Building Social Capital to Solve Large, Intractable Problems

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I continue our discussion of the CLIMATE model, focusing on the “A” representing affiliation. In this post, I’ll discuss how we can use social capital to address climate change challenges and build more resilient and adaptable individuals and communities.

Cultural values can be both facilitating and prohibiting. For example, we have values that conflict with taking action to care for the environment such as the American value of individual achievement.

Cultural Cognition describes a collection of psychological mechanisms that tie our perceptions of societal danger to our cultural values. When we evaluate social risks we rely not only on facts and experience, but on emotions and values. Often, we tend to evaluate risk within the context of some version of an idealized way of life. As a result, our emotional responses influence the importance and relevance we give to an event.

I have been known to celebrate market solutions for climate change action, yet this approach has its challenges. Consider capitalism’s antithetical cultural cognition for climate action:

  • Capitalism’s private property and free markets do not work well for the natural environment. Assigning property rights is impractical– ownership of the oceans, ozone layer, rain, and the atmosphere. Thus, we defer to “rights of use.” We may have a false dichotomy of either private property or tragedy of the commons; capitalism does not lend well to experimenting with other forms of ownership and stewardship.
  • Preservation of the natural environment applies only to those aspects of the environment–resources– that have value.
  • The time scale is incorrect and the analyses are wrong for attacking climate change challenges. We focus on short-term profits and a discounted cash flow that rewards delayed actions.  As a result, nature and markets function on different time scales.
  • Are resources ever preserved according to their market value?  They are exploited based on the non-market power of entities with capital. Natural capital is not considered in many decisions.

People holding these values are individualistic and tend to be skeptical of environmental risks because recognizing these risks would justify restrictions on commerce and industry that they find problematic.   People who embrace more egalitarian and communitarian values will more easily acknowledge such risks because the likely prescription– stronger government regulation– coincides with a mindset that is already skeptical of corporate power and social inequality.

So, how do we facilitate communitarian values and actions while not destroying the benefits we receive from capitalism?

We tend to affiliate with people using common framing. These affiliations can be both walls prohibiting change and excellent forces of change

When we are unsure about the harm of a given activity (e.g. regulating handguns, emitting carbon, and immunization) we are more likely to trust those advisors who share our cultural values and similar framings.  Those advisors are subject to the same emotional dynamics and blind spots that we are. Yet, our trusted circles of people are critical to us as we evaluate our opinions on all sorts of matters. For this reason, social capital is fundamental to changing people’s minds and getting them to act.

For example, here are a few common framings of science and its usefulness:


Defines science-related issue as:

Social progressA means of improving the quality of life or solving problems; be in harmony with nature.
Economic development and competitivenessAn economic investment; market benefit or risk; point of competitiveness at various scales.
Morality and ethicsA matter of right or wrong, or a respect for limits, thresholds, or boundaries.
Scientific and technical uncertaintyA matter of expert understanding of what is known and what is not known.
Pandora’s box/runaway scienceA need for precaution or action in the face of certain outcomes.
Public accountability and governanceResearch or policy either in public interest or serving special interests emphasizing areas such as transparency, responsiveness, or ownership; debate between science and public policy.
Conflict and strategyA game among elites such as who is winning and or losing a debate.

 One prescription is to try on different frames from our own and push to find a common ground. These interactions can happen most easily in classroom settings, a topic I discuss in the final blog focused on the “E” of the CLIMATE model standing for “education.” Can we find other forums for these interactions?

Another prescription is for us to explore and use voluntary behavior. Voluntary behavior occurs when we utilize our civil society as a means of obtaining positive environmental outcomes. Volunteerism can be powerful. We need to recognize that it is a competency and a part of building social capital. Social capital impacts the willingness and ability of people to participate in public issues, to obey norms and adhere to values, and to identify needed information. We can use features of social organizations including networks, norms, and trust to facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

There are a stock of civic virtues that are part of our social capital. This capital stock is partially measured through participation rates in voluntary services groups. Here are a few ideas for this competency if you use volunteers in your work or if you volunteer:

  • Target specific individuals and give them specific jobs to do. Specific tasks tend to motivate volunteers;
  • Match skills, experience, and interests to specific tasks when recruiting volunteers – find out what volunteers want to accomplish and try to provide it;
  • Screen and be selective with volunteers. Some volunteers impose high costs on organizations– not everyone has to be accepted just because they raise their hand;
  • Conduct a volunteer orientation or on-boarding to introduce volunteers with people whom they will be working; introduce the organization and its strategy;
  • Mentor volunteers particularly when starting a new role; provide support and resources;
  • Monitor performance and provide feedback; measure success;
  • Recognize outstanding efforts; thank volunteers.

Communities with large stocks of social capital enjoy a flow of economic benefits in the form of lower transaction costs, higher dispute resolution, and more timely, adaptive, and cooperative responses to adverse shocks such as natural disasters. Instead of a financial resolution to disputes, for example, firms that violate norms or regulations impose mandates to contribute to social capital. Polluters are obligated to clean up the community and facilitate interactions among people to solve large, intractable challenge such as climate change.

Social capital is an important concept for solving many societal challenges. These interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group can be used to gain advantages and to solve problems.

So, I leave it to you. What other actions would you recommend for building our society’s social capital?


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