Sustainability. The end, but the means?

I’ve been having a few chats recently about the fact that the sustainability debate, in the UK at least, is confined to a minority.  The sort of person who reads The Guardian, watches Channel 4 and knows that there is social value in being a globally-concerned individual.  That’s all well and good, but whilst they might be the heart and soul of the debate and movement (if it could be called a movement), they’re too small in numbers to make any real difference.  The action has to be in the mainstream.  In terms of media, it has to be with The Sun and ITV1.  The question is, how do you make that happen?  How do you get sustainability to become a mainstream issue?

Government regulation aside, there seem to be two options.  Popularise the existing narrative.  Or change the narrative.  The first option is to make ‘being green’ more popular; more attractive; more socially acceptable.  This is entirely possible, but it hasn’t happened yet – there seems no appetite for it so far, but who’s to say that there will be in future?  However, I don’t see Ant and Dec giving a way an electric car on their new gameshow before sticking up their ‘How To Be Green’ wallchart from the centre pages of The Sun any time soon.  But it might happen.

In thinking about the possibility of being an alternative narrative, it seems important to make a distinction between the means and the end.  At the end of the day, we, as a nation (and a species), need to live in a more sustainable way.  This is the desirable ‘end’.  It’s the ‘means’ to achieve that end that I’m interested in.

To use an analogy – and one that helped get us in this mess in the first place –  is that in the 1950s President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods”.  So, the ‘end’ was an thriving economy based on the production of more ‘stuff’.  How do you make that happen?  There seem to be a number of different ‘means’ that could have been used to achieve this.  It was the 1950’s so you could have created a narrative about it being your duty as an American to buy things in the ideological fight against Communism.  Or you could could create a narrative where people would feel more altruistic by encouraging them to buy bigger and better gifts for friends and relatives.  Or you could create a narrative whereby you can achieve greater personal fulfillment and happiness by buying more things.  It seems that the latter was the primary narrative that was chosen as the ‘means’.  It certainly wasn’t a narrative around ‘please buy more because our economy depends on it’.  So, the means were different to the ends.

So, why, when it comes to the issue of sustainability, should it be any different?

Now, it’s likely that it will be a combination of narratives to help achieve the sustainable end that’s required, but looking beyond the current means = end thinking might move things into the mainstream a little bit quicker.

If you know what those alternative narratives are, you might just help save the world.

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