The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Sustainability shaming doesn’t work: being unkind won’t help change people’s minds

By in Opinions


This is all your fault, stupid polar bear.

Environmental advocates need to find people who are aware of the world’s growing environmental issues but have not yet taken action. We need to convince them to do something. This will not be achieved by browbeating or berating them, but by offering positive reinforcement to work toward a solution.

The University of Saskatchewan administration and the U of S Students’ Union have the same definition of sustainability: “Sustainability is the stewardship of the natural environment in a socially and economically responsible manner that meets the needs of both present and future generations.”

This definition is empowering as it doesn’t preach or condescend, and it gets right to the point.

The fight against ignorance will not be won if framed in combative terms. If we are going to get people on side we should empower them and avoid squabbling about who rode their bike more or whose low-flush toilet saves the most water.

We’ve all contributed to the environmental mess and it’s difficult to find the right way to get across the urgency of the issues. But in encouraging others to live more sustainable lifestyles, we have to be careful not to divide people who might otherwise work together.

It can be satisfying to win arguments about the environment but doing so won’t save the planet. Figuring out the right way to convince others to live more sustainably will. I strongly believe getting more people involved will also encourage politicians to put sustainability on their agendas.

Politicians get paid to pay attention to what the public wants and we shouldn’t let condescension limit the movement. Environmentalism should be about working with everyone, not just the people who are already involved. My bet is that once this succeeds politicians will stop covering their collective ears. The first step, though, will have to be bringing more citizens into the fold.

Sustainability deals with deep-rooted habits, such as what we choose to eat, buy and do with our time. Not surprisingly, it is often a touchy subject.

With that in mind, it seems quite obvious that shaming anyone into reducing, recycling and reusing will never work.

All this does is create a divide among people trying their best to achieve environmental goals or are thinking about joining the movement. Self-righteous claims about who saved more energy or water can really turn people off.

Sustainability can and should be convenient: all-in-one blue-bin recycling has already been implemented at the university, and will go into effect across Saskatoon soon. More measures like this, that make sustainable living practical and easy, should be put into place in Saskatoon and beyond. I hope that with enough people taking part, sustainable living can become even more convenient than it already is.

I believe contemporary environmentalism is at a crossroads. There must be tangible, non-shameful solutions offered. This is why a practical and positive approach to sustainability is necessary.

If you are a cyclist, you’re much more likely to succeed in encouraging others to start biking if you talk about how fun it is or how easy it is to bike around town (even in winter!) rather than how car drivers are killing the planet. I understand that I’m not saying anything most people don’t already know, but I think it needs to be put into practice a little more often.

We can either decide to incorporate as many people as possible in a friendly way and create a sustainable culture of positivity, or we can continue to preach to our own while shaming others with how awful we are all being, which allows others to easily revert to their old habits.

Photo: Gerard Van der Leun/Flickr

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