Riddle Me This!


Riddle me this!

Acronym madness, gobble-de-gook and the death of the everyday climate conversation

The recent COP 17

shin-dig in Durban may eventually come to be recognized by historians not only as the moment when some small yet profound steps forwards were made but also as the moment when the world of specialist and expert advisors and their climate debate finally collapsed into acronym madness.

That the very people endeavoring not only to move the scientific, legislative, governmental and global debate forward, but also to inspire a shared and open conversation around the climate challenges that face our planet, should have finally managed to sound like they are from another one in the process of doing so doesn’t bode well.

It offers a simple insight into why the interest and engagement of your average person in the climate change debate is disappearing faster than a polar bear’s habitat. Sustainability Players and Climate Activists must take some responsibility for why the debate has become as insular and un-engaging as it has for everyday people.

For change to happen, masses of people must be engaged on a global scale: full stop.

For that to happen, we need them to be interested. We need to move the conversation from the big scary, irrelevant and unreachable Planet We framing of old to the more intimate self-interested ‘my life my everyday framing’ of Planet Me – and to do that we need to change the language for good.

That a formal Lexicon of terms was needed to allow COP attendees to navigate any conversation meaningfully should be of great concern, especially to communicators working in the pro-people pro-sustainability space. (The lexicon of collected acronyms and official bodies associated with COP published by the UN’s FCCC ran to 203)

The only thing this language sustains is complexity.

We need simple and compelling language to win the day in every corner of the debate – and we need the conversation to be based on insights about what really counts to people struggling through their every day.

Whichever way we look – to the scary language of Oil Addiction, or the tyranny of positivity peddled by some do-good brands; or at its worst, the scratching, scrawling swaggadaccio and point scoring of some blue and green blogs and forums – the language around these issues makes them almost impenetrable to anyone other than the most avid expert or interested party.

This is not to advocate a dumbing down of the kind of robust scientific regulatory, governmental and societal thinking that sits behind the debate. Nor is it meant to belittle strategic and logistical road maps that need to be engineered and created to move the debate forward.

This is not about developing an environmental thought leadership approach championed by SpongeBob SquarePants, Yogi Bear, Lassie and the cast of Happy Feet (though some would argue that you could add 6 noughts to our global captive audience if we did).

This is about clearly recognizing that the language of sustainability and the narrative of climate change have got to evolve and (yes, it’s ugly time) become more populist. We need the Average Joe and Jane to get engaged, and needing a PHD in eco-climate speak is going to get in the way of that ever happening.

So before we finally shut the door for good on any normal human being’s ability to engage in the debate or even understand what on earth anyone was talking about in the first place, a moratorium on the language of Global Do Good is crucial – and let’s have a good hard look at its tone-of-voice while we’re there – because on closer inspection large parts of the conversation smack of a rather unpleasant smuggery – riddled and stitched as so much of it is with an undercurrent of a proving intellectual snobbery.

We just have to dig deep and find the insights and the language through which it becomes relevant, appropriate and meaningful for them to think and act differently – for better – embrace the human truth of them and what really drives their thoughts and actions – mining insights and giving them the kind of compelling creative expression that is usually reserved for TXTS & minutes providers, snack foods, cars and the boutique world of international health & beauty amongst others.

We know that, whether we like it or not, self interest is a primary driver especially where people are managing their pennies, dollars and cents in crunched times.

How do you tell someone who thinks their shopping is heavy enough, thank you very much, without some do-gooder placing the weight of the world’s future squarely on her shoulders that kind consumption is the way forwards? – especially on a rainy Tuesday morning with a grumpy 4 year old and depleted purse in tow.

How do you convince someone to choose a more sustainable and environmentally friendly holiday over one powered and supported by unsustainable social, environmental or cultural practices?

They’re going on a holiday not a crusade.

And there is an element of catch up here.

The businesses who create the products these people consume have already started to change the language from the inside out – putting non-environmental people in Sustainability jobs.


An absence of all the baggage (of language, attitude and set-apartness) that comes with the more traditional blue-green brigade.

How can we help to reshape the language in such way as to speak to Planet Me as a way of improving Planet We?  Changing it forever?

So not a small challenge then: but the good ones never are.

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  1. Paul Hess, Wed Feb,15:

    Thanks for a refreshingly honest and blistering critique of climate politics self-absorption and “snobbery.” But the problem is not just language: it is vision. To make sustainability relevant to people you must first ASK them what they care about.

    We already know what people care about in relation to sustainability: personal health concerning less toxic products and more nutritious foods. Many surveys about green marketing show this and it is not hard to understand why. We are experiencing an epidemic of modern diseases that are accelerating with the increase in toxicity levels, depletion of soils and poor agricultural techniques.

    One third of working people have some kind of chronic illness, resulting in higher medical costs and lower productivity.
    Medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy.
    Medical costs are 17% of GDP, and much of that is spent on medications that are toxic and a leading cause of death.
    People are actively exploring alternative health and preventive self care, including avoiding toxicity.

    The toxic crisis is already here. If you want to understand how it is affecting people, make friends with someone who is chronically ill with chronic fatigue, cancer, autism, or any one of the many diseases that are symptoms of toxic overload. You might not find them at the power networking events of the climate activist 1%. They are busy trying to survive or don’t have the strength to leave their homes or even their beds.

    We have a cultural problem with empathy. I was working with refugees from El Salvador in the 1980’s to stop US support for a dictatorship that was murdering its own people, and one told us, “You American’s don’t notice what each other is going through.”

    The appeal to health is more than just personal self-interest, it is affirming life itself, empathy to others, and affection for all living things. The connections are implicit and you don’t need to feel like a tree-hugging mystic to get it.

    A focus on health helps solve the “branding” problem discussed so often: climate is an abstract negative message to save the planet through guilt motivation to get people to sacrifice their life style. A focus on health, on the other hand, is an opportunity for a new form of abundance and helps redefine business goals in terms of well being. Health improvement is also an opportunity for government and businesses to reduce costs, raise productivity, and to innovate.

    Asking about people’s concerns is a first step in successful business to discover what the customers need. If you start with customers, everything falls into place for all the stakeholders, as explained in the recent book, Responsible Business, by Carol Sanford. If we start with health concerns, it is clear that people would prefer less air pollution as well, making the connection to the need for new sources of energy. This connection is being made with the anti-coal campaign and has brought in people who would otherwise not be interested if the issue were only climate change. Splitting climate change from health has allowed parts of the climate change movement to support nuclear energy, while the Fukishima plant has been spewing radiation daily non-stop for a year and is measurable in the US and the Pacific Ocean.

    With years of experience with a debilitating environmentally related illness I understand the stakes. As a natural health consultant I understand how people can cure themselves.

    With a doctorate in studying business organizations I have worked on how to implement customer focused strategies comprehensively through new organizational designs to achieve sustainability. This form of sustainability addresses the health of customers, employees, communities, and ecosystems in ways that are profitable.

    I would like to help the sustainability movement focus around health in ways that can also build broader support for new forms of energy than by focusing on climate change alone.

  2. Sharon Camlic, Wed Feb,22:

    Riddle me this really hits home! It”s so very true — and unfortunately leaves out the people we need to participate and move sustainability forward.
    The Kids’ Science Challenge is doing it’s best to change the way that children look at science, math, engineering and technology — and ultimately the way adults view their world and ability to problem solve. We would very much like to engage Saatchi & Saatchi in our effort — beginning as advisory board members — you have so much expertise and a really fun perspective that begs to be part of this kid-centered fun science games and contest. Take a look at http://www.kidsciencechallenge.com

    and let us know what you think!

  3. admin, Thu Mar,01:

    This looks great Sharon. We’ll share it around the network.

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