Joe Brewer: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Complex Issues

By Bhavani Prakash

Joe Brewer

Seattle based JOE BREWER is one amongst a rare and emerging breed of interdisciplinary experts around the world. In an era of specialisations, what’s missing is a holistic view that cuts across various discipines, whether it comes to addressing climate change or societal change.  Brewer steps in with his unique perspectives on ‘cognitive policy.’ As Founder and Director of Cognitive Policy Works, he paints a sweeping and fascinating canvas covering the human mind, human behaviour, public policy, social media and societal change. 

GCA: Tell us about how you came to be an interdisciplinary expert?

Joe Brewer: Even from a very young age I was fascinated by two things. One was patterns in the world, and the other was people.  As a people watcher, I was always interested in how the world works.  I was brought up on a farm in the country, so I didn’t have access to broad education, but when I went to college, I had a full right scholarship so I could study anything that I wanted.  Now, I actually have degrees in philosophy, physics and applied mathematics. While I was studying those things, I got very interested in complexity, which is basically the study of how unexpected things happen, and how they can arise from very simple inputs.

When I was starting to study complexity, I entered a collateral program in atmospheric sciences. I got exposed to global warming and what’s called anthropogenic climate change, which is changes in climate patterns caused by human activities. Somehow in the midst of it all, I realised that another physical scientist (I was working as a physicist at the time) studying climate change wasn’t really going to be the critical factor in helping us address our global ecological problems.

GCA: What did you realise to be the critical factor?

Joe Brewer: I realised that the big problem was human behaviour that is prominent in culture, values and norms of society, the way our institutions are set up, our politics and economics – all the things that have to do with how people make decisions every day. When I left the university with a Masters degree in Atmospheric Sciences, and a strong interest in learning about human behaviour, I started taking in what is called cognitive science. It’s a cross-cutting set of approaches to understanding the human mind, human thought and behaviour. It includes psychology, brain research, linguistics, anthropology, computer science and several other fields.

Universities are mostly set up around disciplines, so you might be a professor or study a program in history or economics or political science, chemistry or biology – always within a field of knowledge. I wasn’t in academia. I was out in the world, trying to solve a very complex problem. My focus was on asking, ‘what do I need to solve this problem?’  This had me moving across many different disciplines to pull together insights, analytic techniques and tools toward explaining how human behaviour works, always with an eye towards sustainability.

GCA:  What have we learnt about human beings in the last couple of decades about our mind and emotions, especially if we’re not the calculating, rational individuals that economic models assume?

Joe Brewer: We have learnt an incredible amount. Before the 1970s, every time a person made claims about the human mind, they were basing it more on philosophical assumptions than on observations and science. What happened from the 1970s onward is that we had got specific enough about different parts of the mind to be able to study them with rigour using scientific method, as a result of which a huge amount has been learnt about the mind and about human behaviour.

One of the basic things, if you’re familiar with the works of the philosopher in the late 1600s, Rene Descartes, is the problem he articulated that is now known as mind-body dualism. It’s a problem of saying that if our bodies are physical but our minds (related to the intellectual and mental) are not physical, how can the mind and body connect with each other?

One of the big realisations that has come out of many of the fields of research is that the minds that we have are not separate from our bodies, they actually emerge from the physical world, and are continuous within our planet. The general name for that is the philosophy of ‘embodiment’.  Embodiment means that our minds are part of our bodily experience. They arise from the kinds of bodies that we have and the kind of brains that we have, the kinds of physical and cultural environments that we have evolved in as well as develop in throughout our lifespans.

GCA:  How do you link this understanding to something as large-scale as public policy, or what you call ‘cognitive policy?’

Joe BrewerI call it ‘cognitive policy’ –  cognitive referring to the way people understand.  I was working a few years ago at a thinktank in Berkeley, California called the Rockridge Institute with a famous cognitive scientist called George Laykoff.  He and I were looking at the language that people use and the ways that people think about environmental policy and our goal was to improve the way in which climate legislation is developed.  We were working with members of Congress, members of environmental organisations and in the midst of our attempts to explain why the human mind is so important for policy, we found that the language people were using to talk about policy was too limited. We needed to distinguish between different parts of policy. The way that we ended up breaking it down was that we separated policy into the material component and what we call the cognitive component.

The material component is the nuts and bolts of how the policy works and the material consequences of the policy.  Let’s say we’re talking about healthcare policy. The nuts and bolts might be something like if a person makes a certain amount of money, he qualifies for a certain service, and there might be a policy mechanism that says what that is. The consequence may be that people who make less money are getting greater benefits because they can’t afford health care.

What we call the cognitive component of policy is the values, the moral perspective that motivated people to hear about the issue in the first place and the ways that they understand the situation, how they characterise what the issues and concerns are, and how that reflects a deeper set of assumptions about the problems and what the solutions should be.

The difference is that the cognitive component of policy has to do with how people think about the world, what their concerns are, what they are motivated toward, what they consider to be right and wrong and good or bad in any situation – so basically the deeper motivations for a particular policy context.

Let’s take another example of climate legislation. One of things that climate legislation needs to be is popular, by which the majority of citizens, at least in a democratic country, need to support it. They need to want the policy to stay in place. The reason for that is that dealing with climate change is a long term problem. So when the policy is put in place, it has to last not just for several years but several decades.  It needs to be popular enough that it can’t be dismantled by an uprising of citizens nodding in a different way that call for it to be repealed. For them to find it appealing it has to align with their values and concerns.

GCA: What happens if the public perceives it as a short term sacrifice even though there may be a long term benefit? Let’s take for example a carbon tax, as in Australia. What if the public sees it as a burden?

Joe Brewer: An important discovery made by George Laykoff and Mark Johnson in the late 1970s, is when you look at the way human beings use language we don’t see the world in a literal way. We understand the world through metaphors.  So if you look at carbon tax, the important thing to think about is what metaphors are used to think about taxes.

I’ll give you two examples of metaphors that could shape whether a tax is popular or not. One would be that a tax is a burden, and you don’t want to be burdened. So a tax is something you want to minimise or get rid of.

Alternatively if you use the metaphor that taxes are an investment then it’s a different way of thinking of taxes. Then people might see that there are benefits that they get from society that only come about because everyone is investing in the infrastructure of society.  You may say you have an educated workforce if you invest in public education.  You may say you have public safety if you invest in medical science and hospitals.   You have a safe and fair society if citizens invest in courts, and law and contracts.

So thinking about what makes a policy popular is partly about which metaphor people understand the policies around.  Do they understand tax policy as a burden or do they understand it as an investment? In one sense it’s negative and in another sense it’s positive.   It’s an important way of thinking about the carbon tax in Australia , whether it’s popular or not will probably depend on whether the citizens of Australia are feeling that they are investing in their future to make their economy and environment more resilient and robust in a time of change and uncertainty, or do they see it as needing all the money they can get now. If they see the taxes as a burden to them now, then it is taking away their ability to get what they need.

You can imagine the significance now of media and of advocacy where there will be groups that will advocate for people to think about taxes as a burden , and another group for people to think about taxes as an investment.  An important thing to keep in mind is that taxes are simply not one or the other, but how people think about them shapes their appeal. The advocacy for one way of thinking versus the other will have significant impact on whether people support the policy or not.

GCA: Politics and economics go hand in hand, and powerful interest groups and lobbies create resistance to change. What then is going to bring about change?

Joe Brewer: At first pass, changes in society are always lead by culture, so if you change the culture, you change the politics, you change the economics. It’s actually much harder to use politics to change culture.  One good example is how in 1865, all of the slaves were freed. It was a hundred years later that in 1965 that the Civil Rights Act was passed. There was a legal change, but the culture hadn’t changed yet. And then it took a hundred years to change the culture enough to accept a change in policy that would secure the rights, that would make it legally defensible to protect the rights of minority citizens. We only started dealing with racial inequalities in a systematic way since the 1960s onward, so the culture changed first then the politics followed.

So one thing that is very important for us to think about when we talk about changing behaviour is that ultimately yes, we have to change our politics, we have to change our economic systems because the way they are set up now cannot lead to sustainable outcomes, but to make those changes in political and economic systems we have to look at culture, we have to look at the stories that people tell themselves about where they come from, and what it means to lead a good life.

There has been a major global trend in the last century which has been the rise of global consumerism and consumer marketing.  Consumerism tells us stories of opulence and material success as measures of meaning and quality and happiness. So those stories are antithetical, they are the opposite of what we need to have to lead to a sustainable outcome. So we need to change consumer culture, that’s something that gets deep into the lives of people. When we talk on a global scale, it doesn’t mean we need one big monoculture that’s the same everywhere, but we can celebrate the unique features of different cultures that are resonant with sustainability.

India, I discovered during my visit, is an incredibly diverse country with so many different subcultures and languages and religions. Biodiversity is actually very healthy for sustainability because one thing we need is resilience. We need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and if all of the cultures of the world are too similar to each other and if the way they all align is not healthy, then we are more at risk, and global civilisation could collapse completely.  When we talk about cultural change driving change in economics and politics, then we can find the strength of culture at different places and bring them together and drive innovation by plugging into places where cultures come into contact with each other.

We’re seeing that now in this global social movement, that firstly has been called the Arab Spring and then Occupy Wall Street, people from different cultures are describing it in a local way. Members of this movement in Spain are dealing with issues that have to do with Spanish culture, people in Greece are dealing with Greek culture, people in Lebanon are dealing with Lebanese culture, people in the US dealing with US culture. At a deep level, they are taking the paradigm of the global economy and they are suggesting a different way that people can come together to solve their problems, which means they’re suggesting an evolution of culture.

GCA:  You enjoy studying deep history, and since you’ve mentioned Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, do you think change comes about in a disruptive way, or is it a gradual process that leads to a tipping point?  How do you think change is going to come about now when we most need it, in the face of the climate crisis?

Joe Brewer: Well, the way that big change always happens is there are periods when it doesn’t seem like things are changing very much, and then are short periods of time when things change very quickly. You could think of it as a ‘preparation’ stage and a ‘release’ stage.

Looking at globalisation as a process that goes back to the 1500s, and even the 1400s, there was global trade and then in the 1600s, we saw the global rise of corporations and in the 1600s and 1700s we had the creation of nation states. We had these big structural changes over several hundred years. And then we had the rise of market economies – they’ve only been around a few hundred years. There have been markets, there have been bazaars, the bazaar in Delhi has been around for much longer than a few hundred years, but the idea of a global market economy has been fairly new, it’s maybe only four hundred years old.

Given this deeper context, what we’re looking at now is a big change that has been coming for quite some time. I actually go deeper than that, and I like to think of it as three major periods of human cultural evolution. There was the period before agriculture, where we mostly lived in hunter-gatherer societies, and then we had the period where people learnt to domesticate plants and grow food, and that allowed human settlements to form and to grow. An interesting thing about human settlements is that if you have more food than you need, then you can grow your population. And if you can grow your population, you need more land, and that is the dynamics of empire and conquest. So empire emerged from agriculture.

About 10,000 years into the age of empire is coming to an end in one of two ways. Either it is going to end by collapse of human civilisation, that we basically wipe ourselves out and there will be an Easter Island kind of story. Or we change to a different paradigm that is not conquest. Now conquest and empire is now called ‘economic growth.’  It’s the same thing. We have an economic model that requires that the value of the currency for the economy must grow. And then if it doesn’t grow it becomes static and collapses just like when your heart – your heart has two dynamic modes – it’s either beating regularly or you’re dead, and there’s nothing in between.  Once your heart stops beating regularly it or it becomes rheumatic. You have a heart attack. Either it starts beating again or you’re dead. For a growth economy it’s the same thing, it keeps growing at an exponential rate, or it collapses.

So the changes that have to happen have to happen at a very deep level, at the level of a paradigm.  An interesting thing that can make us hopeful is that a paradigm level change happens very quicky. It’s like an earthquake. There’s a slow buildup and then an unpredictable release, and that change, that dynamic of slow build-up of pressure and release is how all physical systems change their state of matter. It’s just like when you start heating up water, the temperature continuously rises to a level  where it very quickly goes from a liquid to a gas and vaporises the water. That time of change happens over a very small change of temperature, in a short period of time.

So what we’re seeing now with these global social movements, is an acceleration of change that goes back at least 3 decades. In a global sense, we can see the rise of the environmental movement, which started about a hundred years ago and catapulted in the 1960s with Rachel Carson, and what’s called the modern environmental movement. We’ve seen the beginning of the collapse of the empire with post colonialism, from the independence of India, the rise of nation states, and social democracies. Going back 70 or 80 years, fairly quick and big changes have been happening. Now it’s much faster still.

Let’s take ‘Occupy Wall Street’ – it has been incredibly successful, in a short period of time. It has been only with us for a few months and it has already changed the way that people talk about the economy and social issues all around the world. Now maybe Occupy Wall Street won’t lead to the changes that we need, but the scale of impact would have been very difficult to predict. Imagine you were sitting and watching the world  in the beginning of August 2011, you probably wouldn’t have anticipated that something like Occupy Wall Street would have come into being and have such an effect in the last few months.

That is an indicator of how quickly change is coming and the fact that change is coming quickly tells us that we are in the middle of one of those phased transitions.  Change is happening very quickly because the entire system is reorienting itself. I think there’ll be a much bigger, deeper change in the next few years.

Joe Brewer can be contacted via info[at]  Follow Brewer’s works through his website Cognitive Policy Works.


Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Green Collar Asia. She is a recruiter, speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector.  To connect with Green Collar Asia,  please see Contact Us. 


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