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The Times They Aren't a-Changing

We are at a point in our species’ history when the need for change has never been stronger. Therefore it is with some frustration that the change we require remains ever out of reach, trampled by business as usual.

At every sustainability or CSR conference a plethora of gurus will tell you that sustainability and CSR types use the wrong language, are too techy, are too interested in the difference between GRI G4 and G3.1 or are too immersed in the internecine antics of the IIRC and SASB.

This is, of course, true. Few consumers will prioritise a company’s use of ISO26000 over the design, performance and desirability of the products it sells.

However, the lack of mainstream acceptance of sustainability is not down to the choice of words that sustainability practitioners use. The reasons are more fundamental, more willful, more concerning and occasionally more ludicrous.

Natural philosophy for the 21st century

We have entered a period which has strong echoes of the European Enlightenment period. Natural philosophers such as Newton, Leibnitz and Hooke, just as others had before and did after them, applied curiosity and investigation to their examinations of the world. They then held their thinking up against the orthodox world views of the day — thereby exploring the dissonance.

Eventually the approach they developed, and the “truths” they uncovered, became the foundations of the scientific approach.

Today, many groups are nagging at the gulf between what orthodoxy preaches and what “reality” suggests. For instance, rebellious students enraged by being taught economic theory rendered obsolete by the financial crash are lobbying for the development of courses of “post-crash economics.” Similarly, calls for the consideration of Natural Capital as the source of all human value have their arguments founded in an article of physical truth (humans need to eat, drink and breathe) aligned against the social science conception of economic theory (economic growth can be infinite and disregard the parameters of the planet).

Truth just doesn’t cut it anymore

A strange aspect of our current orthodoxies is that for some reason they have only needed to be “truthy” or have “truthiness” to have the feeling or appearance of truth in order to be accepted or responded to.

So, economic theories only have to work with certain baked-in assumptions, or in certain contexts, to be considered capable of applying globally; regardless of whether they work in all cases and at all scales. Likewise, theories about how the world works, or whether certain environmental issues represent threats or are the result of human activity, tend to be reliant for their success not upon the level of verifiable facts at their disposal, but whether they appeal to what we would like to believe.

Of course, even the term “truth” is a difficult one, as people can share many different conceptions of the word. Scientific method remains the only really reliable way humans have to obtain agreement on what is “true.” Sustainability advocates stray from the scientific method at their peril.

The idea that it is only “the truth will set you free” — that people faced with a strong body of evidence would choose to change their minds and their behaviour — is clearly not often the case. However, this does not mean that we can afford to move away from facts; otherwise we become untethered from any defensible position.

Divided by a common language

The challenge for those of us seeking to achieve a sustainable world is that our means of persuasion — which must acknowledge uncertainty and be rooted in the scientific method — are not always those which appeal to the majority. We should also recognise that those who do not share our belief in the need for change may use very different means to convey their message.

This produces an asymmetric situation — each side plays by different rules.

A stunning example of this is the conception of the “reality-based community” — a phrase coined by a neo-con advisor to the G. W. Bush administration. This was used as a term of pity and abuse and essentially said: “You scientific empiricists are slaves to ‘reality’ and are hidebound by your commitment to scientific method. We, on the other hand, are history’s actors; we make our own reality through our actions and will have created a new world while you are struggling to keep up.”

Comfort with familiarity

We also have a strong disposition to the familiar, the status quo, despite the fact that the familiar may be impermanent and itself the product of radical change. As humans we don’t tend to perceive cumulatively significant but incremental change and we also actively welcome certain other types of change — those that we consider to be “progress.”

In addition, there is some fascinating emerging psychological analysis which suggests (broadly) that progressives (perhaps most likely to be sustainability advocates) tend towards considering themselves distinct or different from others with similar views (they overstate this difference) whilst conservatives (more likely to be distrustful of sustainability) tend towards considering themselves as more aligned with those holding similar views.

In essence one side leans away from like minds and the other leans towards! This means that sustainability advocates are less cohesive and aligned than those that “reject” it — perhaps a significant reason why we find it hard to develop a collective voice for the our species’ future on the planet.

Speaking truth to power

Of course, the means and modes of communication that we need to employ must be varied, and capable of appealing to the different dimensions of what it means to be human: rationality, desire, empathy, emotion, reason, aspiration and gut feeling.

To date, we haven’t done too well. But it is worth remembering that for every dollar spent espousing greater sustainability, there are many thousands, if not millions, spent encouraging a world that is profoundly unsustainable.

It is hardly surprising that, as a species, we haven’t made much progress towards being sustainable. We haven’t actually tried yet!

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