How to Talk About Sustainability to People Who Aren’t Environmentalists

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By John Adams

Have the arguments for sustainability gotten stale – or left out the most important points?

Make no mistake: the need for sustainable solutions has never been greater, and the clock is ticking. But after Earth Day, An Inconvenient Truth, Captain Planet, and endless news stories, is it possible that everyone who’s going to be moved to action by arguments about pollution, water quality, deforestation, and climate change has already been so moved?

What appeal do these arguments for sustainability have to people, and corporations, who have decided that the environment doesn’t need saving, and/or that the climate is probably not changing – at least not because of human activity?

If the sustainability movement has become a broken record, playing the same song over and over again, then maybe it’s time to come up with some new lyrics:  arguments that most Americans haven’t already heard, arguments that don’t need to mention climate change or any of the other usual subjects.

It’s not impossible – in fact, the need for sustainable solutions is so great that it’s easy.  Consider the following set of interacting challenges:

  • POPULATION: The global population is growing every year at the rate of five additional New York Cities – 76,000,000 additional people to water, feed, clothe, and eventually sell consumer goods to. Most are born in less developed countries, but are exposed to Western life styles that they generally grow up aspiring to.  No matter how well this is handled, there are going to be big resource availability challenges.  If population growth is handled badly, it’s a recipe for global unrest and terrorism.
  • EDUCATION: In the USA, elected officials dare not mention increasing taxes, and everywhere schools and colleges are cutting back. Tuition has risen so high that college educations are out of reach of most of our population. The US is rapidly falling far behind the rest of the developed world, especially in science and technology.  That’s a formula for decline.
  • NATURAL CAPITAL: When half of a total resource has been used up (it’s always the easy half that is withdrawn first), the costs of extraction rapidly escalate and the risks associated with extraction also rapidly increase. The halfway point is called “peak” because extraction always follows a bell-shaped curve. Take copper as an example. 150 years ago, there were boulder-sized nuggets scattered around on the surface in the southwest of the USA. Today, 0.02% copper ore is extracted from ¾ mile deep pits and driven to the surface in huge gas-guzzling vehicles. Oil, coal, uranium, natural gas, and many other natural resources are at or near “Peak.”
  • ENERGY DEPENDENCE: All prosperity (yes, ALL) is entirely dependent on cheap, abundant, high efficiency energy. Virtually every activity we engage in requires readily available cheap energy supplies. Early in the 20th Century, 100 barrels of oil could be extracted at the energy cost of about one barrel of oil. Today, one barrel of oil invested gets us only about three barrels of oil. We are soon going to be at a major challenge point in terms of energy availability.
  • ECONOMY: ALL money is loaned into existence. Each country’s central bank prints money and loans it to its government and charges interest. However, most of the money in existence is loaned by banks to individuals or companies, or charged to credit cards. Since ALL money creation transactions create debt that must be paid back with interest, it is a requirement of our monetary systems world-wide that the economy MUST grow perpetually (and debt levels by definition must grow perpetually) in order to create the extra money needed to pay back prior loans plus interest. Debt levels everywhere in the world are reaching such extreme levels that, increasingly, those who hold the debts are challenging governments in their sovereignty.

These issues – population growth, nonrenewable resource depletion, the economy, education, and energy dependency – are at least as urgent as the need to address climate change, and may reach a part of the population that has been consistently unmoved by calls to save the environment.

These elements are all interacting in a complex system. Finding new, more comprehensive approaches to this complex of sustainability challenges has never been more urgent and relevant to everyday life.

John Adams, Ph.D. is a faculty member in the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University.

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11 responses

  1. Very interesting post and I agree with your basic premise. I’d love to get a source for your quote “Early in the 20th Century, 100 barrels of oil could be extracted at the energy cost of about one barrel of oil. Today, one barrel of oil invested gets us only about three barrels of oil”.


  2. What about “connectedness” … the ideas behind “systems thinking” – ie when you can draw connections between, say, economic well-being and environmental protection, or peace. Once people start recognizing these connections, “sustainability” becomes a lot more obvious!

  3. Absolutely! Most people most of the time, however, engage in “either/or — reductionist thinking” rather than “both/and — systems thinking”so connecting dots is not an easy or regular thing to do. Note how the blathering TV pundits harp on single issues and oversimplified solutions to everything!

  4. I think one of the things that hampers sustainability efforts is the misinterpretation that sustainability and environmentalism (or climate change) are synonymous. On the contrary, climate change and environmental stewardship are two of many reasons why sustainable mantras make sense for the future of our culture.

    I think the ones you touch on are good options. One can even pitch human health via air pollution and water pollution, national security, monetary savings, etc. I think the flexibility of the pitch is important in not ostracizing new contributors and getting people on board.

    What is equally as important, in my mind, is that people realize that sustainability is not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle. Sustainability is a lifestyle–a perspective that acknowledges a system of systems that revolves around balance and stasis.

    With all hope, we’re making progress.

  5. Money is part of the human communication system and only has value to humans. It depends upon trust for its value and when that collapses economies revert to bartering. Trust is mostly maintained by the way we account for flows of money, which helps people come to a view on “value”.
    The way we presently account for our economic activity treats the resources and services of the natural system as essentially being “free”. That might have been an ok asumption with a few hundred million people on the planet but it certainly doesn’t hold now.
    Our current accounting system is encouraging ordinary people to destroy the future through their every-day actions and, worse, assures them it is “rational” behaviour because it is the “cheapest” way to do things. We need to change the system of accounting so that people can make money out of restoring natural resource and that mineral resource is treated as the precious, scare thing that it really is.

  6. Is this article saying that yet more statistics are the best way to talk to skeptical people? Haven’t most people heard some form of them before? I think that sometimes people shut down from reason and action when they’re scared or confused about what they can do. Of course new information is good, but when I saw the phrase “talking to people about sustainability who aren’t environmentalists” I expected to see other tactics for connecting with people on these issues.

  7. This is a fantastic reflection. I particularly liked the part on natural capital and energy dependence.

    I think each and everyone of us should give this text to our friends and relatives who do not see the point in acting on climate change and sustainability issues.

    Keep up the good work !

  8. I am a corporate sustainability consultant and have seen none of these statistics put so eloquently before. They throw people right out of the field of “environmentalism” and back into the court of commonsense.

  9. Excellent points. I am fascinated by how people are swayed (or not) by various arguments. Certainly, “gloom-n-doom” isn’t the way. Anxiety, blame and shame may be decent short-term motivators, but are nowhere near enough to sustain us over the long haul that is necessary.

    Showing people the upside is where it’s at. Show how it’s in their best interest. But HOW this is done is just as important as the content.

    For instance, the question of future generations can be a phrased as a heavy moral issue or simply a question that helps people see how much we all have in common (we all care about the fate of our children and grandchildren).

    I highly recommend reading both of Dan and Chip Heath’s books — “Made to Stick” and “Switch.” They are full of great stories and examples, as well as the science behind how to change and how to sell your ideas.

  10. Linking “economics” and the “environment” is the key to sustainability, as nothing is done without a profit motive.

    An easy-to-read book on the subject: TANSTAAFL by Edwin G. Dolan, 1971, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. ISBN: 0-03-086315-5.

    It will probably offend both people on the “right” and “left”.

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