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Creating a Grand Coalition to Foster Human Wellbeing
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Anthony Biglan
Anthony Biglan
is a senior scientist at Oregon Research Institute and the author of The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World.

In my last essay, I described how Lewis Powell’s memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped instigate the formation of a coalition of business interests that came to dominate public discussion and policymaking through well-organized advocacy for unregulated markets and minimal government. The effort was organized around neo-classical theory of free market economics which was particularly effectively propounded by Milton and Rose Friedman in their book and television series Free to Choose (Friedman & Friedman, 1990). According to this view, individuals’ pursuit of economic gain in an unfettered market benefits the whole society and government action necessarily limits wellbeing by spending tax money that would be better used by individuals who were not forced to pay those taxes. The result of these efforts has been an erosion, not only in the belief that government can benefit human wellbeing, but in communitarian values that are vital to promoting prosocial behavior. For example, over the past forty years, the proportion of incoming college freshmen in the U.S. who subscribe to values involving being rich and famous has grown and has eclipsed the proportion of freshmen who endorse self-development and communitarian values (Astin, 2002).

The process is a particularly significant example of multi-level selection. Powell argued that individual corporations’ pursuit of their economic interests were insufficient to combat the low opinion that many people had of business at the time. What was needed—and what occurred—was a coordinated effort across a large network of wealthy individuals and corporations and a “…scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.” The practices of this network of organizations has been amply rewarded by large increases in their share of the wealth and income in the U.S.

There is considerable merit to the theory of free market economics. Market forces do select improvements in the price, quality, or innovation of goods and services. What is ignored in these analyses, however, is the fact that market exchanges can have negative externalities (Biglan, 2011). That is, people who are not a party to a free market exchange may be harmed. Examples include people harmed by living near coal fired power plants, which emit mercury; societies whose members are sickened and killed by the marketing of cigarettes, and all of the people who are harmed by climate change that results from carbon emissions.

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We need to evolve a form of capitalism that reduces such externalities. In my view it will not be achieved by trusting that individual and corporate pursuit of profit will naturally benefit society. Rather, it will require making the wellbeing of populations the touchstone of civic life and the criterion against which we regulate and measure the benefits of capitalism.

There is no shortage of organizations that can contribute to our evolving in this direction. What is needed, however is higher level selection of a super-coalition of organizations just like what Lewis Powell advocated for the business community.

Since my book, The Nurture Effect, came out I have been asked to speak to a wide variety of organizations whose mission it is to advance human wellbeing. Most do not know about the many other organizations whose work complements their own.

I have become convinced that a broad coalition of these scientific, philanthropic, educational, religious, and human service organizations is essential for reversing the damage that has been done to prosocial and communitarian values by advocacy for unregulated free-market economics. Together we can create a social movement that promotes communitarian values and strengthens the support for tested and effective programs and policies that improve wellbeing.

Like the movement that Lewis Powell helped instigate, a movement for human wellbeing cannot succeed without a clear, compelling, and empirically supported intellectual framework that guides and coordinates action. Such a framework has emerged thanks to research on human development over the past forty years. One cornerstone of this framework is the extensive evidence that has accumulated about how stress harms people (Biglan, 2015). We have evolved patterns of gene expression and interpersonal behavior that advantaged human survival under threatening conditions, but which put young people on a trajectory toward materialism, antisocial behavior, early childrearing, and a constellation of psychological, behavioral, and physical problems that, in the modern world, harm the individual and the society.

However, thanks to treatment and prevention research we have identified an extraordinary array of tested and effective programs and policies for families, schools, workplaces, and communities. If we can widely and effectively implement these interventions we can prevent all of the most common and costly problems that have plagued societies for millennia at the same time that we evolve more nurturing, communitarian societies (Biglan, 2015).

Space doesn’t permit a full discussion of all of the kinds of organizations that need to be involved, but let me mention some that I think are particularly relevant because of the scientific, intellectual, or organizational contributions they can make toward forging a broad, loose, and effective coalition.

  • The Evolution Institute. Under the leadership of David Sloan Wilson, the Evolution Institute has been influencing academic disciplines as diverse as economics, education, and psychology to use evolutionary theory to organize their theoretical and empirical work.
  • The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science has grown to more than 7000 members in just nine years. ACBS research is organized around the prediction and influence of behavioral and cultural phenomena. It is a major source of the advances that have been made in mindfulness-based and compassion-focused approaches to clinical, organizational, and public health interventions.
  • The National Prevention Science Coalition was created in 2012 to advocate for evidence-based preventive interventions. It already has 32 major national organizations affiliated with it.
  • The Society for Prevention Research convenes the prevention scientists who have done much of the work in developing effective family, school, and community interventions.
  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a leader in the philanthropic community in efforts to implement evidence-based programs and policies that will improve outcomes for young people. For example, it has been critical in developing the Jim Casey Initiative, which is improving transitions from foster care into young adulthood
  • The Youth Transition Funders Group is a national network of funders that work together to support the well-being and economic success of vulnerable young people age 14 to 25.

Obviously these and many other organizations would need to be involved in defining how such a coalition could advance the nurturance of wellbeing. Here are my ideas about the key steps that would need to be involved.

  1. Create a coalition consisting of lead organizations working on one or more of the most common and costly problems of development, including academic failure, antisocial behavior, substance abuse, child abuse, marital discord, teenage pregnancy, materialism, and poverty. The organizations would include those involved in research, policymaking, advocacy, treatment, prevention, or education. It would also include relevant professional organizations. The organizations would be invited to join in a unified effort to increase nurturance in families and schools.
  2. Articulate policies that would increase the prevalence of nurturing families and schools. This needs to be the focal goal of our efforts because non-nurturing families and schools are the crucible that pour millions of troubled children worldwide into our societies. The policies would include those that focus on one of the following: (a) improving the macro conditions that affect family and school environments, especially those having to do with poverty; (b) generating research on the prevalence and influence of interventions affecting nurturing environments; (c) fostering or requiring the use of evidence-based interventions; and (d) continuously evaluating efforts to increase the prevalence of nurturing environments.
  3. Design, implement, and continuously refine a system to advocate for policies, programs, and practices needed to increase the prevalence of nurturing environments. Such an effort would contribute to reducing the incidence and prevalence of the most common and costly problems of childhood and adolescence, both by promoting better public policy and by nurturing prosocial, communitarian values and practices on a daily basis.

We can create the kind of society that humans have desired for centuries. The first step is to build an unprecedented coalition of organizations that are dedicated to advancing human wellbeing.

References

Astin, A. W. 2002. The American Freshman: Thirty-Five Year Trends, 1966–2001.Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

Biglan, A. (2011). Corporate externalities: A challenge to the further success of prevention science. Prevention Science, 12(March), 1-11. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1007/s11121-010-0190-5

Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Friedman, M., & Friedman, R. (1990). Free to choose: A personal statement: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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  1. Dustin Eirdosh says:

    Tony’s work may be largely based on US communities, but this article beautifully summarizes the coalition building work our small NGO (www.BigRedEarth.org) is doing in SW Madagascar. The idea of nurturing environments may not be so radical (or for some maybe it is!) but the clarity of Biglan’s policy platform is certainly light years ahead of where world development policy is today. This work needs to reach the highest levels of development and aid communities or we will continue to see unimaginable sums of financing wasted on a never ending stream of disconnected projects with highly questionable supports (both theoretically and empirically).