Lost In Translation: Why Aren’t We Changing?

Like Bigfoot and disappearing planes in the Bermuda Triangle, the lack of an overwhelming movement towards a sustainable society has always confused me.  The evidence is all there; for at least the past two decades, scientists have provided an enormous wealth of facts that all point to the urgent need of changing the way our world functions so that we won’t wreck our environment.  But for a significant portion of the population, it doesn’t seem to register as an important issue.  Why is there that disconnect?

The UNEP’s lifestyle team, led by Sweden, has released a report that may provide an answer as to why a disconnect exists between scientists and society.  What got my attention was the focus on modern environmental communication; the report finds that today’s communication about sustainability revolves around self denial – don’t drive, don’t use non-recyclable goods, etc.  As evident with the lack of a substantial societal overhaul of consumer lifestyle, this communication isn’t working and certainly isn’t attractive to most.  The report finds that thus far, environmental communication hasn’t concentrated on the positive effects of changing to a more sustainable lifestyle and what it can add to the quality of life for a person.   In fact, most of the communication carries a holier-than-thou undertone.  Accordingly, the report suggests that environmental groups and other sustainability organizations shift the dialog from “you can’t do this because it’s unsustainable” to “look what you can do when you are sustainable.”  As a college student who is just starting to understand the real world, this seems obvious to me: I’m more likely to do something when I’m presented with the positive possibilities rather than the negative consequences of not doing something.  For example, I didn’t buy a water bottle and water filter because someone told me to not use plastic bottles because they are bad; rather, a friend suggested I use those two things because it would save me money and relieve me from the hassle of running to the store to buy another case of water.  As the report highlights, it’s better to show the positive outcomes that can come about if a more sustainable lifestyle is adopted rather than preaching negative consequences of the status quo.

This report follows similar reports by the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable (2006) and Center for Research on Environemntal Decisions at Columbia (2009).  It hints at a potential major trend in the environmental activism community: a change in communication to make the research more applicable to the rest of society.  It may be all we need to really set off the sustainability revolution.

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