Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

25 Feb 2016

How do we create change? Understanding human nature – Part 1

Posted by Michael Keating

By Eric Hellman

This is the third in a series of articles on how we can create change for sustainability by Eric Hellman, co-founder of the Recycling Council of Ontario and the Blue Box.

After working in recycling for close to five years, a series of intuitive experiences prompted me to leave the field in the early 1980s and explore new areas. Two questions were uppermost in my mind: Why are there so many problems in the world? How do we get to the roots of them? I also had a sobering realization. Having experienced extensive conflicts among environmentalists, I thought if we are the ones who are supposed to heal the planet, it was not going to happen.

About 12 years later, I was working with the executive director of one of Canada’s main round tables on environment and economy. At the end of a long day, we were talking about the challenges facing the world, and I asked him if he thought what we were doing would be enough. He paused, thoughtfully, and said, “Probably not.” What do you think it will take, I asked. “Probably a change in consciousness,” he replied. His answer surprised me. I had come to the same conclusion myself, but didn’t expect him to say it. And I now had a third question: How will we do that?

For the past several decades, I have been exploring answers to these three questions. My journey has led me from stress management to office services (word processing and staff placement), hazardous materials management, healthy, sustainable communities, leadership and communications, addictions and ghostwriting. I’ve delved deeply into the healing of self and relationships, spirituality, consciousness change and energy healing. I’ve volunteered in politics, hospice care, creating international peace events and helping people with dementia. Yet through it all, my underlying intention has been the same. Finally, in the past two years, insights for how we might practically answer these questions have started to take shape.

Most important insights

For me, three ideas stand out as perhaps the most important ones for change. They are not the traditional “problem solving” answers we usually talk about. They are:

  1. What is driving our behaviours is the consciousness behind them, our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and mindset.
  2. At the root of human nature, there is a split or conflict inside of us.
  3. Most of the change we try to create is shaped by this conflict within.

These may sound surprising, but considering the intractable nature of many of the problems in front of us, we need to think differently. Remember the 1997 Apple computer ad about innovators? So let’s look at how we might achieve change.


Changing behaviour

When I began in the environmental field, my first focus was on fixing problems, like pollution, on a technical level. Coming from a math and science background, it made sense to me. Over time, my interest shifted to the root causes of problems. I began to focus on how we can change people’s behaviour.

Societally, we have gone through an important shift. Forty years ago, our main focus for pollution was on “end of pipe” solutions to capture and treat wastes. Now, behaviour change is our primary instrument of change, not just with the environment, but across many fields. This shows up in a multitude of ways: giving companies incentives to stop polluting, encouraging consumers to buy differently, motivating people to reduce their carbon footprint, and encouraging people drive sober, eat less, smoke less, stop using drugs and exercise more.

What we sometimes forget is that “behaviour” doesn’t come out of thin air. It is itself a symptom or expression of something deeper: our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and values. These are what lead us to do what we do, to change or not to change. Therefore, if we really want to learn how to shift behaviour, we’ll need to better understand what makes us tick.

For example, most of us think of ourselves as ‘rational’ beings, making decisions based on good information and evidence. We believe that other people, when given the right facts or information, will make logical, rational decisions as well. Yet decades ago, Madison Avenue ad agencies recognized that emotions are also core motivators of behaviour. That’s why advertising became the driving force behind our mass consumption age, and why more recently social marketing has become an important tool for societal change. Understanding human nature has become an important part of how we make change.

Now let’s go a step even deeper than that, and look at what guides our fundamental thinking.


A split within us

We’ve all seen and experienced the good and bad sides of human nature. We see people acting positively or negatively, with tension between the ego and the “enlightened” self. In popular culture, the Star Wars series (may the Force be with you), talked of our light and dark sides. In modern psychology, it’s been called the conflict between our “false self” and “true self” (D.W. Winnicott). Yet it’s also a concept that has far deeper roots. In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln spoke about the “better angels of our nature.” In the 1500s, Christopher Marlow wrote about it as our “good and bad angels” in his play, Doctor Faustus. Using Christian language, it’s known as the Spirit or the Christ self and evil or the devil. And ancient Buddhist teaching refers to the “defiled mind” and the “luminous mind.”

Normally, we just accept this split inside of us as part of who we are, and don’t give it a second thought. Yet if we really want to get to the roots of what creates “negative” behaviour and “positive” change, perhaps we need to look more deeply at these two sides and how they operate – in both others, and ourselves. I’ll write more about that in the next article, on human nature and behaviour.


Eric Hellman is a communications coach and change consultant, living in Vancouver, B.C. If you have comments or questions, please post them below, email him at erichellman@rogers.com or see his website at www.erichellman.com.


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