Introduction to talk on: Repackaging Sustainability to Appeal to America – New York University

I wanted to give this talk because I have become increasingly concerned about the growing resistance I see building toward sustainability here in the US. I have also recently been to two different events one on clean energy and the other on food, where I felt confident that going green, or building the case for sustainability would be an easy sell.

 I left the events knowing that those opposing it had gained more ground. They had created enough doubt, confusion over the issues, and instilled hopelessness in taking any kind of action even in the remote possibility that it were necessary.   I now know that sustainability is in serious trouble in America.

It’s losing the rhetorical battle and though we underestimate rhetoric it’s pivotal if we want any change to take place on a national level.

The contrast between what is going on in Europe is also stark. Why is it that Europe is leading and America is ambivalent or stalling?

Don’t we have battling political parties there? Media outlets? Citizens? A recession? Scholars? Big industry?

I think that studying  the European Example teaches us invaluable political lessons.

I also think that we can learn from Europe but we must create a rhetoric that is appropriate for America.

Most  importantly we need to recognize the problem and take concrete, practical  steps toward solving it.

We must recognize that it’s not about the science, though the science is compelling. Sustainability will succeed if it becomes meaningful to peoples’ daily lives. It’s a political and social choice but political parties will follow once the ideas become pervasive in society. Mainstream parties cannot and will not lead the fight (at least successfully). If the public embraces it then it has a stake in its success.

They say in politics that the greatest gift you can give someone is your attention. This has not been done successfully by advocates of sustainability. Not enough anyway. To succeed, first  you listen, and then you adapt the message to the audience.

Finally, the message needs to be upbeat. Nobody wants to hear about sacrifice. they want to believe that by choosing this path it will be a new and better day for themselves and their families. They want  to know that they have a seat at the table and that the sustainability track won’t cost them their jobs, their homes, their livelihood.

There is nothing wrong with being optimistic. If we actually manage to succeed won’t it be a better world for more people?

And isn’t it good news that we will be saving the planet as well?

It’s time to learn the facts, know our opponents better than ourselves and understand that this is a real fight and not a drill. Someone will win and someone will lose. You cannot have it both ways. So if you are going to pick a fight make sure you win it.

Sophia Kalantzakos


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