Sustainability needs a new language that is more accessible and more compelling to the average person. Business, government, and other organizations are making strides advancing sustainability but we need wider involvement and faster growth. Although we are seeing increasing levels of environmental activism, we need to expand the message to reach a larger circle of people.
We must do more than preach solely to the converted. The number of committed environmentalists is insufficient to induce the required changes. At present, environmental communications are geared toward an elite group not the general population and for those that do get the message, it often fails to resonate. For those on the outside, the language of sustainability is a confusing jumble of fear-inducing figures that ultimately prove to be both polarizing and paralyzing.
We need government legislation and regulation, but if we are to bring about lasting results, we must augur change by speaking to the hearts and minds of average people. Fact based approaches have not worked and fear based approaches may make matters worse by breeding avoidance and apathy.
Making green advocacy more compelling to larger numbers of people demands new strategies that are based on more than fear, facts and figures. While the logic of sustainability is overwhelming, reason alone has proven insufficient to change consciousness on a global scale.
Finding ways of communicating the value of sustainability to the masses is one of the most prescient issues of our time. To disseminate the message on a truly global scale, we need to tap into the positive emotional and spiritual elements of the human psyche.
The use of such positive emotional and spiritual communication is far more likely to induce people to act.
What we can learn from branding and marketing
We can learn a lot from branding and marketing experts. Whether or not we agree with the products and services they promote, we cannot disagree with the fact that many big brands have succeeded in changing both attitudes and behaviors. We need to harness this power and put it to work for the planet.
We must do a better job of communicating and marketing sustainability. We need to benefit from an understanding of the effective marketing and communications strategies employed by the big brands. As explained in a May 15 Marketing Magazine article:
"It is officially time to pass on, or at the least share with marketing, the baton of sustainability. It is also time to re-brand that baton. Reducing complex science to simple science in attempts to mobilise mainstream behaviour change has failed to deliver..."
We need to communicate in a language that is accessible to all. To successfully communicate sustainability to the average person we need to employ language that resonates. As any marketer will tell you, consumers are more interested in what is sexy then what is reasonable.
"[A] sustainable society can be one where people enjoy high well-being and a rich culture, where we can all reach our potential and have an incredible time along the way. We need new and compelling consumer aspirations - ones that can be achieved within environmental limits, of course...The opportunity to frame a future that is sexy (and yes, of course, sustainable) is right here."
We need to show that sustainability can be fun in addition to saving lives and radically enhancing our quality of life. To do this, we must understand that people are much more likely to respond to communications that speak to universal aspects of the human experience. namely love and desire.
Love and the desire to act
Cultivating love in ourselves and in others may seem like a tall order, but we are all born into the world hardwired with a capacity to love. We already have proof that love works to augur change. Love for the planet and each other is mobilizing environmental activists in unprecedented numbers all around the world. Eco-communities are popping up everywhere as more and more people are looking for ways to express their positive regard and make a difference. These passionate environmentally minded people are motivated by love, they care deeply about the planet and are prepared to act to lessen their impacts on the earth. Love for the earth makes us good stewards and tireless activists. Love endlessly motivates us to take the message out into our communities and into our workplaces.
Love is the most powerful motivation and it can help us to overcome both apathy and materialism. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of the threats posed by climate change. However the best way to combat paralysis is to care. Caring is neither difficult nor complex and it is within all of our grasps. If we really want to forge a better world, even more than the tactics we employ, we need to cultivate the love to make the effort.
Love is an antidote to rampant materialism. Although material concerns rule the day, love ties us into a value system that runs far deeper than money. Being part of a cause greater than ourselves offers a purpose and a sense of meaning to life that material pursuits do not. Acting with an awareness of the planet connects us to our world in a deeply fulfilling fashion.
Although the benefits both personally and collectively far outweigh the sacrifice, making a more sustainable world may entail a decrement in money, power, or position. These types of sacrifices are far more readily made out of love.
Love is a primary motivator that causes people to think beyond themselves and consider the needs of future generations. Without the impetus of love it will be difficult to move beyond self interest.
Accountability through spirituality
Spirituality is a powerful tool to help people be more accountable and this will increase environmental engagement. While organized religion is dying, belief in a higher power remains strong with more than 9 in 10 Americans calling themselves believers. What is even more interesting is the fact that belief is strongest amongst those who are most likely to deny climate change (conservatives and Republicans). The inference here is that spirituality may offer an inroad through the impermeable dogmatism of climate deniers.
It is important to understand that we are talking about spirituality and not religion. Religion promulgates certain fixed beliefs while spirituality in the context of this discussion is about soul-searching and the pursuit of truth. Spirituality commonly transcends the practice of religion. The distinction is important because we need to get beyond the polarization we have witnessed with environmental evangelists on one side and climate deniers on the other.
As explained by Mark C. Coleman, author of “The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Accountability is Essential NOW!,” one of the keys to getting people environmentally involved is fostering a greater spirit of accountability.
"Being accountable by being present and in the right frame of mind for sound decision-making is essential for (1) recognizing our behavior; (2) understanding the impact of our behavior on economy, environment, and society; and, (3) being able to take action through personal accountability to modify behavior to effect change."
Spirituality is is an ego transcending journey that cultivates a sense of purpose beyond ourselves.
"Being able to think beyond ourselves requires patience, humility, a strong capacity for listening and learning, and an ability to separate ego from our true 'self',” Coleman explains. "Understanding that spirituality goes beyond the practice of religion, and that we all are part of a generation living within a context of time and fate which is requiring more accountability from each of us, is a perspective toward how people can begin to embrace sustainability from personal point of view."
People are suffering from widespread disillusionment. Add to this the anxiety inducing reality of climate change and people are more likely to avoid rather than engage. People are detached from themselves, from each other and from nature.
"The underlying power of humanity is that we are resilient and can adapt to change. But in the act of being resilient we rely on spirituality, being caring, and finding connections among one another and the world that foster sense of self, resourcefulness, and community."
According to Coleman the answers to spirituality and sustainability are within us.
"The sustainability of our generation, and the earth, are intrinsically tied to our capacity to delve individually and collectively into spirituality. Individuals have the power within themselves to be the stewards of their behaviors, to set the standard for accountability within society, and represent a generation of enlightened individuals that can not only be resilient, but be a force for creating a better world. The generation living here and now is the Sustainability Generation. This generation will be measured not on its ability to wage war, land on the moon, or build financial wealth...From here on out the Sustainability Generation will seek out harmonizing its relationships with nature, among one another, and with God."
The convergence of sustainability and spirituality can foster accountability and increase the will to act. Spirituality can also enable us to avoid falling victim to hopelessness and selfishness.
A direct offshoot of sustainability, deep ecology includes a spiritual element, and as such, may be a better vehicle to communicate the value of green. Deep Ecology brings together cutting-edge science, philosophy, action and spirituality. It is arguably the most holistic school of environmental thought as it is largely concerned with ecosystems and as such, it is a study of interrelationships.
This environmental philosophy is characterized by its advocacy of the inherent worth of all living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs. It further advocates that societies need to be restructured in accordance with such ideas. It holds that human destruction of the natural world poses a threat to all organisms in the natural order.
Deep ecology's core principle is the belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having the right to live and flourish.
Deep ecology is providing a foundation for the environmental, ecology and green movements and has fostered a new system of environmental ethics.
A new approach to communicating sustainability must engage people on a spiritual and psycho-emotional level. Ecological awareness must be communicated as a heart-felt mind-set that people embrace and practice everyday.
If the sustainability revolution is to expand and achieve critical mass, it must be embedded into our core values.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: AlicePopkorn, courtesy flickr