10/15/2015 10:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Carrots, Sticks or Evolution?

Photo: I. Rimanoczy

As a researcher of human behavioral change and transformation, particularly as it relates to the area of our planetary sustainability, I find myself daily immersed in articles, news, papers and teaching materials. The volume of information is definitely overwhelming. Compared to what was in the public domain barely a decade ago, this speaks eloquently to a (much welcomed) increase in our collective levels of awareness and understanding. I recall my early days at Columbia University when people asked, "Sustainability? What do you mean? Sustainability of what?" Today there are many definitions of the term, and this is definitely progress.

Corporations have different levels of awareness and motivations in dealing with their carbon footprint, pollution or use of natural resources.

Image: I.Rimanoczy

This 5-step scale goes from the base line of legality with the question "Are we violating regulations? We should fix that!" to the next level, "Could we find opportunities to save money in our energy bill?" to "What if we could redesign our processes so that we produce less waste to start with?" to "What if we thought out of the box, and developed products or services that were profitable and good for people or the environment; that didn't do harm, or even better, that had a restorative function, and that helped us live better on the planet?" The final level is one where a business makes sustainability part of the strategy, as well as a competitive advantage shaping new standards for industry.

Looking at the tone and underlying message of the very diverse set of materials that come to my attention (most of them found unexpectedly while surfing from one link to another), I can distinguish two categories. One is what I call the "sticks" -- this is information providing data about challenges to our planet -- droughts, water scarcity, social issues, pollution, urban sprawl, species extinction, weather related disasters. The information is presented to show that things are serious, and getting worse. In many cases, it contains a call to action. For businesses, a wake up call: Your supply chain may be at risk, your insurance may raise, you may be sued for not protecting the shareholders' value because you were only thinking of the short-term. This type of messages addresses the lower steps of the scale, operating mostly on avoiding risks, costs, and centered on "what is in it for me/us."

The second category contains information that shows innovative ideas that combine profit with doing good, with environmentally sound goals that do no harm or actually make this world a better place, ideas that creatively address the development goals for a sustainable planet. This is information about success stories that provide inspiration. They relate to the higher two steps of the scale, and the call to action is an invitation to emulate, to get motivated to replicate or try out something similar, learning from what is working well. I call this approach the "carrots."

But there seems to be something missing here. Research indicates that individuals who passionately engage in championing initiatives related to shaping a better world through their actions, are not motivated by carrots or sticks: They show some powerful intrinsic motivations. These people express a progressive shift in their worldview, triggered by successive events that made them pause and review what they were doing, and why; they reflect on their purpose and life's mission, on their role and responsibility. They entertained deep questions about what anchors their identity, what their legacy is, how their values are being manifest in their behaviors or executive decisions. They undergo a journey of personal soul-searching and transformation, which fuels their new actions. They evolve as human beings into a higher level of consciousness, developing an understanding that we are all connected, that we are one with Nature, that we have a shared responsibility. This intrinsic motivation becomes so strong that, as one person put it in my interviews -- "I could not not do something."

If this is a more powerful and lasting motivation, what are we doing to bring it forth? Educators, media, and thought leaders -- how are we drawing attention to this other opportunity of our times? Why do we stay obsessed with citing the economics (sticks or carrots) as the reason for change? As the recently published report on Global Risks, by the World Economic Forum, puts it: "Our self-perception as homines economici or rational beings has faltered in the aftermath of the financial crisis, whose effects are still unfolding socially, as persistent unemployment, ever-rising inequality, unmanaged migration flows and ideological polarization are among the factors stretching societies dangerously close to the breaking point."

What about turning our attention to this other part of ourselves, the homo spiritualis, for a change?