Film Offers Social Science Insights on How to Save the Planet

During the last 20 years, social scientists have published a vast research literature exploring what it will take to shift society onto a more sustainable path. Determined to share these results with a broader public, Paul Steinberg has worked with more than 100 students to create entertaining multimedia educational tools. Now one of those tools—an animated film —has been accepted into the Wild & Scenic Film Festival slated for Jan. 9-12 in Nevada City, Calif.

Steinberg, the Malcolm Lewis Chair of Sustainability and Society and professor of political science and environmental policy, wrote and produced Who Rules the Earth? through a collaboration between Harvey Mudd College and the California Institute of Arts. It’s one of several works created as part of The Social Rules Project, which also includes a book to be published by Oxford University Press in fall 2014.

“The basic message of Who Rules the Earth? is simple: We need to take a close look at the rules that shape our daily behaviors and change them where necessary if we’re going to get society on a more sustainable path,” said Steinberg, who serves as director of The Social Rules Project. “The goal is to encourage people to move beyond the little things they can do for the planet—ride a bike or recycle a can—to become engaged citizens in rewriting the rules we live by.”

The film tells the story of a young woman who takes a journey to uncover the forces that are ruining the planet. She is confronted with the harsh reality that society’s rules shape every aspect of her existence, from the health of her community to building designs and land ownership. Ultimately, she discovers that protecting the planet will take more than recycling or tree planting.

Like The Social Rules Project’s other multimedia tools—the videogame Law of the Jungle and its interactive website—the film employs entertainment as a vehicle for information and inspiration.

“We decided to use different multimedia approaches to take the ideas out of the research and make them more accessible for the broad public. The goal is to fuse research, activism and beauty within a compelling story,” Steinberg said. “My hope is that people will see their world in a different way and, through that understanding, have the tools they need to bring about real, lasting transformations in their communities.”

Steinberg has spent the past 20 years studying biodiversity conservation and the human dimensions of global environmental problems. Before joining the Harvey Mudd faculty in 2003, he was a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. He also served as founding director of a new policy program at RARE Conservation and as a research consultant to The World Bank and Conservation International.
He is the author of three books: Who Rules the Earth? (Oxford University Press),Comparative Environmental Politics (MIT Press) and Environmental Leadership in Developing Countries (MIT Press), which won the Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for the best book in international environmental affairs.