It’s time to change the way we talk about sustainability

Sustainability is dead. Or at least the entire language we use to talk about it should be buried.

Sustainability messaging must shift hard from a focus on abstract responsibility to one that helps people make subconscious choices that make them feel good about themselves. We need to speak to the heart, not to the head. From Peggy Liu, JUCCCE (Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy) (link)

So, I have a question for you guys:

How can you talk about saving the planet in a way that relates to the people you are talking to?

For example: getting people out of cars, walking/biking to work, living close to transit in order to reduce greenhouse gases, is not only too abstract, but it creates a very negative vision, a sense of fear, a very unrealistic vision (at least in the US) that may not work and seem idealistic.

What about…

Creating a lifestyle that allows parents more time to spend with kids, save money for the experiences that matter such as vacations, exercising/playing in the park, hanging out and watching a movie nearby.

Sustainability needs to connect with the emotions, people’s actual needs, not abstract concepts that come from our professions simply that is based on us telling what people should do.

As a city planner, I think we could learn something from the field of marketing/advertising; unfortunately, we’re so far off from people’s lives, focusing on really abstract concepts such as “urban design”, “transit-oriented development”, “form-based codes”, “getting people onto transit”, without really painting a picture of what sort of lifestyles that people can aspire to that is healthy to the planet and ourselves in the long run. 

The question is, what does a sustainable lifestyle really look like?

From the article:

Suzanne Shelton, an American pollster and behavior change specialist, talks about how humor may be more effective than education at breaking habits. She says, “Knowing a thing doesn’t mean you will do a thing.” Perhaps the biting wit of TV comedians Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert could be used to make fun of shameful unsustainable behavior.


In pointing out what makes a successful movie, Phillip Muhl, a major movie executive formerly of Disney, says that no one wants to watch a movie where the world is going to end and we’re all going to die. But we all love a good drama that shows us how screwed we can be, and yet the human race still perseveres. We go to movies for hope. How can environmentalists move from climate-weary white papers to magnetic box office–style stories?


The team behind the new Battlestar Galactica was brilliant in the way it allowed glimmers of hope in the midst of so much despair. Similarly, the human drama of everyday life on an Earth being stripped of resources must be told in a compelling way. Instead of the drama of polar bears or rising PM2.5 statistics, we must tell the story of us.

It’s time to start questioning not just what world we will leave behind, but what dreams we will shape for our children. To do that, we need to leave sustainability jargon behind and take up the language of hope.

What does a sustainable lifestyle really look like? How can we visualize it, understand it, and connect to it to start making small decisions today?

We have to be very craft-ful with our language, how we craft a story, that people can relate to and connect with. If anything, let’s start changing the way we can communicate sustainability.

Let’s start talking about lifestyles that is healthy for us as well as the earth.

This entry was posted in China, city planning, design, inspiration, sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

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