Sustainability needs a booster shot with one key ingredient: Excitement
Let’s face it — we are not winning for now the battle on sustainability. One reason is that we’re struggling to articulate a sustainable future that we can be excited about. With sustainability losing its mojo (if it even had one, to begin with) it’s time to figure out quickly how to rewild people’s imagination.
Let’s face it — we are not winning for now the battle on sustainability. Yes, you can read the news every day on this or that positive development, but overall key trends are still moving in the wrong direction — from planetary boundaries that exceed safe limits to deforestation in the Amazon that continues to break records. In addition, there is no end in sight to the exploitative relationships between the global North and the global South, and issues like social justice are still not truly a priority for most companies.
We can argue whether the glass is half empty or half full, but the facts speak for themselves, and given the urgency of the climate crisis we need to accept that something is not working for the sustainability fighters. There are probably a number of reasons for it but one that I want to focus on here is that there is little excitement about sustainability these days. To put it bluntly, sustainability has lost its mojo if it even had one, to begin with.
Just ask yourself what people are excited about these days? Probably NFTs, traveling, cryptocurrency, TikTok, and getting crazy cheap clothes at Shein to give a few examples. Can you think of any examples of sustainability that can match or even get close to these ones?
Yes, there’s a lot of buzz around ESG and net-zero goals, and even the circular economy and regenerative design, but this is mostly within professional circles, not among the majority of your friends and neighbors who may care about sustainability to some degree but are probably not excited about what it has to offer them.
One question though would be: Do we really need to get excited about sustainability to make it happen? If the answer is positive, then the next question would be: How to make it happen?
My sense is that excitement is a necessary ingredient if we want to achieve a more sustainable future. I agree with Adam Met, who points out that fear and hope are not enough to drive change. To mobilize people in order to drive change in corporations and governments, we need to get them excited about it. Whether “excitement is a universal human trait present in all human social environments” or it is only a modern phenomenon as Stephen Lyng suggests in Emotions Everyday Life and Sociology, the bottom line is that we do place a value on excitement.
This is not really a new concept. Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, for example, write in The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2005): “People don’t need enormous cars; they need admiration and respect. They don’t need a constant stream of new clothes; they need to feel that others consider them to be attractive, and they need excitement and variety and beauty.” A few years later, Futerra further emphasized this notion in its report “Sell the Sizzle” (2012): “Without being incentivised, excited or inspired by an aspirational ideal of where we might go as a society, few of us will act. We need to enthuse people about the potential benefits of a better way of living and overcome the vocal voices of delay and denial.”
The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: First, we fail to articulate an exciting and compelling vision of a sustainable future, perhaps along the lines of what Futerra describes as “low carbon heaven.” Second, we fail to create innovations that will show us the potential of a sustainable future and motivate us to support the journey toward this future. If we look at it using the Three Horizons framework, the failure is on both Horizon 3 (vision of a viable future) and Horizon 2 (innovations towards the vision).
The failure to have a vision that people can be excited about is very frustrating. In many cases, we know what people desire — for example, The Good Life 2030 project identified across different segments a shared vision “that shifts from separation to interconnectedness to SELF, OTHERS and NATURE.” However, somehow, we don’t see translations of these ingredients into creative work that will help people imagine what this vision can look like and make them excited about it. As Elise Boulding wrote: “We cannot achieve what we cannot imagine.”
While popular climate doomsday movies, TV series, and books are in no shortage, how many popular movies, books, and TV series do you know that portray a desirable sustainable future? There are some nuggets here and there, but very few overall. “Hollywood’s vision of our climate future has been bleak: extreme weather disasters, societal breakdown, apocalypse,” Daniel Hinerfeld writes in Good Energy’s Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change. “It is the power and privilege of writers and artists to envision positive climate futures and bring them to life on the screen,” Hinerfeld, the Director of NRDC’s Rewrite the Future, suggests.
One such an example is described by Kendra Pierre-Louis in the chapter “Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs” from the book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crises: “Black Panther’s vision of Wakanda rejects the oft-repeated story that we humans and our environment are natural enemies. Instead, it tells a story in which humans have become technologically sophisticated while maintaining a flourishing relationship with their surrounding environment.”
The challenge does not end with a vision. When it comes to innovations we see very few examples of sustainable innovations that get people excited. This is not just about consumption even though consumption provides a good indication of the ‘excitement problem.’ The challenge is not only to get people excited about alternatives such as solar panels, electric cars, or plant-based meat but to generate excitement about changing our life for the better. Can we get people to be excited about using public transportation? Can we get people to be thrilled about repairing and sharing products as much as they are about buying new ones? Can we get people enthusiastic about food that does not require the degradation of our ecosystems?
The point is that exciting innovation does not have to be solely about improved user experiences, more access to better solutions, or easier ways to do the right thing, although we definitely need more of these ingredients. The focus should be on helping people reimagine what good or even great life could and should be about. The challenge is “to rewild the imagination,” as Sam Knights writes in This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. “We must all learn how to dream again, and we have to learn that together. To break down the old ways of thinking and to move beyond our current conception of what is and what is not possible,” he adds.
Policies should also excite us about the future. The Green New Deal seemed for a moment to offer a vision that excited young people (and even had a great video showing what a future based on it could look like), but it looks like this moment has gone, at least for now. What we are left with is a discourse that mainly looks at how to make a climate crisis less bad. This is important but how many people do you know who will get excited about a future somewhat less bad?
While some may question whether excitement can overcome persistent predatory delay, the type we hear about in reports such as the Guardian’s expose of the fossil fuel industry’s ambitious short-term expansion plans (aka carbon bombs). In my opinion, such obstacles only emphasize the need for more excitement — As Damian Carrington, who co-wrote this story, noted on the Guardian podcast the way to stop these plans is by people “making as much noise as they can to say this isn’t acceptable and we really demand change.” This is more likely to happen if people can see more clearly the possibilities for a better future that are taken away from them by fossil fuel companies.
So, how do we rewild people’s imagination? We can look at examples where it has been done quite successfully, including the unionization efforts at Amazon and Starbucks, climate movements like Sunrise movement (at least in its early days), the rise of cooperative-based models, reimagining entrepreneurship, and even new models to reduce food waste. At the same time, this is not enough.
What we need is a concentrated effort of designers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and activists to help us imagine what a sustainable future is all about and the pathways to get there. In his cli-fi novel, The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson describes this ministry as a body “charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves.” Similarly, what we need is a creative agency for the future, which will focus on rewilding our imaginations of the future we can have and making us far more excited about it. Without such an effort, we’ll keep finding ourselves struggling to figure out what “less bad” means and is it really worth fighting for.
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School in NY, where he serves as an Associate Director of the Strategic Design & Management BBA Program. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2021. For more information on his work see Sandbox Zero. Feel free to connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.