter are imaginable. These are: (1) as an element of a transparent and negotiated pilot, whose other elements include beyond-compliance performance requirements; (2) as part of a transparent and monitored pilot of a specific sector’s self-certification program, with re-regulation as a back-up if it fails; (3) if a green economy succeeds beyond any expectation. For example, if widespread use of green design makes regulations, in certain circumstances, simply unnecessary as “pollution is designed out”; or, if upon examination of a particular situation, a fairly chosen representative group of businesspersons and environmentalists reach a consensus (or one that is reasonably close) and advise government that there is simply no need to regulate
        • Lastly, and not at all specific to this subject, it has been noted that in these extremely partisan and even hostile political times, for some issues people decide their views based upon the position of the group (Mason, 2018), cable station, or figure with whom they most identify, or whom they are against, as opposed to trying to identify and weigh the merits and disadvantages of the idea. It would be unfortunate if that happens to the question of the greening of the economy, particularly as this topic has the potential to bridge some of those partisan gaps. 

To get very far on any serious level of a green economy for New Jersey will require challenging these mindsets.


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