How do we talk about sustainability in a way that isn't so alarmist it has a distancing effect or so personal and small that it fails to compel?
That's the question recently addressed by some pace-setting British research.
For once, I think they're asking the right question. And, frankly, that's no mean feat.
So much of our discourse these days reflects a misapprehension of precisely where our 'modern' human support system has gone awry and where the levers are with which we can reshape our 'post-modern' future. That is, we're asking the wrong questions.
To go right to the bottom line: IPPR sees two repertoires challenging for dominance in the new ‘common sense’:
- global 'alarmism'
- personal ‘small actions’
Most important, they see a way to merge the best of both in a new myth of the ‘ordinary hero’.
The essential hook is that, yes, our challenges are heroic, and yes, ordinary folks are center stage.
Human’s CAN transform our place on the planet as we all alter ‘the way folks like us do things’...in other words, as living sustainably becomes desirable, not dutiful or obedient.
Small actions add up because that’s how the human support system works.
Now, IPPR has released a follow-up volume that examines the relative success of various climate change awareness campaigns, and profers these recommendations:
- Seize the consensus, before greenwash erodes its potential
- Make it easier for people to understand what they can do
- Harness opportunities offered by real, located ‘communities
- Use all possible routes to engagement
A major challenge for communicators, says IPPR, is "to capitalise on the apparent consensus, and use it to bring about real and positive behaviour change among individuals and organisations before it fractures or fades."
In the initial report, IPPR focused on the potential for personal small actions, and called this an "opportunity for change".
"The ‘problem’ of disparity of scale – between the enormous problem (depicted in alarmism) and small individual actions – is potentially the opportunity. With the right approach, one could properly harness this disparity by using myth to inject the discourse with energy (a ‘myth’, in this sense, reconciles seemingly irreconcilable cultural truths).
Opposing the enormous forces of climate change requires something superhuman or heroic. Science is not enough – especially when scientists argue among themselves. What is needed is something more magical, more mythical. Our suggestion from this research is that the key powerful myth for action on climate change is ‘ordinary heroism’.
In this model of communication, the cultural norms (what we normally expect to be true) are that heroes – the ones who act, are powerful and carry out great deeds – are extraordinary, while ordinary mortals either do nothing or do bad things. The mythical position – the one that occupies the seemingly impossible space – is that of ‘ordinary hero’."
Still, "the discourse has shifted", says IPPR, and "we need to develop additional strategies to suit the evolving communications climate."
The good news is:
"The disparity between the portrayal of the problem and of its solution is no longer so immense."
"It remains a challenge to make climate-friendly behaviour desirable, not dutiful, in ways that are meaningful to the population at large, says IPPR. "For this reason we advocate making use of the full spectrum of communications approaches, including those more commonly used by the private sector."
"Efforts to curb emissions will never be successful without radical policy measures at the national and international level. But neither will they succeed without a shared popular culture of environmental responsibility in the UK.
"Organisations now have the opportunity to integrate environmental awareness and commitment into the way people actually think, feel and live in the 21st century."
Got it? (Sheesh, I broke it down for ya, but if anything, go read every word...several times.)
We gotta get it, dontcha know.