Making Green Sexy and Spiritual

A deeper connection to love and spirituality is needed to effectively communicate sustainabiltiySustainability needs a new language that is more accessible and more compelling to the average person. Business, government, and other organizations are making strides advancing sustainability but we need wider involvement and faster growth. Although we are seeing increasing levels of environmental activism, we need to expand the message to reach a larger circle of people.

We must do more than preach solely to the converted.  The number of committed environmentalists is insufficient to induce the required changes.  At present, environmental communications are geared toward an elite group not the general population and for those that do get the message, it often fails to resonate. For those on the outside, the language of sustainability is a confusing jumble of fear-inducing figures that ultimately prove to be both polarizing and paralyzing.

We need government legislation and regulation, but if we are to bring about lasting results, we must augur change by speaking to the hearts and minds of average people. Fact based approaches have not worked and fear based approaches may make matters worse by breeding avoidance and apathy.

Making green advocacy more compelling to larger numbers of people demands new strategies that are based on more than fear, facts and figures. While the logic of sustainability is overwhelming, reason alone has proven insufficient to  change consciousness on a global scale.

Finding ways of communicating the value of sustainability to the masses is one of the most prescient issues of our time. To disseminate the message on a truly global scale, we need to tap into the positive emotional and spiritual elements of the human psyche.

The use of such positive emotional and spiritual communication is far more likely to induce people to act.

What we can learn from branding and marketing

We can learn a lot from branding and marketing experts. Whether or not we agree with the products and services they promote, we cannot disagree with the fact that many big brands have succeeded in changing both attitudes and behaviors. We need to harness this power and put it to work for the planet.

We must do a better job of communicating and marketing sustainability. We need to benefit from an understanding of the effective marketing and communications strategies employed by the big brands. As explained in a May 15 Marketing Magazine article:

“It is officially time to pass on, or at the least share with marketing, the baton of sustainability. It is also time to re-brand that baton. Reducing complex science to simple science in attempts to mobilise mainstream behaviour change has failed to deliver…”

We need to communicate in a language that is accessible to all.  To successfully communicate sustainability to the average person we need to employ language that resonates. As any marketer will tell you, consumers are more interested in what is sexy then what is reasonable.

“[A] sustainable society can be one where people enjoy high well-being and a rich culture, where we can all reach our potential and have an incredible time along the way. We need new and compelling consumer aspirations – ones that can be achieved within environmental limits, of course…The opportunity to frame a future that is sexy (and yes, of course, sustainable) is right here.”

We need to show that sustainability can be fun in addition to saving lives and radically enhancing our quality of life. To do this, we must understand that people are much more likely to respond to communications that speak to universal aspects of the human experience. namely love and desire.

Love and the desire to act

Cultivating love in ourselves and in others may seem like a tall order, but we are all born into the world hardwired with a capacity to love. We already have proof that love works to augur change. Love for the planet and each other is mobilizing environmental activists in unprecedented numbers all around the world. Eco-communities are popping up everywhere as more and more people are looking for ways to express their positive regard and make a difference. These passionate environmentally minded people are motivated by love, they care deeply about the planet and are prepared to act to lessen their impacts on the earth. Love for the earth makes us good stewards and tireless activists. Love endlessly motivates us to take the message out into our communities and into our workplaces.

Love is the most powerful motivation and it can help us to overcome both apathy and materialism. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of the threats posed by climate change. However the best way to combat paralysis is to care. Caring is neither difficult nor complex and it is within all of our grasps. If we really want to forge a better world, even more than the tactics we employ, we need to cultivate the love to make the effort.

Love is an antidote to rampant materialism. Although material concerns rule the day, love ties us into a value system that runs far deeper than money. Being part of a cause greater than ourselves offers a purpose and a sense of meaning to life that material pursuits do not. Acting with an awareness of the planet connects us to our world in a deeply fulfilling fashion.

Although the benefits both personally and collectively far outweigh the sacrifice, making a more sustainable world may entail a decrement in money, power, or position. These types of sacrifices are far more readily made out of love.

Love is a primary motivator that causes people to think beyond themselves and consider the needs of future generations. Without the impetus of love it will be difficult to move beyond self interest.

Accountability through spirituality

Spirituality is a powerful tool to help people be more accountable and this will increase environmental engagement. While organized religion is dying, belief in a higher power remains strong with more than 9 in 10 Americans calling themselves believers. What is even more interesting is the fact that belief is strongest amongst those who are most likely to deny climate change (conservatives and Republicans). The inference here is that spirituality may offer an inroad through the impermeable dogmatism of climate deniers.

It is important to understand that we are talking about spirituality and not religion. Religion promulgates certain fixed beliefs while spirituality in the context of this discussion is about soul-searching and the pursuit of truth. Spirituality commonly transcends the practice of religion. The distinction is important because we need to get beyond the polarization we have witnessed with environmental evangelists on one side and climate deniers on the other.

As explained by Mark C. Coleman, author of “The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Accountability is Essential NOW!,” one of the keys to getting people environmentally involved is fostering a greater spirit of accountability.

“Being accountable by being present and in the right frame of mind for sound decision-making is essential for (1) recognizing our behavior; (2) understanding the impact of our behavior on economy, environment, and society; and, (3) being able to take action through personal accountability to modify behavior to effect change.”

Spirituality is is an ego transcending journey that cultivates a sense of purpose beyond ourselves.

“Being able to think beyond ourselves requires patience, humility, a strong capacity for listening and learning, and an ability to separate ego from our true ‘self’,” Coleman explains. “Understanding that spirituality goes beyond the practice of religion, and that we all are part of a generation living within a context of time and fate which is requiring more accountability from each of us, is a perspective toward how people can begin to embrace sustainability from personal point of view.”

People are suffering from widespread disillusionment. Add to this the anxiety inducing reality of climate change and people are more likely to avoid rather than engage.  People are detached from themselves, from each other and from nature.

“The underlying power of humanity is that we are resilient and can adapt to change. But in the act of being resilient we rely on spirituality, being caring, and finding connections among one another and the world that foster sense of self, resourcefulness, and community.”

According to Coleman the answers to spirituality and sustainability are within us.

“The sustainability of our generation, and the earth, are intrinsically tied to our capacity to delve individually and collectively into spirituality. Individuals have the power within themselves to be the stewards of their behaviors, to set the standard for accountability within society, and represent a generation of enlightened individuals that can not only be resilient, but be a force for creating a better world. The generation living here and now is the Sustainability Generation. This generation will be measured not on its ability to wage war, land on the moon, or build financial wealth…From here on out the Sustainability Generation will seek out harmonizing its relationships with nature, among one another, and with God.”

The convergence of sustainability and spirituality can foster accountability and increase the will to act. Spirituality can also enable us to avoid falling victim to hopelessness and selfishness.

Deep Ecology

A direct offshoot of sustainability, deep ecology includes a spiritual element, and as such, may be a better vehicle to communicate the value of green. Deep Ecology brings together cutting-edge science, philosophy, action and spirituality. It is arguably the most holistic school of environmental thought as it is largely concerned with ecosystems and as such, it is a study of interrelationships.

This environmental philosophy is characterized by its advocacy of the inherent worth of all living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs. It further advocates that societies need to be restructured in accordance with such ideas. It holds that human destruction of the natural world poses a threat to all organisms in the natural order.

Deep ecology’s core principle is the belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having the right to live and flourish.

Deep ecology is providing a foundation for the environmental, ecology and green movements and has fostered a new system of environmental ethics.

A new approach to communicating sustainability must engage people on a spiritual and psycho-emotional level. Ecological awareness must be communicated as a heart-felt mind-set that people embrace and practice everyday.

If the sustainability revolution is to expand and achieve critical mass, it must be embedded into our core values.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: AlicePopkorn, courtesy flickr


Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. Richard, you are correct – “A new approach to communicating sustainability must engage people on a spiritual and psycho-emotional level. Ecological awareness must be communicated as a heart-felt mind-set that people embrace and practice everyday. If the sustainability revolution is to expand and achieve critical mass, it must embedded into our core values.”

    Building a Sustainable Future Requires More than Science: Contrary to popular belief, humans have failed to address the earth’s worsening emergencies of climate change, species’ extinction and resource overconsumption not because of a lack of information, but because of a lack of imagination, social scientists and artists say….

    Model Sustainable Community Initiative

    • Thanks for the comment Terry. I entirely agree with the statement in the link you provided that suggests we are lacking in imagination. While we need creative approaches to communicating sustainability, in my view, they must be rooted in science or else they risk being dismissed as lightweight and factually inaccurate. As reviewed in the article you provide the central problem is the misperception that humans are separate from nature.

  2. Hi,

    You are right on all counts. Branding and marketing strategies, as well as the spiritual angle.

    My wife, Archita Bhatta, just spoke to an audience of scientists and climate experts at an international seinar organised by the Non-Aligned Movement Science and Tech Centre, and she said just this.

    1) Climate protagonists are a new clique, opaque to the needs of the language that the common man needs to understand.

    2) The examples sought to bring home the effects of climate change are always remote… there is no point in telling a Bangladesh island dweller that the Polar Bear is losing out due to glacial melt….

    and so forth.

    I firmly believe that the lessons learnt from branding and marketing experts for consumer products are important to be harnessed into our campaign in favour of fighting climate change.

    And in terms of spiritualism, I pride myself on coming from India, with a socio-cutural background which has several mantas… one of them is

    Aa-daiva trinadapi, vasudhaiva kutumbakam… or “From the tinest blades of grass to the Gods… all are our beloved ones”, so we need to protect all”

    And the second is a mantra that says:

    “Madhu vata hritayatey madhu-ksharanti sindhovo, mardhinna shantoshodhi…” it is a long one…

    it means, “Let Nectar be there in the air, in the seasons, let Nectar flow from the Oceans, let Nectar be the essense of all medicinal herbs and plant, let the cows give Nectar as their milk of kindness….” an thus ends the mantra saying “Oum Madhu, Oum Madhu, Oum Madhu”… Let there be Nectar, let there be Nectar, and let there be Nectar alone across the globe”!

    • Thank you for the comment Sujit. I am a longtime student of Indian philosophy and religion and I can appreciate your pride in the great spiritual accomplishments of your homeland. I commend your wife for the important work she is doing. Finallyl, I love the mantras that you provided and I hope you do not mind if I use them in a book I am writing.

      • Dear Richard,
        Thanks for the mail.

        I have no hesitation in you using the mantras… they are universal and not anyone’s properties.

        My only request is that please wait till say June 24 or 25. I am going to Calcutta where my father-in-law stays. I was discussing the mantrs with him yesterday, sine he is a great schoalr of Sanskrit.

        After talking with him, I shall send you the full mantras. What I had sent you were turncated versions… since I did not know whether you would get bored with the full thing.

        I shall not only send you he entire mantra but its detailed meaning, and the source, the Rig Veda, the name of the great seer who had devised the mantra and other relevant details. You could then be very certain of what you are using.

        By the way, what is the book about? I would like to know the theme, if you can share it me without fear of any infringement on your intellectual property rights.

        Do send me your email ID… mine is I have plenty of stuff on Sikkimese Buddhism as well, which I can share with you, if that could of any use to you.

        Thanks and regards


        • Thank you Sujit, as I am not expecting to finish the book until the end of this year I will happily await the full mantras you have mentioned. I would also appreciate anything you would like to forward on Sikkimese Buddhism.

          One of the tenets of my book addresses the issues related to advancing global ecological consciousness. It is an expanded version of what I have written in this article. I am seeking to articulate a spiritual ecology that is rooted in psychology and accesible to everyone.

          Thanks again and I look forward to your reply (I will forward my email address to your inbox).

  3. In the US-Mexico border zone we are not lacking in spirituality, “individually or collectively”, what we are lacking is the public will to force policy changes. The word “sexy” is outdated and very inadequate to describe what we face, despite what marketers and communication specialists say. The use of the counter argument to gloom and doom under current climate impact scenarios, i.e. the positive good we want to live for and within the liveable environment, is logical given the failure of advocates for winding down fossil fuel use and their strategies. That may resonate in green cities where planners have sway, but not in a region where the national security state [border wall and surveillance against non-extant terrorists, only poor people dying here in the desert]. It has taken over the environment and the economy in the name of free trade and national security (does anyone remember the predictions of NAFTA and CAFTA?, funny how those policies are not mentioned in regards to immigrants.

    For over ten years we have heard that we must, must, must, listen to the science. We do. But we also listen to the airwaves and radio and realize that the propaganda machine funded by extremely wealthy “individuals” , dare we say “corporations”, avoids serious engagement of science in their pseudo-debates to first deny climate change, and now lately to deny its impacts. (increases in intensity of tropical storms, tornados, heat and cold waves, droughts). Advocates need to stop justifying their calls for less fossil fuels and more renewable energy by piling on yet more science (the science is only getting better at affirming what the models predicted) and start CONNECTING THE DOTS.

    The environmental movement had a vision for a non-polluted world which was eventually translated into the vision of the anti-nuclear movement, a peaceful nuclear free world. The movements did not rely on science primarily but rather on activism and active protest. The nearly wholesale control by corporations of media and mass communications means that trying to counter the propaganda can only be done effectively when a similarly scaled outreach is achieved. Science has informed us enough, we need public policy and health policy and land managers to tell us how our lives and livelihoods are threatened in the immediate future by climate change impacts,and please not on 50-100 yr. time scales, but on probabilities of extreme weather events with shorter time frames of15-20 years. That is what will motivate people.

    We cannot hippster our way into being green and sexy, or sexy and green, whatever that is. but we can move democratically into the public spheres of influence by becoming a movement for a liveable earth instead of an industrial death. Less time wedded to computer messaging, twittering, and event management, and more in mass actions will change the dynamic. Yes an awakening is needed, but I doubt spirituality will bring it about, rather organization for a common cause. Organized religion will more likely make headway than all the spirituality inclined to make concrete changes for one reason (which has nothing to do with religious belief or spiritual outlook) but namely because they have organizations and institutions. Scientists in academia cannot be the leaders of this movement, they have other important work to do, so let them do it, and start acting on the world that is worth saving, celebrating resistance to unregulated industrialization and corporate states, this is what has brought about every major social change in the history of the United States thus far.

    • Thank you for the comment Blake, While I agree with your stated goals, my experience forces me to vociferously disagree with your roadmap to get there. In my view we need a massive change in consciousness. Policy is crucial but it requires popular support. You are putting the cart in front of the horse. Popular support will force policy change not the other way around. The public will to force policy change will come about when they see the value of the natural world and the need for sustainability.

      Like it or not, in marketing speak, “sexy” is about being accessible (ie reaching the largest numbers of people). It is not outdated and continues to be the single most powerful driving force behind many successful marketing campaigns.

      I have been writing about extreme weather for years precisely because it is tangible (people can relate better to what they experience than abstract scientific observations or predictions). Science has a vital role to play, but on its own it is not inducing change on a large enough scale. While I strongly support Bill McKibben campaign to “connect the dots” we also need to look at other strategies that are more directly connected with how people see the world. Here I am speaking about underlying mythologies or spiritual world views.

      The general population is not hearing what the scientists are saying. However, you are correct to point out that people are being hoodwinked by corporate interests like the fossil fuel industry. Countering the well funded campaigns of people like the Koch brothers is one of the reasons why we need a new approach.

      We will not have sustainable policy, in the time frames that we need to see, unless we change hearts and minds. Efforts to date have not worked.

      I strongly believe that changing attitudes must include the business community. As a consultant who practices what I preach. I spend far too much of my time selling environmental ethics as opposed to focusing on developing sustainable strategies.

      I strongly disagree with your take on social media or “computer messaging” as you put it. The digital world offers tremendous opportunities for disseminating an ecological message. It is a central to the kinds of change I am referring to. Further, ogrganized religion is dying while spirituality remains as a cultural universal, tapping into it is an effective way to augur pro-social change.

      It is not about only about being a “hipster” as you put it, it is about speaking to people in a language everyone can relate to. Your diatribe, although well intentioned, has been around for decades and has yet to produce the required changes.

      The definition of stupid is doing the same thing and expecting different results.


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