Image: Andrey Emelyanenko, courtesy of Shutterstock

By Marilyn Cornelius

Recently I visited Xunantunich, a site where Mayan ruins are being uncovered in the impoverished nation of Belize, formerly British Honduras. Aside from the sheer beauty and powerful energy of the site, I was struck by a pair of trees our guide pointed out. One was called the Poisonwood Tree, (Metopium brownie) because of the strong allergen in its bark. The other, a reddish tree, which I later found out is called the Gumbo-Limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), contained the antidote.

From a behavioral science perspective, which underpins most of my inner and outer work, this phenomenon of adjacent peril and cure would warrant careful observation to inform intervention design principles that would (a) optimize for desired behaviors (avoiding poisonous plant altogether, and if encountering it, knowing about the antidote and obtaining it immediately, as well as sharing the learning with others) and (b) minimize undesirable behaviors (encountering and ingesting the poisonous plant without knowing about it).

Of course, variables such as time taken for poisons and antidotes to take effect, and potency of each, can be precisely studied in the lab. When it comes to climate change, though, as my late mentor Steve Schneider used to say, we don’t have “Lab Earth” on which to try out our experiments. How, then, do we address climate change using our everyday actions?

We can turn to biomimicry to help us answer this behavioral question. Climate change is upsetting the balance to the global atmospheric system. When Ma Earth faces an imbalance, as climate change presents, nature produces her own experiments: mutations. Mutations are permanent genetic changes that produce different characteristics in individuals of a species. Some mutations result in failure and death in the environment they enter; others serve to pioneer new adaptive strategies for survival and success of a species.

In order to address climate change, we must experiment with mutations of our behavior to achieve win-win solutions, that is, to bring our behavior back into alignment with all life and ensure no harm is being done to our precious earth for which we have no duplicate version. Discerning win-win solutions is not difficult if we take into account impacts of our actions on various aspects of the context in which we live. For example, if we “mutate” our eating behavior, say by eating plant-based or vegan foods when social norms support meat and dairy, what impact does that have on our staple meat-centric diets?


Image by ChameleonsEye, courtesy of Shutterstock

Why focus on diet, anyway? Why challenge the norm of meat-eating? The recent announcement from the World Health Organization that red and processed meat intake is linked to colorectal cancer has caused quite a stir in the media. Worse, we already know that producing red meat is extremely inefficient and has many other harmful impacts: animal agriculture has the highest greenhouse gas impact compared to transportation and other sectors, requires copious amounts of grain as feed, and 100 times the water compared to growing vegetables and grains, and requires the slaughter of billions of farmed animals worldwide annually. Plus, we are losing rainforests at the rate of an acre per second, with 70% of the Amazon rainforest now destroyed due to beef production.

Research tells us that a plant-based or vegan diet has the lowest greenhouse gas footprint, lowest water footprint, avoids cruelty to animals, can reverse heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes, can reduce cancer risk, and requires less land compared to meat and dairy. This is, by definition, a win-win solution, and has garnered support by the United Nations, as evidenced by both this report from the United Nations Environment Program and the FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report.

The obstacle then, is how to increase acceptability of this mutant behavior. How might we rapidly shift societies that are accustomed to meat and dairy, to plant-based foods that are better for them and the planet?

The answer integrates behavior change, design thinking, biomimicry, and meditation:

Behavior change: If humans change their dietary habits and become herbivores, we will be able to free up grasslands and pasturelands currently used to graze livestock, and convert them to native forests to sequester more carbon than we have added to the atmosphere since the industrial era. Plus, this will improve human health, reversing the global epidemics of diabetes and obesity. From a moral standpoint, we will also be able to spare animals from brutality in industrialized factory farms, and regenerate a healthy planet for our children and theirs.

Design thinking: There are many creative pathways (including biomimicry) for how to initiate and implement a shift to a plant-based diet, which human-centered design can be employed to help discover and prototype.

Biomimicry: If we humble ourselves and look to nature as mentor, we find that a given piece of land can support more herbivores than carnivores. This is because herbivores are eating directly from the land, with a much more efficient conversion of energy from plants than carnivores, who convert energy from the bodies of herbivores. Translating this to our animal agriculture system, we see we have greatly skewed this balance, and that it is tremendously inefficient to produce meat compared to plant-based foods. As we perpetuate this system, rooted in deforestation, biodiversity extinctions continue. Nature promotes all life by adapting to change, evolving to survive, and being resource efficient; in order to follow these Life’s Principles, we must let nature lead.

Meditation: Each person can become a leader in this shift, but an important prerequisite is to connect deeply with self, family, colleagues, community, and planet. This level of connection requires and can be expedited through a regular meditation practice.

These four pillars form the science-based Alchemus Prime Diamond Model for leadership and human innovation, inspired by nature.

The answer, then, to “climate change: what would nature do?” is that nature would adapt. Adaptation is a behavioral endeavor. The antidote (plant-based eating), is right next to the poison (meat and dairy). The distance between the two, and how you can participate in the loving movement that nurtures all life? Your daily behavior.

A Belizean worker excavates carefully next to the Poisonwood tree, while, to the extreme left, grows the reddish Gumbo-Limbo tree that contains the antidote, illustrating how nature provides poison and remedy right next to one another.

A Belizean worker excavates carefully next to the Poisonwood tree, while, to the extreme left, grows the reddish Gumbo-Limbo tree that contains the antidote, illustrating how nature provides poison and remedy right next to one another.


About the author:

Marilyn Cornelius uses science-based tools, including behavioral sciences, design thinking, biomimicry, and meditation to lead retreats and workshops through her company, Alchemus Prime. Her work supports change management, transformative innovation, and authentic leadership with individuals, teams, organizations, and communities nationally and internationally. She helps clients cultivate integrity and self-efficacy to achieve creative, sustained, and life-affirming solutions. Marilyn holds a doctorate from Stanford University in behavioral science and climate change; her other degrees are in environmental resource management and graphic design.

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