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The extremes used in sustainability stories are failing us

In order to inspire meaningful action, we need to take a balanced approach.

This is the fourth of a series of 10 insights from co:collective on how your business can join the sustainable economy.

The usual suspects of sustainability storytelling

Images of flooding landscapes and textile deserts. Messages about the end of civilization as we know it. We’ve all seen the storytelling typically associated with the devastating impacts of climate change. But we’ve also seen the majestic windmills towering over green fields and blue skies. Or the messages telling us the future is bright, over a picture of a child looking off into the distance with hope in their eyes. The more optimistic yet unrealistic storytelling that tells us that everything is going to be okay. While these two approaches are vastly different, they have one thing in common: neither is a perfect tone to take to effectively tell the story of sustainability efforts.

Doom is dead

There’s no denying that the climate crisis is an existential threat to humanity. But is doom the right tone to take? Not entirely. While it’s important to communicate the gravity of the situation and the need to act fast, messages of despair tend to do more harm than good. “Doomism ultimately leads to climate inaction, which is the opposite of what we want,” said Alaina Wood, a climate activist and self-proclaimed “optimist & solutionist.” That’s because in a world where we are constantly bombarded with unimaginable horrors, audiences are experiencing crisis fatigue. According to Dr. Rasha Bayoumi, it’s referred to as a “stage where you’re emotionally exhausted and desensitized to prolonged exposure to all the information.” This is especially true with dire messages that include no tangible action plan to follow. Take the storytelling from brands like WWF or GreenPeace. We need to end our dependence on fossil fuels or else all our animals will die, they claim. Totally agree, but how? Or the New York Climate Clock, with its looming countdown over Union Square. As Micheal E Mann writes in The New Climate War, doom-heavy storytelling portrays climate change “as an essentially lost cause, a hopeless fight.”

Dangerously optimistic

On the other hand, there’s the blind and unrealistically optimistic approach. As we develop solutions and interventions to become more sustainable, it’s tempting to tell a fully positive story. The problem is solved, everything is going to be okay. But this too can be dangerous, and can lead to more inaction and complacency than intended. Economist Paul Romer calls this “complacent optimism,” and compares it to “the feeling of a child waiting for presents.” In fact, blind optimism can be something of a red flag. Think about solutions we see from oil and gas. They’re presented as incredible feats that will solve everything. But if you dig a little deeper, this unfounded optimism tends to be covering for unfeasible and inconsequential solutions. Al Gore discusses this in his Ted Talk, where he breaks down some initiatives labeled as positive solutions proposed by oil companies and reveals how ineffective they really are. Even when progress is being made, we can’t give ourselves permission to sit back and hope for the best. When we take an overly optimistic tone, we give people permission to do just that.

The sweet spot: embracing the inbetween

So where does that leave us? Somewhere in the middle. When helping clients find the right balance to strike in their sustainability storytelling, our experience has shown us that somewhere between dire and hopeful creates the best results. Why? Because it leads to more action. When we embrace nuances over absolutes and tell stories that are equally outraged and optimistic, we’re able to create both the sense of urgency and positive momentum needed to drive change. Take Apple’s Carbon Neutral Announcement. It opens with “Apple has a plan, and a promise.” Or one of our client Reju’s lines, “The future is bright if you’re willing to do the work,” grounded in a tone of voice we created called “Radical Pragmatism.” They both communicate the problem at hand, but in a way that acknowledges both the complexity and the possibility. This leaves the viewer with a feeling that yes, there’s work to be done but all hope isn’t lost. It’s this positive realism that will allow us to communicate the realities needed to create impact and overcome the real hurdles needed to get there.

Key takeaways:

There’s a lot riding on the stories we tell around sustainability. We need to approach them carefully. If we don’t, the consequences are unimaginable (too dire). If we do, everything will be okay (too optimistic). And if we do this right, we can inspire the real action needed to transition to sustainable practices (just right).

→ Don’t let doom disengage

→ Don’t overdo the optimism

→ Embrace the complexities to tell nuanced stories that inspire action

By Charlie Glassman

Associate Creative Director

Charlie Glassman is an Associate Creative Director at co:collective, with a focus on brand foundations and activations. She believes that some of the hardest problems of our time can be solved through creativity (and she’s right).