The Heart of Sustainability

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3D red heart in 3D cyborg girl head

The real block to sustainability is not rational, therefore it cannot be overcome through force of rational argument or logical debate alone – the block is emotional, and the dominant culture right now is very uncomfortable with addressing this aspect of our being.

We always think sustainability is so complicated, but actually it’s a very simple concept. How can we all live well within this one planet that we have?

That’s all there is.

What’s hard about sustainability is the emotional drama around it.

Mathis Wackernagel, Global Footprint Network Founder & President, San Francisco Examiner, 18 June 2001

We pride ourselves on being ‘rational’ creatures, on being ‘objective’ and ‘logical’, but we deny so much of our humanity when we do not acknowledge that our brains are operating on three different systems – the reptilian, or ‘lizard’ brain, which drives our instinctual responses; the limbic brain, which is associated with emotional responses; and the neocortex which enables our rational responses.

Human beings evolved these different brain functions to adapt to different needs. Each subsequent development did not ‘replace’ the previous, but added another layer onto the existing brain structure. We engage different parts of our brain in different situations – for example, immediate and obvious threats trigger ‘fight or flight’, an instinctual response, before our rational brain can even process what is going on.

Professor William Rees of Canada’s University of British Colombia, who along with his then-PhD student, Mathis Wackernagel, created the Ecological Footprint, believes this insight into the human brain explains why we are in denial and struggling to respond to the ‘long emergencies’ such as climate change – because the threats are long term, rather than immediate; collective, rather than individual; creeping, rather than urgent; and intangible, rather than apparent. And our reptilian and limbic brains are wired to do things that conflict with the signals our neocortex is receiving.

When your safety or your survival is at stake, when your socioeconomic status is at stake, when your political position is at stake, you will fight to conserve and retain your prestige, your wealth, your power and you’re not often or even usually acting out of intelligence. It’s much more instinctive or emotional at that level.

“So what I’m arguing is, then, under these circumstances innate behavioural propensities that operate beneath consciousness that the mid-brain and reptilian brain stem will override your rational behaviour. Passion and instinct will trump reason in many, many circumstances in ordinary people’s lives and certainly in the political arena.

Professor William Rees, University of British Colombia, Canada & Post Carbon Institute Fellow

This has profound implications for creating the cultural shift necessary for sustainability, and for informing effective communications approaches.

We need to ensure we are engaging not only through the head, but through the heart, and recognising that when our beliefs are challenged with facts, we are likely to resist external sources of ‘disruption’ to our worldview in order to protect our internalised beliefs.

This doesn’t make anyone ‘bad’ – it just makes us human, and it requires that the design of communications approaches take this into consideration.