BEIRUT: In recent years, initiatives have emerged all across Lebanon to further reduce plastic use, and now a new course aims to change collective behavioral patterns using cognitive neuroscience.
“Individual behaviors, like banning straws and plastic bags, are important and can shift the consumption cycle, but the danger is that this makes us believe that we’ve done enough,” Samah Karaki says.
Karaki has developed the Cognitive Neuroscience of Climate Change and Social Justice in partnership with Jibal, a Lebanese NGO that focuses on environmental and social justice issues.
In May, Beit Mery municipality’s Mayor Roy Abou Chedid signed a decision to charge consumers LL250 ($0.16) per bag, in order to reduce plastic waste.
The fee will go toward the production of environmentally friendly, reusable tote bags.
In Beirut, initiatives including Greenpeace’s #Plastacna and local NGO Recycle Lebanon’s #BalaPlastic campaign have targeted Beirut dining and nightlife establishments in a wider attempt to stop their use of single-use plastic straws and bottles. Recently, Aaliya’s Books, Riwaq Beirut and Hook Coffee Shop all took steps to dramatically cut their consumption of plastics.
Similarly, the municipality of Jbeil issued a decision in July 2018 to enforce a ban on plastic bags and replace them with eco-friendly alternatives. However, The Daily Star has found that many small businesses fell by the wayside.
With no efficient recycling scheme included in the country’s already ineffective waste management plan, the majority if not all of single-use plastic products go straight to the country’s jammed landfills - many of which lie along Lebanon’s coastline.
For Karaki it is all about the bigger picture. She says that placing the emphasis on our personal behavior “shifts the focus and the burden of climate change to individuals, rather than placing the responsibility on governments and [large] corporations, who have the power to enact legislation and regulate industries.”
As the holder of a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience, she developed the course as a way to explore how the discipline might help to solve or mitigate environmental and social challenges. The course, which debuted in Lebanon in partnership with Jibal’s Alternative Academy program, uses research-backed evidence to focus on influencing social norms to achieve long-term, sustainable behavioral change.
“We noticed that we were doing awareness campaigns for those who are already convinced. The problem is convincing people who are in denial or choosing to ignore the issue,” says Angela Saade, co-founder of Jibal.
According to Karaki, one of the main reasons why environmental initiatives fail to mobilize the public against climate change is because of cognitive biases.
“Our brains perceive the present as something more important than the future. So, if I tell you climate change will impose a risk to my survival and health in 50 years, we have this bias that impedes our ability to take action, because our brains filter information on what is immediately essential to our survival,” Karaki says.
She compares this to the behavior of smokers.
“[If] I tell you you’re going to die if you don’t stop smoking, you don’t see that risk because the reward that you’re getting from smoking today is more important than the risk of getting sick later,” she says.
Karaki also cites “optimistic bias,” which leads us to think that technology or our power as humans can solve anything, and the “bystander effect,” where we believe someone else will deal with the crisis, be it the government or our fellow citizens.
While climate change is a phenomenon that must be tackled globally, one of the most urgent things to be addressed in Lebanon is what Karaki refers to as the “in-group and out-group” bias, in which blame is placed on other communities, or even factors such as the refugee crisis.
“It’s difficult for Lebanese to think of themselves as Lebanese,” Karaki says. “They often think of themselves first as their religious identity or individual community ... This creates even more biases ... you start to think, ‘I want to take the action that serves my community first, even if those actions are detrimental for the country itself.’”
There is no quick way to tackle these biases, but Karaki maintains that there are long-term solutions. She also believes that teaching Lebanese citizens the skill of critical thinking is crucial to tackling inertia regarding climate change.
“Critical thinking should be part of the educational system ... People need to think about thinking. This is something we aren’t taught. Especially with environmental issues,” she says. The hope is that adopting such an approach will also help young people better understand their role as citizens, consider who they elect to power and question policies and programs that are not environmentally friendly.
Improving environmental literacy is a major part of creating a deeper understanding of Lebanon’s natural riches and how government decisions impact the lives of citizens. For example, not being able to swim in the sea in Beirut, or Lebanon’s symbolic Cedar trees dying because of climate change are issues that directly impact everyone.
College Melkart in Baabda was the first Lebanese school where Karaki implemented her cognitive neuroscience approach.
Having worked with more than 2,000 educators across Europe and the Middle East, she now hopes to work with more of Lebanon’s young people. “There’s a lot of hope in these youth,” she says. “They grasped the most important message: we should not blame [other groups] in Lebanon.”
According to College Melkart’s headmaster Sami Mitri, the program allowed students to “reshuffle the cards in their head to have a free-thinking approach, and gave them the tools to see things from a different perspective.”
Karaki adds that “collective change only happens through collective actions ... if we want environmental change, we need to [ask] who are the leaders we are voting for, what are their policies and can they represent us?”