Five Things Sustainability Communicators Need to Give Up Now

Years ago there was a famous photograph of a young girl in Sudan crawling to a feeding station with a vulture (the ultimate bird of opportunity) behind her, as if waiting for her to surrender to the inevitable. The graphic and compelling image of human suffering was haunting and I recall it vividly today. Sustainability advocates, in an effort to tap into the same emotion, have used -- and used and used -- images of a polar bear (often a cub and what is presumably its mother) on a tiny piece of ice floating off into the great unknown. But the image does not compel others beyond those already convinced.

Comedian George Carlin made this point several decades ago -- it is not about "saving the planet" and the Earth is not some fragile thing that needs us to nuture it. So it is time to give up the trite photographs of hands gently cradling seedlings (or the Earth) -- and the rhetoric about "saving the planet." Nature is a powerful and resilient force we must respect and appreciate. It is resilient in that we can -- and sadly do -- pump tons of pollution into the atmosphere. We deluge our rivers and streams with pollution. Our oceans are virtually awash of plastic and waste. And yet, through it all, nature endures. It adapts. It overcomes. And ultimately we -- as individuals and as the human race -- can expect to be treated with the same level of special consideration as the Stegosaurus, the Dodo bird, the Passenger Pigeon, the gazelle being chased by the cheetah or the seal being snatched by the Orca -- that is to say ... none. It is only through our power of reason that we have the capacity to understand our role in creating (and changing) our own fate, just as we have extended the natural lifespan of our species (through hygiene, medicine, better diets, shelter, etc.) It is time we gave up the conceit that we need to save the planet and recognize that it will be fine with our without us. It is up to us to make sure we do not continue to blindly engage in actions that threaten our heath, well-being and safety.

Another reason why we should abandon both of the above is that the neglect two thirds of the sustainability model -- the impact on people and the need for it to be linked to profitability. They continue to feed into the mistaken notion that sustainability is a synonym for environmental stewardship rather than a business model that seeks to increase profitability while being respectful of the environment and advancing of the human condition.

It has been a compelling image for more than 100 years, as the ultimate symbol of hubris, over-reliance on technology, failure to heed multiple warnings leading to catastrophic doom. So the image of the RMS Titanic, fantail in the air prior to her final plunge into the abyss, has been overused to the point of tedium. Most recently it was used for climate change with a speech bubble from the stern: "How can we be sinking when we're 200 feet in the air?" It may get a few knowing chuckles from those who already understand and believe climate science, but does anyone really think that image is going to change anyone's mind? People may never get tired of using the image; but most people I know are tired of seeing it representing everything.

Colin Durrant suggested via twitter that PDFs have passed their utility. They're not readily accessible. They are static, require downloads and they are an example of message distribution and not effective 21st century communications. And there are many more options for effective storytelling too. Beyond this, PDFs say "here it is" and "this is it" rather than welcoming and fostering true engagement about whatever subjects are covered. He shares that mobile-friendly and interactive sites area much more engaging and transparent.

Coline Vaillant shared her frustration with organizations eagerly over-promoting as "progressive" a CSR approach that amounts to little more than compliance with legal requirements! Similarly, Nate Springer is tired of reading those who claim that "Sustainability is in everything we do." With some exceptions, it usually indicates the exact opposite.

What do you think? What else doesn't work for you?

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