Communicating Sustainability to Different Worldviews

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This guest post is by leadership, organizational development, communications, and sustainability consultant and entrepreneur Barrett C. Brown. The original version of this article was published in Kosmos, and has been republished here with the author’s permission.

Why care for the environment? Ask this question of people from around the world and myriad responses will return. You might hear do it:

  • for your children
  • for the technical challenge of achieving sustainability
  • because the Glorious Qur’an states that this is man’s obligation
  • to save Gaia
  • because it is the ancestral way
  • for the opportunity to make money
  • to preserve the beauty of Nature
  • so I don’t get cancer from pollutants
  • because it is honorable and is our responsibility to be stewards
  • to stop the greedy industrialists by any means necessary
  • because pollution is a sin against Creation
  • to sacredly express love for all of existence

What is your answer? Do any of these responses feel true to you and appeal to your deepest sensibilities? Which responses, if any, fail to strike a chord or feel uncomfortable to you? How and where does that discomfort show up in your body?

Place your attention in those areas of your body and feel into how you might be viscerally reacting to one or more of the statements. These different statements will resonate with different worldviews. If you had even the slightest negative reaction to any of the statements, it may indicate that you have some difficulty relating to the worldview that generated it.

This is a brief introduction to the art and science of communicating about sustainability to different worldviews. One key ability is to be able to honor all worldviews as they are, even if they differ from our own. Any negative reaction we feel toward a worldview blocks our capacity to authentically communicate and create mutual understanding with someone who holds that lens on life.

By focusing conscious attention on where we feel a reaction in our body, we can begin to move through any internal blockage we might have toward that worldview. Effective communication starts with profoundly understanding ourselves.

The Development of Worldviews

Worldviews change over time, becoming more complex and encompassing. This occurs as an individual’s sphere of care and concern grows. We develop from only caring for ourselves, to caring for our family/group/nation, to eventually caring for all sentient life. Developmental psychology is used to map out worldviews and identify how they change over time.

After decades of research in the areas of cognition, morals, values, ego development, and other facets of human nature, it is clear that there are at least three general stages of worldview development: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each of these worldviews sees the environment – and is motivated to care for it – for different reasons.

Some people will be motivated to care for the environment in order to protect and support themselves and their family. Others will feel compelled to act sustainably to support their group, or nation. Still others will be inspired to care for the environment in order to serve all life, everywhere, now and in the future.

Complement Transformation with Translation

Many approaches to sustainability education attempt to transform a person’s worldview in relation to the environment; trying to change how someone sees the environment, so that they will care for it more. This may be effective at times, but it is often a long, difficult, and resource consuming process.

Robert Kegan, a Harvard developmental psychologist, claims in his book, The Evolving Self, that it takes approximately five years to completely change a worldview if the right conditions are present.

A complementary and more efficient approach is to translate sustainability messages into the worldview(s) of the population.

This article briefly explains how to translate sustainability to the most common worldviews. Fundamentally, translation is a way of truly honoring people where they are, without trying to change them. The process is to carefully frame a sustainability message in a way that resonates with someone’s worldview, with their deepest values and motivations. If framed well, and supported with the requisite prompts and reinforcements that help people establish habits, behaving sustainably can become a part of people’s everyday living.

This chart lays out five different ‘Ecological Selves’ – each represents a common worldview, has a unique way of understanding the environment, and resonates with a specific communication style:

chart from communicating sustainability to different worldviews

Click chart image to open larger version in new window

Chart Acknowledgements: Ecological Selves by Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, based upon values research by Clare Graves, Don Beck and Chris Cowan, and self-identity research by Jane Loevinger and Susanne Cook-Greuter. Communications material (approach, hot and cold buttons) adapted completely, with permission, from Spiral Dynamics.

Here’s a summary of how to choose developmentally appropriate imagery for sustainability communications, and how to use this research and communicate about sustainability to multiple worldviews simultaneously.


A major component of the Eco-Guardian worldview is its magical and animistic belief system. Young children often hold this worldview. A similar form of it also makes up part of the complex constellation of beliefs of many indigenous groups, as well as some aspects of the New Age Movement. Therefore, images that anthropomorphize animals, plants, elements, and natural forces – or show them as imbued with sentient consciousness – are often used to communicate sustainability messages to this worldview. Such an image is that of Yemaya, the Yoruba Mother of the Sea. An example of her use for a sustainability initiative occurs each New Year’s Day in Rio de Janeiro when the city launches “Operação Iemanjá” (Operation Yemaya) and mobilizes 3000 workers to clean up the beaches after the previous night of revelry


This worldview is also expressed differently amongst youth than among adults. Environmental superheroes appeal to the youth of many cultures. Hibridos del Mar (Hybrids of the Sea) are Mexican marine superheroes who battle pollution and corruption. In order to appeal to adults deeply rooted in the Eco-Warrior worldview, fiery and intense images and graphics are often used. Pictures of extreme pollution or brutal environmental destruction may help successfully move some people to action. The Earth Liberation Front, for example, has a picture of a torched Humvee on its homepage, symbolizing their intention to ‘stop [the] continued destruction of life, by any means necessary’. Subtler and less extreme imagery, such as pictures of a solo mountain climber or other images showing ‘heroic efforts to save Nature’ are also commonly used to appeal to the Eco-Warrior in us.


Images that appeal to the Eco-Manager may be embedded in either a secular or religious context. Usually, these images will show ‘pure’ Nature, untouched by humanity, flourishing, pristine, and, in the case of Christian environmentalism, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. This image of an endangered orangutan is an example. The Eco-Manager worldview may suggest the way Nature ‘should be’, according to Divine or state law. Examples of images I have found targeting this worldview are, a lone howling wolf, a simple butterfly, a cathedral of trees, and many images with the sun – God’s grace – shining down upon the Holy Land. The ‘What Would Jesus Drive?’ campaign sprouted out of the Christian evangelical movement. It uses images of Jesus looking over a tangled mess of highways and stating, ‘Transportation is a moral issue’.


Sustainability images that are used to motivate people who hold this worldview fall into two broad categories: Challenge/Strategy and Nature+Technology. This image, from the book Winning the Oil Endgame, shows black ‘oil’ pieces against white ‘sustainability’ pieces. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development uses similar challenge/strategy imagery in its publications: pictures of hurdles, a tightrope, a Rubik’s cube, and a maze—all representing the challenge of sustainability. Also common are images that blend technology and Nature, suggesting that our technology is key to achieving progress in sustainable development. Eco-Strategist imagery in general tends to communicate a ‘human control’ dynamic. The assumption is that we have control over nature; this is a common theme in the rise of modernism worldwide.


Images that motivate this worldview fall into two categories: cynical/deconstructionist and nurturing/spiritual growth. The postmodern backlash against modernism and its (unintended) ill effects has led to a slew of imagery that challenges our definition of progress and suggests alternative ways of seeing the world. A vanguard organization in this arena is Adbusters, with its ‘culture jamming’ initiatives. Adbusters’ website is replete with smart, hip, and cutting edge artistry that appeals to the Eco-Radical. An example is this image of Earth as victim of a hit-and-run accident. Another example is an Ecologist cover which shows a malnourished African boy in front of a giant, felled, old-growth hardwood. The headline screams, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ This worldcentric sensitivity to the downtrodden, which the Eco-Radical embodies, generally emerges alongside a commitment to personal/spiritual growth. This growth motif employs positive, beautiful images of humans communing/meditating in nature, celebrating life outdoors, and serving sustainability while transforming themselves.

Communicating to Multiple Worldviews Simultaneously


These Ecological Selves are the environmental ‘lenses’ of the most common worldviews held by humanity. However, people don’t merely operate with one worldview. While these worldviews may appear to be strict stages—developing from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional and beyond—they are more akin to probability waves.

This means that although people have a ‘center of gravity’ —the core worldview they tend to operate from, say 50% of the time—they also respond from more complex and less complex worldviews the other 50% of the time.

Three other factors make this analysis challenging. The accurate measurement of a worldview is a rigorous process and, in any given population, a variety of worldviews are present.

Finally, highly developed adults are often found to value all the worldviews, seeing the importance of each. Given these issues, the best strategy for communicating about sustainability is to use languaging and images that appeal to multiple worldviews simultaneously. Experienced, intuitive communicators do this naturally, sensing the appropriate language for their audience.

Here’s a simple, 1-2-3 process for crafting these communications.

1) Identify the three dominant worldviews, or Eco-Selves, amongst the target population.

2) Develop a separate sustainability communication (with images if needed) for each of these worldviews, drawing upon relevant authorities and communication sources, and using the ‘best-fit approach’ guidelines.

3) Combine the three separate communications into one, being careful not to use any of the ‘demotivators’ for any of the worldviews. As long as no ‘cold buttons’ are pressed, people will tend to ‘hear’ only that which resonates with their worldview.

For example, someone with an Eco-Manager worldview will tune into the Eco-Manager-specific communication yet pass over the part of the message tailored to the Eco-Strategist or Eco-Warrior.

This process demands that we be mindful of our own worldview. If the communication I’ve crafted sounds good to me – yet I haven’t tailored it to the audience’s worldviews – then I am most likely on the wrong track. I may be merely communicating the way I see the world, which might be either a fundamental (unconscious) dishonoring of the audience, or lazy scholarship.

Knowing that different worldviews exist, I feel a deep, internal responsibility to learn from and learn about an audience first, and then tailor the message as specifically as possible.

I believe that this depth of conscious communication is requisite for all sustainability education if we are to authentically and intelligently respond to the increasing complexity of our environmental and social challenges. This process is ultimately about 1), profoundly understanding ourselves and how we see the world, and then 2), turning that mindful engagement to our audience and striving for seamless mutual understanding.

While this approach is by no means a panacea, it is a vital part of successful communication. For years now, various senior leaders in UNICEF have successfully tailored all their communications to local worldviews. Currently, business consultants, government officials, and civil society leaders from around the world do this as well.

If this manner of meeting people where they are resonates in your heart and mind, I invite you to test it, learn more, and eventually use this approach in all your communications about sustainability.

barrett c brown

Barrett C. Brown is President of the MetaIntegral Academy and holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Human and Organizational Systems. He has more than 20 years’ experience helping individuals and organizations to navigate complex change and unlock deep capacities. He is often asked to speak about leadership, and has presented worldwide, including to CEOs and government ministers. 

Barrett has also co-designed and co-led leader development programs for over 3000 executives (including master classes, innovation labs, corporate universities and multi-year executive education programs) and visioning, strategic alignment, culture development, and change processes for US and European companies and institutions. He specializes in complex change initiatives that involve multi-stakeholder alignment or corporate social responsibility. 

Kosmos: The Journal for Global Citizens Creating the New Civilization publishes the voices of leading edge visionary thinkers and actors in building the emerging global culture. The mission of Kosmos is to inform, inspire and engage individual and collective participation in a global shift of a higher-order consciousness, and in the transformation of our political, economic, cultural and social structures to reflect this shift. They endeavor to do this through new ways of thinking about our commonality and diversity, and through transforming and connecting the objective world of global realities and the inner world of spiritual values. 

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  1. Andrew MacDonald says:

    great stuff. It seems to me that stories in which the different wordviews are represented, and each have a valued place, is an excellent strategy too. If the different worldviews are working together, then teamwork is a metavalue that’s also shown.

    • Many thanks Andrew, and definitely – all worldviews represented is inclusive. I think one of the big failings of the environment/sustainability movement (in general) is that communication efforts have been framed as though everyone shares the same worldviews/values.

  2. Great article, great insights.
    I work in green marketing, and to sell greener products, you need to segment market: health, overall wellness, status, frugality.

    We’re learning this too in our new initiative, There are different reasons why different people hate to see things go to waste : Frugality, Planet/ Sustainability, Moral/ Etthics, Survival, etc. So segmentation needed when motivating consumers to prevent waste and save precious resources such as water, energy, food, etc.


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