Changing the conversation

Half a century after Silent Spring, the environmental movement risks stalling out. MIT Sloan’s Jason Jay calls for a new approach.

August 5, 2013

Jason Jay

Jason Jay

It seems that everyone talks sustainability these days. And the country has come a long way since the days when littering on the highway was acceptable behavior.

But is that enough? Not really, says Jason Jay, director of the MIT Sloan Initiative for Sustainable Business and Society. Litter was one battle, but environmental advocates have failed to pass comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation or shift the U.S. Farm Bill toward sustainable agriculture, to cite just two examples. Jay, who has been advocating sustainability and environmental innovation at MIT Sloan since he arrived to pursue his PhD in 2005, believes the movement risks cresting before achieving its goals.

And, he says, sustainability advocates must look first at themselves before blaming others for failures.

More than 50 years after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, kicking off the environmental movement, and more than 40 years after a trio of MIT Sloan researchers published The Limits to Growth, detailing computer models of unrestrained use of resources, the tone of dialogue used by the sustainability community can sometimes be self-defeating, Jay says.

“There’s enough sustainability conversation going on in the culture that we can look at it and say ‘What’s going on here? Is this working?’” he says. “It’s not really working. It is building momentum, but still not reaching the diversity of people and perspectives that it needs to succeed.”

Along with Gabriel Grant, a PhD candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environment, Jay is calling for an attitude adjustment. The pair is developing a new way of discussing sustainability and effecting change. It’s a practice applicable to all conversations, from a chat between friends about sustainable eating to advocacy in Washington for climate change legislation, to President Obama’s own stance on greenhouse gas pollution. Jay and Grant are promoting this new approach through a series of workshops, as well as train-the-trainer events, a website and, eventually, a new book.

“Our desire to be sustainability leaders has been built around our desire to be right, to know the right answer, and to see ourselves as righteous,” Jay says. “And if we engage with somebody who’s going to threaten those beliefs, we either get into overheated debate or chicken out, because we don’t want to have our righteousness and our rightness questioned.”

No more, say Jay and Grant. Earlier this year, the pair wrote Authentic Sustainability—Navigating Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Pathways in Conversations toward a Better World, a working paper sketching a new approach to talking about sustainability. A sort of manifesto for leadership in sustainability, the paper instructs environmental advocates to adopt a more effective technique.

Every person has an “inner tension” between their wish for a sustainable future and their wish to live life the way they want, say the pair. Sustainability advocates must both acknowledge the sacrifices and tradeoffs inherent in sustainable action and recognize the sacrifices they are asking of others, they write. By doing that, people can discuss and advocate for sustainable practices and policies in a more honest, authentic way. The conversation, Jay and Grant say, will change.

“The goal is to see ‘Can we get these conversations to move to a different place?’” Jay says.

The Authentic Sustainability working paper has five pages of charts detailing possible pitfalls, the cost of falling into those pitfalls, and suggested alternative approaches.

For example, instead of “using sustainability to dominate and make others wrong” with an attitude of “I am more virtuous than you,” Jay and Grant suggest asking others to express what sort of future they wish to see, sharing one’s own struggles with sustainable living, and seeking out shared values.

Through a series of workshops—including one at the MIT Sustainability Summit this past April—Jay and Grant are documenting instances in which taking their suggested approach produces results. They have begun to collect testimonials on their website, Transforming Sustainability.

Jay writes on the website about his own, self-defeating statements that “someone should” do something about sustainability at MIT when he first arrived on campus. In another testimonial, workshop participant Laura Yates writes about how she damaged a relationship upon learning a friend did not believe in climate change. She writes, as well, about mending that relationship through an honest, empathetic understanding of her friend’s view, allowing her to reopen the conversation on climate change with a more constructive tone.

The testimonials are not quantitative, Jay admits. But they do serve as a study, “action research” he calls it. He wants people to share stories and examples of which approaches work and which ones don’t.

At training sessions, Jay says, "Most people in the room start to notice ways in which they've approached these conversations in a way that wasn't that constructive. As a result, they start to then see new options. The workshop expands people’s thought and action repertoire so they can access to new ways of being in conversations with people. They then make commitments and go out and have those conversations differently. We're always excited to learn the results.”