The carrot, the stick, the scenery and the cool

Acting sustainably isn’t all the rage. That is a bad thing.

It’s not that people are not trying hard to convince people to do the right thing. By now we all know that we’re on the wrong path; it just doesn’t translate into a change of behavior.

When analysing the dominant communication on sustainability, you’ll quickly notice elements from the “carrot and stick” approach:

The “carrot and stick” approach is an idiom that refers to a policy of offering a combination of rewards and punishment to induce behavior. It is named in reference to a cart driver dangling a carrot in front of a mule and holding a stick behind it. The mule would move towards the carrot because it wants the reward of food, while also moving away from the stick behind it, since it does not want the punishment of pain, thus drawing the cart.

Option 1: The stick

This is basically the message we hear all over the news: “Climate hell is nigh. Time is ticking. If you don’t change your behavior, it’s on your shoulders.”

We’re trying to guilt-trip people into acting sustainably, with statistics and research reports telling us over and over again that the world is deteriorating rapidly.

But: No one wants to feel guilty, and especially when you don’t have the means to make the right choices, it’s a very frustrating position to be in. This effectively backfires into an annoyance and a dissociation with the whole theme.

Not good.

Option 2: The carrot

Problem: there is none. The ideal story, the dream about a sustainable life is just life staying the way it is. Life doesn’t get better when you act sustainably; it just doesn’t get worse.

And also: not worse in the long run. In the short run you even have to suffer (invest without return) to live sustainably, paying higher prices and making extra efforts.

No good either. Luckily, there is a third option:

Option 3: The scenery

If I look at all the sustainability initiatives popping up around us, I can’t help but experience the wonderful energy that comes with it.

Something great is happening.

We’re at a unique place in history where, for the first time ever, we are able to foresee our ending, but also to stand up and deliberately and collectively change our course.

And we are. Not collectively there yet, but there’s plenty of reason to be positive. And if we get the greater public to look around them and see and appreciate this scenery, they too may experience the positive energy.

Humans are awesome!

Option 4: The cool

But that’s not enough. If we really want people to get walking, so to speak, we have to make walking cool. We have to make acting sustainably cool. Think we can’t? You’re underestimating the power of marketing.

Sustainability has a shitty image. It’s boring, it’s serious, it’s no fun. And frankly, those things are true. But they don’t have to be.

If we want sustainability to be cool, we need to do cool things. Things that are exciting, pleasurable, delighting. And we need to do them at the terrain of the old world: in the mainstream media. Get out of your niche, work that PR and fight for the spot light.

So let’s create tv shows; festivals; boy bands; car races. Re-associate sustainability with things that people find cool, that make them look cool.

Because people already know about sustainability. Now make them want it.