Tuesday 28 April 2009

The Language of Sustainability

Sustainability is communicated through many different channels in many different ways for many different reasons. It is received by many different people in many different contexts and is interpreted according to the hat that that person is wearing.

Yesterday I attended a conference run by the Institute for Environmental science, it was well attended, the speakers were excellent and the topic very important. The first speaker, Arran Stibbe (a linguistics expert) asked 'where is the place that people are motivated from?' He answered his own question by pointing out that we can't answer it because people are different. When it comes to stimulating action and communicating sustainability it is very important to remember that one size does not fit all - that was the core message from the conference.

The discourse, or discourses that we choose, the language we use and the medium we communicate through are all very important. Five excellent speakers followed Arran, Erik Bichard, Joe Ravetz, David Fell, Will Ashley-Cantello and Mark Everard. Aswell as Arran, the two that stood out for me were Ravetz and Fell. Ravetz discussed the public reaction to sustainability. Using the case study of his family home he asked 'does anyone believe scientists anymore?' (a question that Everard later argued self-aware scientists were now wary of). The complexity of the science and the, often sensationalist, way in which findings and predictions are communicated created sceptism in his kitchen and I suspect a few others. The NEF 100 months to stop Climate change got a rightful bashing from Ravetz! We were then taken through a few excellent 'Polyp' cartoons, it is well worth a look at the consumerism ones. Fun, arts based communication is very valuable.

David Fell discussed Daniel Dennett's observation of 'The Self as a narrative gravity' and Elias Cannetti's idea of 'society as a coalition of shared myths.' Dennett's observation describes how we are the person that we tell ourselves that we are. Fell pointed out that we tell ourselves a lot of stories. The shared myths of society help us to define ourselves, often we are defined by them. Fell displayed a 'wordle' explaining how we need to move from a self narrative that is consumerist, individualist and so on to one which is enoughist, caring, mature and so on. I'll post them asap!

Much else was discussed as the day progressed through two excellent workshops we analysed different discourses to think about which styles are best for communicated these issues. My little group of four thought it was important to be realistic, positive and empathetic when we are communicating sustainability. We also discussed who controls the language of sustainability, whether the terms sustainable development and sustainability should be scrapped and which words and phrases we should be using to try and create action around sustainability issues.

On the surface sustainability seems a simple thing to communicate - tell people about the problems and they will change their behaviour - the reality is that, when the goal is behaviour change, the appropriate form of communication is very difficult to pin down. Human behaviour is an extremely complex thing, changing it, even our own, is very challenging. I'll end with a quote from Arran Stibbe's excellent workshop on Sustainability discourses:

'The most highly motivating discourses allow people to align their deepest personal goals with creating a more sustainable society.'


Unknown said...

Thank you Morgan for let us know what is happening around the world, especially for people like me, living in other continent -America-.

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