5 Things I learned about how to Communicate Research on Sustainability

August 9, 2018 1 By Duncan Green

Is it possible to achieve a sustainable future where the social needs of all are met without exhausting the planet’s resources? Julia Steinberger shares lessons learnt from communicating her research findings.

Earlier this year, my colleagues and I published an article entitled “A Good Life For All Within Planetary Boundaries” in Nature Sustainability. In this article, we aimed to test the central idea of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: is it possible for countries to achieve key social goals while maintaining levels of resource use that are not disruptive of key planetary processes? Depressingly, we found that no country currently achieves the majority of social thresholds without also transgressing multiple planetary boundaries.

Our article received a phenomenal level of public attention. In the weeks after its publication, over 100 news outlets ran stories featuring our results, we received significant attention on social media, and our website was visited by more than 23,000 people from 171 countries. Through this whirlwind experience, we gained some valuable insights into the challenges of communicating intertwined planetary and societal research. Distilled below are my ‘Top 5’ lessons for sustainability science communication.

  1. Paint pretty pictures

Comprehensive, comparable data and robust analysis matter, but striking graphics are pure gold. My colleagues worked tirelessly to come up with the most intuitive ways of graphically communicating and summarising our results, and every minute and reconsideration paid off. Our results were instantly understood, through Twitter, our website and other formats. The fact that Kate Raworth had paved the way with her seminal diagram in Doughnut Economics also prepared our audience for this new kind of combination of sufficiency thresholds (above a certain level is good) and environmental limits (above a certain level is bad), where a good outcome is not an optimum, but a balancing act.

  1. Stop searching for ‘El Dorado’

We must move away from existing economic models, and towards very different ones, changing economic structure and provisioning systems in the process. We must build El Dorado here, not copy it from elsewhere.

Most journalists, and many readers, really, really wanted us to provide an example of a country that leads the way, and seemed disappointed when we stuck to our result that there is currently no country that performs well both environmentally and socially. We were often asked about specific favourites (‘What about Cuba? What about Bhutan?’). The idea of an existing El Dorado, a golden mythical land, somewhere out there, represents a strong desire to find a role model to emulate, rather than adventure into uncharted waters. But our results (and those of many other studies) mean that we must do just that: move away from existing economic models, and towards very different ones, changing economic structure and provisioning systems in the process. We must build El Dorado here, not copy it from elsewhere.

  1. Population growth remains an explosive topic

Population is still the third rail of environmental debates, with many commentators wanting to put the blame for our current conundrum square on the shoulders of the great human multitude. We agree that population growth should be reduced and reversed: this can happen rapidly by means of women’s education and emancipation. Not all populations are equally culpable, however: consumption differences across populations matter more.

  1. Technology will not swoop in to save us

After the population-only problem, the technology-only solution is a frequent response. Imagination is often

Not politically neutral….

captured by one specific technology, which then becomes the desired answer. Such a perspective is dangerously reductionist, because it fails to take into account two central facts. The first is that consumption levels must go down overall: instead of ‘how’ we produce or consume, we should be focusing on ‘how much.’ The second is the problem of phasing out fossil fuel technologies. Dreaming about solar panels often comes at the expense of collective efforts to shut down old 20th century technologies. Technologies are not value-free or politically-neutral, and for better technologies (both environmentally and socially) to become dominant, we must engage in the intense political battles to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

  1. Imagine frugal welfare

Finally, it is vital that we bring these topics and debates into the common discourse. Forty years after the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, we have made scientific progress in measurement and modelling of current challenges, but we still struggle to express what we must work towards. This can only be done effectively by articulating a position based on sound values and a shared radical vision: a vision where quality of life does not require excessive consumption, and where working toward each other’s benefit does not hinge on growth beyond planetary limits. Caring for each other, contrary to modern economic and policy orthodoxy, does not require economic growth. Put most simply, we need to learn how to prioritise each other’s welfare and build societies that achieve social thresholds, while reducing excessive consumption to be within planetary boundaries.

This article was first published on Oxfam’s Views and Voices blog