How to communicate about sustainability

Dr Julia Steinberger — Associate Professor in Ecological Economics — explains 5 lessons for communicating about sustainability science.

Earlier this year, my colleagues and I published an article entitled A Good Life For All Within Planetary Boundaries in Nature Sustainability. In this article, we aimed to test the central idea of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: is it possible for countries to achieve key social goals while maintaining levels of resource use that are not disruptive of key planetary processes? Depressingly, we found that no country currently achieves the majority of social thresholds without also transgressing multiple planetary boundaries.

Our article received a phenomenal level of public attention. In the weeks after its publication, over 100 news outlets ran stories featuring our results, we received significant attention on social media, and our website was visited by more than 23,000 people from 171 countries. Through this whirlwind experience, we gained some valuable insights into the challenges of communicating intertwined planetary and societal research. Distilled below are my top 5 lessons for sustainability science communication.

1. Paint pretty pictures

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World map showing which countries are transgressing the planets boundaries.
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World map showing which countries are achieving social thresholds.

The fact that Kate Raworth had paved the way with her seminal diagram in Doughnut Economics also prepared our audience for this new kind of combination of sufficiency thresholds (above a certain level is good) and environmental limits (above a certain level is bad), where a good outcome is not an optimum, but a balancing act.

2. Stop searching for ‘El Dorado’

We were often asked about specific favourites (‘What about Cuba? What about Bhutan?’). The idea of an existing El Dorado, a golden mythical land, somewhere out there, represents a strong desire to find a role model to emulate, rather than adventure into uncharted waters. But our results (and those of many other studies) mean that we must do just that: move away from existing economic models, and towards very different ones, changing economic structure and provisioning systems in the process. We must build El Dorado here, not copy it from elsewhere.

3. Population growth remains an explosive topic

4. Technology will not swoop in to save us

Dreaming about solar panels often comes at the expense of collective efforts to shut down old 20th century technologies. Technologies are not value-free or politically-neutral, and for better technologies (both environmentally and socially) to become dominant, we must engage in the intense political battles to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

5. Imagine frugal welfare

This can only be done effectively by articulating a position based on sound values and a shared radical vision: a vision where quality of life does not require excessive consumption, and where working toward each other’s benefit does not hinge on growth beyond planetary limits.

Caring for each other, contrary to modern economic and policy orthodoxy, does not require economic growth. Put most simply, we need to learn how to prioritise each other’s welfare and build societies that achieve social thresholds, while reducing excessive consumption to be within planetary boundaries.

This article was first published by Oxfam Views & Voices on August 7, 2018.

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