Checklist for sustainability communication

In a blogpost for leading Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, evolutionary psychologist and university professor Mark van Vugt explains why we have not yet collectively switched to a sustainable lifestyle — even though we all know we should.

It’s not in our instincts.

Our Stone Age brains are wired for other purposes. Van Vugt explains:

Evolution fitted us with a particular psychology for leading a lifestyle of hunter-gatherer (as our ancesters would do for millions of years). They came, ate everything, and moved on to a new place. This psychology makes it difficult to lead a sustainable lifestyle in a modern world of scarcity.

He identifies 5 counter-sustainable human instincts:

  1. We care more about ourselves than about humanity in general
  2. We appreciate the present more than the future
  3. We are not used to deal with problems at a worldwide scale, especially when we can’t see, hear, smell, or feel them
  4. We copy the behavior of the people around us
  5. We are competitive, set on increasing our status and wealth compared to others

So while at a certain level we understand that the environment is threatened, we don’t feel it. And if we don’t feel it, our brain doesn’t act upon it.


The 5 insights that Van Vugt give us 5 practical leads on how to market our message. Whatever we communicate, it has to be about:

  1. Me, not we or some other undefined group
  2. Now, not tomorrow or maybe-or-not in the future
  3. Close-by, not in an other state or far away in the world
  4. Socially proven, your peers or your heroes are doing it already
  5. Status, making me look cool and successful

Quite a good checklist!