It’s a strange time to be an environmentalist.

Over the years, the once-cohesive environmental community has divided into multiple factions, splitting along philosophical and tactical lines. Some environmentalists, such as Arne Naess, have advocated a “deep ecology” view, which retreats from the modern world, seeking ways to live in harmony with the nature. Others, such as Bill McKibben and his 350.org group, are focused on creating a widespread political and social movement, reminiscent of the 1960s and ’70s, to rattle cages and change things through protests and grassroots action. Then there are the wonks and scientists, such as most of us in academia and government, who typically focus on the role of science and policy in shaping the future of the environment.

Others, like Bjorn Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus group, challenge traditional environmentalism and call for different international priorities, mainly focused on economic development, poverty alleviation and public health.  Also challenging the environmental mainstream are Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus and the Breakthrough Institute, who focus on the power of innovation and technological change to solve big environmental problems.

Once divided, the debates start. Whether about nuclear power, the use of genetically modified crops, the Keystone pipeline, the importance of climate change or the role of businesses in addressing sustainability, these factions couldn’t be further apart. Sadly, over time, these groups have become suspicious and distrustful of each other. Like those among members of a family, the fights among these closely related groups are sometimes vicious. Most days, it’s hard to even imagine we all think of ourselves as “environmentalists.”

A theory of change is simply that: a theory about how you think the world changes for the better.

Yet we all generally want the same things: a sustainable world, where people can live full and productive lives without compromising the environment or the opportunities of future generations. So why all the friction? Why all the division, debate and suspicion?

I think a lot these differences boil down to people having different “theories of change.”

A theory of change is simply that: a theory about how you think the world changes for the better. Some people, like Bill McKibben, think the world changes because of political and social movements. Others, like the Deep Ecologists, think it takes fundamental cultural shifts in our attitudes toward nature, while Neo-environmentalists think it takes economic transformation and radical technological change. And there are many other theories of change, each representing a deeply held set of assumptions about how the world changes.

Regardless of their underlying assumptions, the most important thing about a theory of change is that it be a real, working theory. To me, as a scientist, this means it starts as a hypothesis (an initial guess or assumption) and then is constantly tested against data through ongoing observation and experimentation. This is how a theory works: It must be tested. Data, not our feelings, rule. If the data say a theory is wrong, then it’s simply wrong — and it’s time to move on to a new one.

But most of us are reluctant to give up our deeply held assumptions, and are unwilling to put our theory of change to the test. We stubbornly ignore the data around us and cling to these theories even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Let’s consider two different theories of change that are pretty common these days.

First, many of my friends are deeply concerned about climate change and have become involved with Bill McKibben’s latest political movement, focused on stopping the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. It’s easy to admire these folks: They’re committed and deeply caring, and are putting themselves on the front line. When challenged on the efficacy of their movement — especially by those who say that Keystone would only add a tiny amount to the nation’s emissions, and that reducing coal use, improving efficiency and deploying more renewables would have far bigger impacts — they speak of the powerful symbolism of the pipeline, and its ability to galvanize a larger climate “movement” in the future. That makes sense, but when was the last time a social or political movement caused a major environmental policy change in Washington? Wasn’t it the early 1970s when we saw landmark federal legislation to protect clean air, clean water and endangered species? (If I’m wrong about this, please let me know.) In today’s toxic political landscape, where outside money, dime-a-dozen pundits and hyper-partisanship have utterly gridlocked D.C., do we honestly think activists and protests can change anything? With all possible respect, I have to ask: Where is the evidence to support this theory of change? (For the record, I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong about this. But, for the moment, I just don’t see enough data to support this theory. Instead, I see people taking this as an article of faith more than an observable fact.) 

In another part of the social and political spectrum, I have friends who deeply believe that capitalism and unfettered markets will be the key to solving our biggest social and environmental problems. Markets do help solve some problems; there is plenty of evidence for that. But markets are far from perfect, and they have failed to solve our most pressing social challenges so far. In the real world — not an economics classroom — markets are always distorted by powerful special interests (it’s called a political economy for a reason) with all their loopholes, tax breaks and subsidies. Also, our current market system chooses to discount the value of the future (even when real people value their children more than anything else) and describe our most important values (such as freedom, health, security and sustainability) as “externalities,” as if they’re not worthy of consideration. So, I wonder, where is the evidence that market forces, left to themselves, will fix our biggest problems? I’d like to believe this too, but I’m skeptical.

I’m not trying to undermine either of these worldviews, but I would like to respectfully challenge my friends in both camps to scrutinize their underlying theories of change and test them against the available evidence. Do the data really support this theory of change? If they do, that’s great! You’re on to something! But if they don’t, then isn’t it time to step back and try again, starting with new assumptions?

Of course, testing our theory of change is excruciatingly hard. I’ll admit it. Most of us aren’t even aware of our theories of change and the biases that go along with them, so the idea of testing them is far from most of our minds.

Testing our theories of change requires a lot of work, intellectual rigor, the willingness to challenge our friends, and, worst of all, the ability to admit that maybe I was wrong.

Making things even harder, the social pressures associated with our theory of change (what some call the “tribalism of ideas”) are enormous. We tend to surround ourselves with the people who share our theory of change, creating an inadvertent echo chamber, reinforcing our core beliefs and assumptions, rarely letting new ideas in. Heck, we can even choose entire media outlets that reinforce our deeply held theories, whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC. So testing our theory of change is tough. It can alienate our friends and make them feel that we have betrayed the cause. (Just ask Mark Lynas, who went from anti-GMO social activist to GMO technology proponent, how he’s feeling these days. He tested his theory of change, found it lacking, said so very publicly, and lost a lot of friends in the process.)

Over the years, I’ve had to toss out some of my own assumptions and theories of change (and I still have some scars to show for it). In the end, I try to scrutinize my own (and my “tribe’s”) assumptions and theories of change as much as possible, and have learned to let go of bad ideas. But it’s very, very hard.

So beware: Testing our theories of change requires a lot of work, intellectual rigor, the willingness to challenge our friends, and, worst of all, the ability to admit that maybe I was wrong. It’s not easy. It’s not for the timid. It’s likely to hurt. And it’s absolutely necessary.

My instincts tell me that all of our theories of change are probably wrong, at least in part. But they all probably contain an element of truth as well. The trick is to constantly scrutinize our theories, and those of others, and rigorously test for that truth.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where I spent many years as a student and professor, there is a wonderful plaque that encourages the “…continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” We should take this advice to heart. Only by challenging our theories of change, subjecting them to that sifting and winnowing process, will we find the right ones — the ones that actually work and allow us to change the world. A failure to do so is a failure we can no longer afford.  View Ensia homepage

Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is the director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the University of Minnesota or any other organization.

UPDATED 03.28.13 to clarify distinctions among various individuals and groups challenging the environmental mainstream.