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Posted - 02/07/2013
"Pause" Participant Spotlight

Eileen Thorsos is the Sustainability Education Program Coordinator for the Duke University Environmental Leadership Program & Duke University Superfund Research Center.  Her work includes integrating sustainability into Duke curricula and communicating with professional and general audiences about environmental health and toxicology.  She is interested in implementing effective communications approaches for shifting people's attitudes and behaviors related to climate change. 

Eileen 'invoked the pause' in the hills of North Carolina last fall with the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment team.  She recently spoke to us about this experience and the ensuing 'collateral delights'.

When did you first learn about 'Invoking The Pause'?

I met Nicole (Heller) a year and a half ago, and we quickly discovered a shared interest in the psychology of climate change communication and how to effectively help broaden that conversation, especially in the United States. Nicole followed up with me, and we collaborated on the ITP grant proposal together.


What did you think of the concept of 'pausing'?

I loved having a retreat where we could step away from the demands of daily life and have more space to think creatively.  I really appreciated that the grant requirement included going to a place of beauty.  We often don't value how much our surroundings influence us.  

Describe what bringing people together from different disciplines was like for you? 

When you bring together people with different expertise that relates to the same topic, you can get a wonderful synergy of ideas. I was impressed with how readily the cognitive sciences faculty applied their ideas to the challenges of climate change communication. These were folks who were interested enough to come to this workshop but did not necessarily have much background related to climate change: These issues weren't necessarily pressing to them.  At one point, Nicole and I shared a timeline of important climate change-related history (e.g., climate science, weather events, denial-ism, and messaging). It displayed well how established climate science is and how challenging it has been to effectively motivate the broader public.  Very quickly, one of the attendees said, "Wow, you need our help!" They promptly began developing ideas for action beyond the 'pause'. The 'pause' also included participants with art- and film-related background, which contributed to our focus on how imagery can influence people's reactions and experiences.

What did you hope to get out of this 'pause' experience?

I hoped there would be something that would continue beyond the 'pause' and was very happy there was momentum afterward. Also, I have substantial interest but not extensive training in the psychology of climate change communications, so I was quite interested in gaining more perspective on those issues. Gavan Fitzsimons' insight into research on subliminal messaging was very potent and became a topic that shaped much of our conversation.  His research examines how things we don't think about influence us.  For example, when it's explicitly obvious that you are trying to tell people something, they often throw up barriers against your message, but they may be more receptive to the core message if it is not an obvious focus. Another important topic: Climate change requires long-term commitment rather than simply short-term action.  When people approach tasks, they like to check them off as 'done'.  But for tasks that are more long-term and harder to tackle, people may just check off that they did something to address it. Their mental model is "I did something so I don't need to do more." We need to change that model so people commit to action as a continuous process.


Duke neuroscientists have designed a new program called Brain and Society. As a 'Collateral Delight' from the 'pause', they have adopted 'environmental messaging' as a pilot project.  Brain and Society is part of the new IDEAS program at Duke, which brings undergraduate, graduate and professional students together on project teams with faculty and others to address issues that require different perspectives. The initiative will focus initially on five themes: brain and society, education and human development, energy, global health and information, society and culture. Researchers will lead teams that address a theme over a year and a half or longer. Students structure their course selection and conduct research projects around the theme.

Do you think the climate change message is sometimes so broad and so grim that it seems insurmountable?

Absolutely!  I've read studies about 'threat messaging' and 'challenge messaging'.  'Threat messaging' is doom and gloom and becomes overwhelming, such that it can lead to inaction because people want to avoid the problem or because action seems pointless. 'Challenge messaging,' however, establishes the problem but then motivates action.  When we do outreach, we need to enhance people's sense that change is possible, both in their personal sense of self-efficacy and in their sense that our communities, country, and world can change.   


How was this collaborative process for you?

I'm always struck by how a small setting with a group of people creates a sense of closeness so quickly.  I really enjoyed having that sense of developing community and the collaborative mixing of ideas.

Will you incorporate what you learned about messaging techniques in your own work with education and outreach?

Before the "pause" I went to The Climate Reality workshop for training on giving presentations related to climate change, based on Al Gore's talks.  Since then, I've given 3 talks and will deliver at least 7 more.  I was already interested in the principles of environmental communications, and inspired by the 'pause' I've not only tried to instill a sense of optimism in my talks but also to explicitly ask people what action they can commit to in an ongoing way. I also plan to be mindful about how I frame messages and images in outreach that I do on topics that may be hard for people to listen to, such as pesticide and flame retardant exposure and other environmental health risks. 

Explain more about your work within the Duke University community. 

My funding is primarily through the Superfund Research Center, which is a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences research program on environmental health & toxicology that's specifically related to toxic chemicals found at highly contaminated sites. My role is to bring these topics and research results to decision-makers (government agencies, community groups, professionals, the general public, etc.) so that they can use these findings in the decisions they make. I also work on environmental sustainability education, both in the community with a K-12 focus and in incorporating sustainability (ecological soundness, economic viability, and social justice) across the curriculum at Duke.


What is the number one thing you wish everyone would do to help the environment?

My first reaction is that I wish people would identify one or two important areas of their carbon footprint that they can take action on in an ongoing way, with the biggest areas being how we travel, where we live, and what we eat. My second reaction is that I want people to let their elected officials know that they are climate voters and call for these officials to take strong and vocal action on climate change. As part of both of these actions, I want people to have a greater sense that achieving sustainability is about helping the people - all of us - who live in the environment!

What motivates you? 

I care about people. Climate change is one of the most important dangers to global human well-being, with strong disparities in how it will hurt people from different races, classes, and countries. People often see sustainability issues, including climate change, as about protecting the natural world… and that is part of those issues. But, we humans very much depend on the ecosystems we live in, so these issues are, for me, centrally about supporting the well-being of people, especially people who are the most vulnerable to food scarcity, heat waves, storm damage, and other critical ways that global warming will change our daily lives.


As a non-car owning, bike commuting, vegetarian, solar living, contra dance caller and aerial fabric dancer and teacher, Eileen consciously cultivates a personal life that aligns ethically with her values.  She is a recent graduate with a Master of Science in Ecology from Duke University.  Thank you Eileen, for making committed choices in your life to bring about change, communication, and a call to action regarding climate change issues.