The future of sustainability: Populism or slow demise

Sustainability is at a crossroads — while it become more common, it is also less effective when it comes to addressing key challenges. Changing this course would require a shift to a new type of sustainability: Populist sustainability, which is based on three tenets: Narratives, affordability, and chutzpah.

Credit: Dr. Case

In 2012 BSR, one of the leading organizations In the field of sustainable business, made the following observation in a report it published for its 20th anniversary: “As we reflect on the past 20 years, it seems that everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

This comment could be a summary of the work on sustainability over the last five or six decades — so much was achieved and yet the dominant systems and structures shaping our life haven’t changed that much. Sustainability, as a force for good, may seem more common than ever but has not managed to radically change our day-to-day life.

Furthermore, if we consider sustainability through the lens offered by John Ehrenfeld as “the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever,” then this vision seems less and less likely. After all, we are now at a point where “the dangers of climate change are mounting so rapidly that they could soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt, creating a harrowing future in which floods, fires and famine displace millions, species disappear and the planet is irreversibly damaged” (NYT).

Something has to change or else sustainability will continue to be some sort of wishful thinking that struggles to make a dent in the real world. In this scenario, sustainability will continue to be commonly used and even more so, but at the same time will be less and less impactful. This cartoon perfectly articulates this state:


The key issue here, in my opinion, is the inability of sustainability to present clear and exciting alternatives that improve their well-being that can trump the business-as-usual choices people have in front of them. The current framing of sustainability is just too weak to truly challenge and reshape the status quo. The same sentiment, by the way, can be made regarding potential ‘successors’ of sustainability such as regeneration. The problem, overall, is not unique to this or that version of sustainability but seems to be applicable to any effort to make the world more socially just and ecologically sound.

This challenge requires exploring a different approach to sustainability, one that would take a very direction in order to rekindle sustainability and make it a catalyst for change. I would like to offer here one approach that I believe can do the work: Populist sustainability.

Populist Sustainability

The P-word, just like the S-word, seems to be a catch-all phrase, so I’ll try to make it clear what the term populist sustainability stands for. From my standpoint, populist sustainability is about connecting sustainability with the concerns of ordinary people, as well as articulating the contrast between ‘the people’ and those who are involved in predatory delay.

So, what’s to populism and sustainability? The relationships between populism and environmental sustainability have been explored and discussed for a while, especially in the context of climate change (see here and here for example). Prof. Mark Beeson, who wrote a book on environmental populism, suggests, for example, that while “populism is usually associated with right-wing reactionaries who tend to be hostile to climate action…the idea of a “progressive,” environmentally oriented variety called “environmental populism” may not be quite as mad as you think.” “Given the existential stakes and the lack of credible centrist alternatives, populist uprisings could be an idea whose time has come. The challenge is to make progressive populist policies popular, well-informed, constructive and even healing,” he adds.

Prof. Paul Saurette, who works on an upcoming book on climate populism, offers to view populism “as a particular “rhetorical style,” one that can be used by a wide variety of political perspectives to communicate their visions of the world and seek to further their political goals.” Thus, “populist discourse is not simply a specific set of arguments or principles or ideological beliefs or values that frame our “thinking” or seek to intellectually convince us. Rather, populist discourse is an emotional story that tries to move us emotionally.” Building on this analysis, his point is pretty straightforward: “Populist stories are powerful. Let’s use them to champion progressive climate change policy.”

I find it useful to expand the lens from the response to climate change to sustainability. Using the latter as a focal point can help provide a more holistic focus on the need for a systemic change to address multiple ecological and social challenges. “To achieve sustainability,” Prof. Idil Gaziulusoy writes, “there is a requirement for transformation of socio-technical systems which fulfill certain social functions such as energy, mobility and food.”

With that in mind, I hope you would agree that some help is needed to make such a transformation happen, and preferably sooner than later. This is where populism kicks in. To a greater extent, populism seems to succeed where sustainability fails, and therefore using populism to help reshape sustainability can hopefully support the latter overcome some of its key shortcomings.

So, what is it going to look like exactly? I consider populist sustainability to be based on three tenets: Narratives, affordability, and chutzpah.

Picture: Times Up Linz

1. Prioritizing effective narratives

“Okay, let’s talk strategy. As attorneys, we are not finders of fact. We are tellers of story. You gonna write this down or what?

We take the evidence, and we craft it into a coherent narrative for the jury. I get it.

You don’t get it. Who said anything about evidence?

We base the story on the evidence, no?

No, we base the evidence on the story. We prove what helps us, we disprove what hurts us. Whoever tells the best story goes home with cash and prizes.”

(The Good Fight, Season 3, Episode 2)

For a long time, the fight over sustainability has always been strong on facts and weak on narratives. “All too often progressives succeed in winning the battle of the facts only to lose the battle of the story, let alone the broader war of ideas,” Canning and Reinsborough write in their book Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World. This is also the case when it comes to sustainability. It’s time to change it.

Populist sustainability does not suggest we abandon the facts but that we focus on and prioritize narratives. This is what is needed when the fight is over meaning-making. Canning and Reinsborough explain:

“Too often progressives think that just because a story is factually true, it will be meaningful to our audiences, and therefore build our power. But the reality is just the opposite: If a story is meaningful to people, they will believe that it is true. The currency of narrative is not truth but rather meaning.” (p. 24).

It’s not enough, however, to prioritize narratives. We need effective narratives. The populist story playbook offers a window into how to do it. Prof. Paul Saurette suggests that a populist story includes three main elements: “1. The lead protagonist of the story is always some variant of “the common people” 2. The story always includes at least one and often many key antagonists.. portrayed as an “elite” in some way. 3. The main plot is almost inevitably structured as an emotionally charged clash between good and evil.” This structure, he suggests, can be used in many contexts, with the necessary adjustments to the context.

Just like with any recipe, the challenge is not just to know the ingredients, but also to figure out how to use them properly. This is, for example, where I believe climate activists protesting in museums or blocking major roads in cities are failing — while their narrative may seem populist, it fails, for example, to show ‘the common people’ as the heroes of the story. On the other hand, the Yellow Vests movement in France (in 2018–2019) and Greta Thunberg (especially in 2019) are good examples of how to use these ingredients to craft a narrative effectively.

To follow the recipe metaphor, there is also a secret sauce that should be considered along with the narrative structure. Building on Kostiantyn Yanchenko’s research, this sauce should include emotionality, suspensefulness, and the ability to facilitate identification. While the first and the third elements are pretty straightforward, it may be worthwhile to explain the second one: “Populist narratives are also suspenseful. “Suspense can be defined as “a blend of fear and hope coupled with a state of uncertainty,” Yanchenko explains.

When we talk about hope as part of this blend, it’s a good reminder of the need to offer a vision for a better future. As Tobias Widmann, who study connections between populism and emotions, points out: “Positive emotions, such as enthusiasm and hope, have been found to be a powerful mobilizing force.” He further emphasizes that hope is actually more significant as a mobilizing force in times of crisis, which seems to fit where we are when it comes to sustainability.

Picture: Dan Dickinson

2. Standing for ordinary people

Sustainability may be a lot of things, but standing for ordinary people is not one of them. In theory, sustainability was supposed to be about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as the Brundtland Commission suggested about 35 years ago. However, in reality, it seems to be the case mostly for people who can afford sustainable solutions, but not for ordinary people.

Too many sustainable solutions come with a premium or require a hefty investment that may generate a return only after a number of years. For most people, this is not a compelling proposition, especially in times when their main concern is the cost of living. An interesting example of what a focus on this concern could look like is a campaign to reduce household food waste in Ohio, which “emphasized hard costs: the $1,500 the average family in central Ohio spends each year on food they don’t eat, the 22 million gallons of gas used annually to transport food that’s thrown away.” As one of the campaign managers pointed out: “The way to really get people’s attention in the Midwest and Ohio is through pocketbook issues.”

However, standing for ordinary people is more than just reframing a message on food waste reduction around cost reduction. It is about refocusing sustainability solutions on the needs, concerns, and capabilities of ordinary people rather than those of the economic elite. This tenet of populist sustainability alludes to the principle ‘if it is not affordable, it is not sustainable.’ In other words, if it’s not affordable, it’s just not good enough.

Applying the principle of affordability in sustainability is not necessarily an easy task, as it requires in many ways the redesign of how we create value sustainably. This is where the populist mindset can be helpful: As Octavia Bryant and Benjamin Moffitt note: “Populists are disruptive. They position themselves as outsiders who are radically different and separate from the existing order. So they frequently advocate for a change to the status quo and may champion the need for urgent structural change, whether that is economic or cultural.”

In this case, ‘the economic’ can also be synonymous with ‘the cultural’. Whether we talk about a communal bakery (The People’s Oven), repair cafes, tool libraries, extremely cheap public transportation, deep discounts for surplus unsold food, clothing swaps, or solar cooperatives, it is not just about affordability, but about grounding sustainability in ordinary people’s lives. It is also about prioritizing the needs of those who are affected mostly by sustainability issues, first and foremost the climate crisis, including “indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” (Green New Deal). This is about a mindset shift that will redefine what sustainability is aimed to do and how it does it exactly.

Picture: Streetsblog Denver

3. Have some chutzpah

“I want you to have chutzpah. Nothing important was ever accomplished without chutzpah. Columbus had chutzpah. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had chutzpah. Don’t ever aim your doubt at yourself. Laugh at yourself, but don’t doubt yourself.” (Alan Alda)

Chutzpah is described as informal shameless audacity or nearly arrogant courage. Furthermore, the Collins dictionary suggests that “if you say that someone has chutzpah, you mean that you admire the fact that they are not afraid or embarrassed to do or say things that shock, surprise, or annoy other people.” These are probably not qualities that we would intuitively associate with sustainability. Sustainability is trying to build bridges to a new, more socially just and ecologically sound world, but it does so for the most part with caution and respect to the rules of the game as well as the systems and structures in place, hoping the appeal of sustainable progress will overcome any potential obstacle.

However, this approach is just not effective. We are at a time where things are moving faster than expected, from the Amazon shifting to become a savanna to melting glaciers, which require dramatic changes. The composed, slow, step-by-step approach sustainability takes just does not seem a good fit for addressing such dramatic challenges. Thus, instead of bold and faster actions, we end up with large corporations celebrating incremental achievements, annual COPs that don’t go anywhere, and a lack of excitement in general about a sustainable future.

In that sense populism is almost the opposite of sustainability. It is shameless and is not afraid to pick up fights, even against very powerful actors. Not only that but as Prof. Ruth Wodak explains, with far-right populism we see what she calls shameless normalization: “It comprises both the normalization of far-right agendas, but it’s also a conversational style of breaking of taboos, violating conversational maxims, neglecting all rules of politeness and of negotiation.” Far-right populism also has also no shame in framing the fight over climate in ways that fit the worldview it tries to disseminate: “In the populist right’s telling, green policies such as fuel taxes and decarbonization incentives represent an elitist attack on the lives of ordinary people,” Yasmeen Serhan explains.

Populist sustainability can use these qualities but in a good way. Chutzpah “is the quality of audacity, for good or for bad”, so while far-right populism represents the bad version of chutzpah, populist sustainability can represent the good version of it. One of the best examples is Greta Thunberg. Her activism shows what a ‘good Chutzpah’ can look like when you have the courage to stand up against powerful actors and interests and confront them about their responsibility for the dire state we are in and their lack of action.

Where (almost ) everyone else dances around the truth, being afraid to challenge those with power and money, Greta has been telling it in the clearest way possible. We need to see this type of chutzpah when it comes to everyone involved in predatory delay, further focusing for example on all the companies and their leaders who are blocking or slowing change because they benefit from the status quo. As a matter of fact, the people and companies that are involved in predatory delay are the ones exercising chutzpah, and thus what we need is to address this chutzpah not with courtesy and respect, but with greater chutzpah.

So, bring us more chutzpah when it comes to sustainability, one that “is inspiring people and getting them on board with an idea, no matter how crazy it may sound.” This is probably our best chance to win this fight.

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2021). You can find other articles highlighting topics explored in the book on my Medium page and are welcome to follow me on LinkedIn.



Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach

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Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach