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Why Sustainability Needs Prevention Science

Timothy Waring and Ethan Tremblay’s theoretical analysis of an evolutionary approach to sustainability science is useful for clarifying the contextual influences on sustainable practices.  In that regard, it may be helpful to connect this theoretical analysis to some specific problems of sustainability that must be addressed if catastrophic climate change is to be prevented. 

The beauty of an evolutionary analysis is that it can pinpoint malleable contextual variables that affect the behaviors of individuals and the actions of groups or organizations (Biglan & Hayes, 2016).  This is not to say that one must pursue such an agenda—one can analyze contexts affecting cultural processes for the purpose of having an effective predictive model. However, if our intention is for our science to contribute to the prevention of harmful outcomes, identifying malleable influences of the process that threaten us can enable practical action. Nowhere can there be a greater need for such analyses than in developing strategies to combat climate change.

One way of looking at the current situation is that there has been a higher and more effective level of organization on the side of preventing reductions in the use of fossil fuels than there has on the side of taking effective action to reduce its use.  (The use of fossil fuels is not the only factor affecting climate change, but it is perhaps the biggest and it is one for which the main contextual influences have been delineated.)

The role of the fossil fuel industry and its allies in preventing effective public policy are well documented. A recent review of the evidence by Dunlap & McCright (2015) shows that a network of organizations has quite effectively blocked policies that would prevent or mitigate climate change. In addition to the fossil fuel industry, the network consists of related industries (e.g., auto manufacturing), a network of conservative think tanks, conservative media outlets, and other conservative interests that advocate for free market economics and minimal government regulation generally (Dunlap & McCright, 2015).

The network evolved out of completely understandable efforts by businesses to protect their interests.  The generic practice of scanning the environment for threats and opportunities to the future wellbeing of the organization is well established (Helms & Nixon, 2010).  It has been selected by its benefit to groups and organizations in avoiding harm to the organization and ensuring that its revenue is sustained. In a market system, practices are especially fine-tuned to their impact on profits. Indeed until the advent of the B Corp, all publicly traded corporations in the U.S. have been at risk of shareholder lawsuits if they failed to take actions to protect their profits.

Over the past century company practices that involve marketing, public relations, and efforts to prevent harmful government action have been selected by their success.  A particularly relevant and well-documented example is provided by the Tobacco Industry, which was an early innovator in marketing its product and subsequently in influencing public opinion to believe that cigarettes were not harmful (U.S. District Court, DC, 2006) , and preventing restrictions on their marketing practices (Biglan, 2004).

Efforts to prevent reduction of fossil fuel consumption are strikingly similar to the tobacco industry’s actions. According to The Los Angeles Times, just as tobacco industry research showed in the 1950’s that cigarettes cause cancer, research done by Exxon scientist in the 1970s concluded that global warming was occurring and was caused by human action.  The company’s research was focused on the possible benefits of global warming for making it easier to drill for oil in the Arctic.  Yet, in 1990, Exxon’s Board stated that “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.” And according to the New York Times and Dunlap & McCright (2015) the company continued to support organizations and political candidates engaged in sowing doubt about climate change and opposing policies that would prevent CO2 emissions.  Whether the fossil fuel industry continues to directly fund deniers is unclear, since the network of organizations funding much of the opposition to effective climate policy has developed corporate entities that are not required, under current law, to reveal their donors (Brulle, 2013).

What are the selecting consequences for these practices? The protection of investments. Current estimates are that in order for us to avoid possibly irreversible changes in the earth’s atmosphere, about 80% of the currently known coal and oil reserve must remain in the ground [McKibben].  It is completely understandable that groups and organizations that stand to lose this much of their assets would take the actions that they have taken.

There is a network of organizations worldwide that are working to change public opinion and to get policies adopted that will prevent these catastrophic outcomes.  We can measure their success by the state of public policy.

One reason for this may be the power of market forces to influence effective action.  That is, corporations are finely attuned to the contingencies in the market place and are thus well organized to take action to avoid negative consequences.  The practices of groups and organizations trying to prevent climate change are not as precisely organized by market contingencies since the outcomes they seek to achieve cannot be measured as precisely and their funding is not a direct result of their taking effective action on the problems they are addressing (Biglan, 2011).  That is, their fundraising is not directly contingent on their success in affecting outcomes (Biglan 2009).  (Ironically, this analysis is consistent with conservative arguments of the power of market forces.  The problem is that, as David Sloan Wilson has shown, market forces do not necessarily select practices that are to the benefit of the larger society.) 

This analysis brings me back to the conclusion I have stated in previous essays on This View of Life: We need to forge an unprecedented coalition of corporations, foundations, non-governmental organizations, and governments that are joined together around the goal of ensuring human wellbeing and organized by the emerging understanding of what human beings need to thrive. By “human wellbeing” I do not mean some loose notion of everyone being “alright.”  Rather, we can define human wellbeing clearly and precisely in public health terms as the prevalence of psychological, behavioral, and health disorders in a populations and the environmental conditions that are well-established influences on these conditions.  In The Nurture Effect, I describe the key features of the environments needed to nurture wellbeing and the programs, practices, and policies that can increasingly ensure that people live in such environments.

I don’t say much about climate change in the book, but since writing it, I have been studying the ways in which climate change threatens wellbeing.  It is clear that the widespread implementation of programs, policies, and practices, that prevention and treatment sciences show can nurture wellbeing, will not be sufficient, if we fail to prevent catastrophic changes in our physical environment.  For we will have millions of people fighting over diminishing resources and stressed by catastrophic storms, unlivable heat, and diminishing food supplies.

I haven’t figured out how we can build the grand coalition we need. But I invite you to join the Nurture Network so that collectively, we can figure it out and build what is needed.



 Biglan, A. (2004). Direct written testimony in the case of the U.S.A. vs. Phillip Morris et al. U.S. Department of Justice. Available:

Biglan, A.  (2009).  The role of advocacy organizations in reducing negative externalities. Journal of Organizational Behavioral Management, 29, 1–16.

Biglan, A. (2011). Corporate externalities: A challenge to the further success of Prevention science.Prevention Science, 12, 1–11. 

Biglan, A. & Hayes, S. C. (2016). Functional Contextualism and Contextual Behavioral Science. In Zettle, R, Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D. Handbook of Contextual Behavioral Science, Wiley.

Brulle, R. J. (2013). Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations. Climatic Change

Helms, M. H. & Nixon, J. (2010) “Exploring SWOT analysis – where are we now?: A review of academic research from the last decade”, Journal of Strategy and Management, Vol. 3 Iss: 3, pp.215 – 251.

United States v. Philip Morris et al., Civil No. 99-CV-02496GK (U.S. Dist. Ct., DC, 2006).

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