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OPINION: Too much talking about sustainability, not enough listening?

Also posted in Spanish

Ali T Sheikh, CDKN Asia Director, reflects on a debate at this year’s Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) on how to communicate for sustainability.

The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) is the perfect place to have a panel on “communicating for sustainability”. The whole premise of the 3 days of discussion among international experts and world leaders is that communicating is important, and can lead to change. But, is this happening? Are we being effective in the way we are communicating about sustainability, and is anyone listening?

The hypothesis put to a panel of myself, Tim Nuthall, ECF, Guido Schmidt-Traub, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and Nitin Sethi, The Hindu, was that ‘sustainability’ needs to be rebranded.

Opinion polls, at least in the western world, show that people think of it at best as something dull, and at worst something which involves deprivation. Surveys also show that people claim to put a high value on ‘sustainable products’ but their purchasing patterns show otherwise. Anyone working for a think-tank or research institute will also (privately) express their fears that few people actually read their studies. During conferences and workshops, policy-makers respond to the latest evidence showing the projected impact of climate change on their country with a commitment to act, but in only a few cases is there any discernable change in policy or practice.

During the lively debate it became apparent that our opinion on whether and how we need to change our approach to communicating sustainability  was influenced by where in the world we work (Europe and USA vs Asia), and who the target audience is for our communication (policy-makers vs general public). The points of contention, and agreement, centred on the following issues.

Do we need a shared narrative on sustainability? When we talk about sustainability we talk from a narrow perspective of what concerns us, whether this is urbanisation, agricultural productivity or renewable energy. This means that decision-makers are barraged with different messages, which can sometimes be conflicting. However, if we want a common framework for sustainability, then we have to deal with the politics of who is defining it.

For example, Nitin Sethi argued that if a western NGO tells the Government of India to close all coal power plants, they are not going to be successful. They have not considered the political economy of India, and whether their message is going to resonate.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an attempt to provide a coherent framework for what sustainability means. As the negotiations for these showed, the principle of fairness and equity, needs to be part of any common message on sustainability.

Too much concern on the supply of information, as compared to demand? There was a clear split within the panel on whether we have enough evidence to make the case for sustainability.

There is a tendency from donors, academics and even policy-makers when faced with a difficult issue such as how to adapt to the impacts of climate change or how to promote low-carbon growth, to call for more evidence and information. In the words of Tim Nuthall “we have enough data to drown in”.  We all spend a lot of time promoting how many reports and studies we have published, and much less time talking about how many people read and acted upon our findings.

This is partly because we are not addressing the politics that surrounds sustainability, which ultimately defines whether evidence is acted upon.  The international negotiations fail not because of lack of science, but because of politics. However, while there is a lot of evidence on the projected impact of climate change, there is less research which gets to the heart of the politics involved – who are the ‘winners and losers’ and what are the ‘trade-offs’ in the fundamental shift to a sustainable development model which is needed.  Addressing these issues and finding equitable solutions is essential.

Are we talking to the right people? All of us at the DSDS are convinced of the need for ambitious action to promote a sustainable future in the context of a changing climate.  We are therefore talking to the ‘converted’. Those who need convincing are usually not invited, or if they are, do not attend. Again, we need to look at the politics surrounding sustainability. We need to talk to those who have something to lose from a transition to a low-carbon, sustainable development pathway. For example, communities whose livelihoods rely on mining or shareholders of fossil-fuel based energy companies. Decision-makers are listening to their concerns, but much of civil society is not.

This connects with my central point, that we do too much talking, and not enough listening. Researchers and civil society promoting sustainability have a tendency to put forward solutions to governments and communities as the final answer. Some community-based organisations are using tools like participatory rural appraisals to understand the impact of climate change, and the capacity to act, at this level. CDKN has also experimented with community radio in India as a way of promoting a two-way conversation between communities, academics and policy-makers. However, the message given to decision-makers at the national and international level still tends to be top-down.


The conclusion from this panel discussion was that politics cannot be ignored. Communicating for sustainability needs to address the politics involved. And we need to listen to those with the most to lose from both the status quo and a transition to a sustainable economy. We need to stop talking to each other but reach out beyond our comfort zone and address the concerns of those who are blocking progress to a sustainable future.


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