Posted by: Jon | 13/10/2012

Tips for Communicating Sustainability to the Sceptical

Here’s  a taster from the Activities Section of the ‘Sustainability through Experience Handbook’ currently in preparation…

The book is a multi-authored theory and practice handbook on outreaching sustainability through experiential learning. It includes real-life case-studies and a compendium of experiential activities designed to extend learning beyond the ‘already converted’ by appealing to the interests of much less engaged populations – in other words, the great majority of people. It is intended as a resource for educators and change agents of all kinds – from CSR professionals, teachers, campaigners and activists to ordinary folk wanting to convey sustainability to less convinced family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Tips for Communicating Sustainability to the Sceptical

1) Start from where other people are at:*

Because as sustainability educators we are personally convinced of the need for mass social changes to sustainability, it can be difficult to accept that others may not see the world as we do. So sometimes we can be too quick to dismiss dissenting views and fail to understand people’s motivations for these. It is important to remember that often we are starting up conversations with people at different stages of awareness to our own and it takes time to move people to higher levels of engagement. We might understand the salient facts about converging environmental threats but successive surveys have shown that many others don’t so have not yet begun to join up the dots.

As activists and change agents, we need to work to understand the worldviews of those who disagree with us and communicate in ways which resonate with their own concerns and motivations. Through active listening – and being willing to be educated as well as to educate – we are more likely to shift conversations from unhelpful  reflexive reactions to deeper reflective responses.

2) Avoid strident and alarmist communications:

Our own fears about the dire prospects for sustainability under ‘business as usual’ can make us quite forceful and alarming in expressing our views, especially since we know that these are grounded in scientific fact. But people actually have many valid reasons for not responding to the stark message that “we are in a planetary emergency”. Common among these are: **

–   a sense of fatalism – the problems are too big and complex; the efforts of individuals on their own are meaningless and, anyway, are easily undone by the actions of others; there is nothing to be done except to “keep calm and carry on”;

–   belief that the problems are exaggerated – “there have always been doom-sayers and their predictions have never come true before”; “if things were really serious, governments would do something”;

–   a bias towards optimism something will turn up”; “technology will save us”;

–   belief that the science is uncertain – because scientists communicate risks in ways that accentuate the uncertainties in their findings, the overall scientific consensus on climate change and related threats is often lost. This uncertainty is amplified by powerful corporate opponents of sustainability who exploit public confusion to create doubts about the science.

–   feeling overloaded by information – there is now such a cacophony of information competing for attention that it is hard to be clear about what the problems are, what solutions are possible, who is responsible for implementing these, and which sources of information to trust. This is made worse when the advice and actions of leaders are often contradictory and there is little community reinforcement or feedback on progress made.

–   not taking ‘the long view’  – most efforts to address sustainability problems have been reactive, not pro-active, to the latest polls, politics and events. But these are problems that have been worsening incrementally over decades with consequences that will be felt long into the future. It is hard for people to mobilise against often imperceptible threats without clear long-term public strategies or a sense that cohesive national and international movements are being built.

Just as communicating alarm without also offering possible solutions is often counterproductive, so evangelical intensity can be off-putting and usually only gets people’s backs up. This can happen not just in engaging with ‘sceptics’, but also amongst the ostensibly like-minded. Jon Barrett has written of attending a meeting of activists which lost impetus after the chair – a woman well respected for her especially low-impact lifestyle – proposed that each  member publish their personal eco-credentials. Her motivation to ensure the group’s integrity was sound, but she failed to recognise the compromises most people need to make to get by in an imperfect world – or indeed the social and economic collapse that would follow if we all joined her in opting out of regular jobs to home school, grow vegetables and forage for waste food and firewood.

In outreaching sustainability, especially to resistant people, it is essential to show respect for people’s differing views and their life circumstances that inform these. As Permaculture teaches, nature is at its most fruitful and productive at the intersections where one type of ecosystem meets another. The same is often true of human relationships.

3) Find common ground in interests and values:*

Expressing interest in others through small talk is a social lubricant the world over. Through such apparently insignificant conversations we can build trust and identify commonalities as well as differences in the things that we care about.

The vast majority of us share a fundamental concern for our own happiness and for that of those close to us. Similarly, we all want sufficient means to provide for ourselves and our loved ones, to be able to engage fully in social life, to live in secure and pleasant neighbourhoods, and so on. When we recognise that preoccupations with personal sustainability are commonly our first priority, it is easy to understand why more abstract concerns about global sustainability might not be uppermost in many people’s minds.

Of course, to communicate sustainability we need to go beyond the purely personal to consider the bigger global picture. Here again, most of us share a common desire to live in a world that is economically and politically stable, with fulfilling work and development opportunities for all, and in which poverty, crime and violence are eradicated. We might well be divided about whether or not these are hopelessly naive ideals. But our common starting-point is that probably we agree that to work together to create such a world would be a good thing.

It is a short step from here to focus on how sustainability enhances well-being and the ways in which unsustainability threatens these. Research has shown that communications which emphasise the ways in which sustainability measures promote a better society are more effective than those which focus only on threats and the need to avert their risks. Because it is the issues that we feel personally connected to that we most care about, people are most engaged by messages that emphasise the personal and local benefits of sustainability – and how acting on these these also contributes to global sustainability.

4) Don’t get bogged down in the science:*

To be able to ‘start from where people are at’ and ‘find common ground’, we need first to know who we are communicating with – genuine doubters or deliberately contrarian deniers. Most global warming deniers repeat at least one of three basic arguments:

   “climate change is an entirely natural phenomenon”;

    –   “the evidence is inconclusive and there is no scientific consensus”;

    –   “addressing the problem will harm economic growth and development”. 

The views of many doubters are highly influenced by these oft-repeated claims. Whilst there is much scientific evidence to counter these, unless actually a scientist, usually it is best not to get involved in debating the science.

Much more productive to expand communications beyond the single issue of climate change to consider other simultaneous environmental threats and to emphasise the good sense of preparedness. It can be helpful to refer to how health professionals, military establishments and religious leaders are already grappling with the challenges of climate disruption, energy depletion, food and water insecurities, and overpopulation – and behind the scenes are taking these much more seriously than many public leaders who depend on popular acclaim.

5) Emphasise the positives – but don’t avoid the negatives:

Psychologist Niki Harré has highlighted how eliciting positive emotions can “make us more creative, better at sifting through complex information, more open to information that is personally threatening… and better negotiators.”*** But she also points out that positive emotions sometimes make us complacent whereas some negative emotions like anger or fear can focus our attention and catalyse us into action.

It is useful to remember that people are most accepting of upsetting information when the positives outweigh the negatives. So, when criticising a personal behaviour or a contrary point of view, we do well to off-set the negativity of our message by also pointing out the positive attributes we are aware of about the person and their motives. In this way, we make clear that it is not the person we are criticising but only a specific behaviour or argument of theirs.

For the same reason, people are most likely to be receptive when we balance anxious-making facts with positive visions (about the future) and positive volition (about the actions that are possible for people to take).

6) Tell the story of your personal journey to acting on sustainability:*

Stories are a powerful means of engaging people’s attention. Well-constructed stories dispel cynical and nit-picking objections by connecting directly with our deeper feelings and values.­

Our lives and societies are informed by deep-rooted cultural stories that frame our ideas about who we are and our place and purpose in the world. Some of these are helpful to inspiring sustainability, whilst others – such as those spun by advertisers to promote dissatisfied lives and, thereby, excessive consumption and waste – add only to the problems.

When we examine the stories that people find most empowering we find that many follow a timeless theme that relates how an ordinary person undertakes a challenging quest and transcends seemingly impossible odds to achieve extraordinary things. Interwoven into such tales are explorations of virtues such as fairness and forebearance, determination and perseverence, moral courage and selflessness. Think, for instance, of Luke Skywalker in ‘Star Wars’, or Frodo in ‘Lord of the Rings’, or of David squaring up to Goliath. Or else of the local newspaper reports we have all read about a someone who overcomes a severe disability to run a marathon or sail an ocean. Nicole Lampe points out that the stories that most move people contain three key components: they build an emotional connection; they describe a challenge or a threat to something people care about; and they conclude in a hopeful ending. ****

Not so long ago, we most of us took for granted the dominant contemporary narrative of continuously improving lives through unending industrial and economic growth. Each of us has a very personal story to tell about how we woke up to our sustainability crises. When we share our personal journeys to awareness and action – how our eyes were opened, the emotional impact our awakening has had on us, our concerns about how the things we value are threatened, our reasons for the life-changes we are attempting, and our hopes and visions for a better future – we are able, without preaching or judgment, to use our personal stories to surface commonly-felt dilemmas and anxieties and to exemplify what is possible for each of us to do. (See also: ‘Story-telling for Sustainability’).

7) Maintain mutual respect – even when you cannot agree:*

Always approach conversations in an emotionally sensitive manner and show the same respect you would want others to show you, no matter how ‘off-base’ or offensive people’s attitudes might seem. Don’t personalise arguments and be ready to calmly deflect personal attacks.

As well as looking for points of agreement, accept that in some areas you can agree to differ. Exactly how the future will unfold is unknowable to any of us. Once again, it is communications that focus on anticipating and preparing for problems and which emphasise the benefits of people with different perspectives, skills and knowledge co-operating to make a better world that are most likely to prevail. Remember that we cannot always know how we have influenced someone by their immediate reactions. But we may well have planted seeds of new awareness that will bear fruit over time.


*Talking Climate, (2012),  How to talk to a climate-change ‘denier’, available at:;

**Climate Access (2012), ‘Best practices for talking with climate skeptics – tips and tools’, available at:;

***Harré, Nicki (2012), Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability, pdf available at:

****Lampe, Nicole (2012), ‘Messages that Move’, blog-post available at:

Cruxcatalyst: The Heart of Change, communications resource for sustainability change agents, available at:


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