Why Communications are the Problematique-Solver’s Bottleneck


Communications, not  research, is the current bottleneck in the effort to reach true global sustainability. 

(If you’re only after the reasoning I presented at the Club of Rome’s first Summer Academy in Florence in 2017, skip to “Now, why communications?”.)

One thing needs explaining before I elaborate: the term Problematique-Solver.

I use it to refer to any person striving for a truly sustainable state of affairs in humanity’s interactions with the ecological system it depends on.

I heard you sigh at the vague buzzword of “sustainability”, so let me clarify.

Sustainability is a trait of systems, not a trait of parts of a system. This is important.

A truly sustainable lifestyle is therefore only possible in a sustainable society. As long as this is not the case, the goal of lifestyle choices should be to induce societal change towards sustainability.

By invoking a Problematique-Solver, I do not mean to profess the belief that any single person can solve humanity’s cluster of giant problems. I do mean to refer to those who are working and designing their lifestyles towards it using reason and noticeable effort.

Now, why communications?

Let’s start where most environmentally committed people would seem to agree.

  1. We need to change how large corporations (can) behave. Large corporations are the biggest polluters, biggest resource users, and next to governments among the most powerful entities in the world.
    As they are built on principles that force them to prioritize shareholder return, they are by design forced to disregard externalities and externalize as many costs as possible.
    Even if they tried to, it seems they inherently could not better themselves in this regard. At least not without help from the outside.
  2. We can not argue them into maximizing public benefit (or even just increasing it by far enough, ie decreasing their negative impact on natural systems) – because profit-maximizing, not public-benefit-maximizing behaviour is their nature und purpose.
    We can also not ask them for it or suggest it to them.

    Let me quote a far better writer on this, because this point is so important. Scott Alexander explains:

[Agents in competitive systems that optimize only for profit] gradually lose all values except sheer competition[.]

[…] Companies in an economic environment of sufficiently intense competition are forced to abandon all values except optimizing-for-profit or else be outcompeted by companies that optimized for profit better and so can sell the same service at a lower price. (…)

From a god’s‑eye-view, we can contrive a friendly industry where every company pays its workers a living wage. From within the system, there’s no way to enact it.

We can only legislate them into doing so.

  1. A strong public mandate (pressure from citizens) is needed to put the necessary laws in place.

    Politicians are, by the system’s design, constantly forced to balance acceptable public opinion with maximal capital for re-election and are thus dependent on large corporations. For money, mostly, but also to be able to pass economic policies when there is no strong public mandate. (Any politician’s decisions against large corporations’ maximum profits will be penalized with lack of campaign donations, further tax minimization and worsening public perception because of the politican’s “weakening the economy”.)
  2. To reach a strong public mandate, we need better communication.
    1. There is far more research with clear results than there is awareness of the same in the general public.
      The research results are pointing at a) humanity’s responsibility to change its systems and fix systemic design flaws, and b) plenty good policy proposals that would be very helpful in the process of mitigating ecological collapse.
    2. Also, to achieve individual behavourial change in citizens of those nations with the largest ecological footprints, disregarding how doing this alone would be near-impossible and ineffective in the long term, we need better communication. Private individuals can drastically alter their lifestyle and influence many people around them. If we only asked, “how can we make it easier for people to behave environmentally-friendly?”, the answer would be about how they are communicated to – regarding problems, regarding the many possibilities of potential post-growth societies, and what to do to get there.
  3. Communications, not  research, is the current bottleneck in the effort to reach true global sustainability.

This is why I have been and will be working on communication about large-scale problems.

I welcome productive disagreement on the above reasoning, as well as suggestions for good examples to illustrate it.

What shall we do?

Make more young designers aware of the fact that there is more communication to be designed in the world than just commercial brand communication.

Build pathways for designers, communicators, educators, to work towards true global sustainability in lifestyle configurations that are also sustainable at a personal level (financially and health-wise).

  • Literally every time I spoke about science communication with scientists, they confirmed there is a dire need for good communicators. (Not only for them to measurably increase their visibility for tenure or grants, but rather because there are urgent, large-scale problems to be solved and science is the only method we have to find out about a problem’s exact status and possible solutions.)
  • There needs to be more awareness that already, NGOs like sustainability thinktanks, foundations, and even many governments’ Departments of the Environments, increasingly include effective communication efforts in their budgets or directly employ communication designers, writers, etc.
  • NGOs in need of effective communication should have more direct contact with design faculties, to support communicators in becoming fluent in the language of real-life problems, e.g. in ecology, human rights, scientific (il)literacy.
If you are active in any relevant organisation or research institute, take a look at the communication budgets and/or department. Is your organisation reaching its communication goals with respect to the large-scale problems at hand?