What can you say to people who don’t want to talk about sustainability?

Most of my blog posts on World.edu have focused on sustainable agriculture, but lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of sustainability in general.  Last week I wrote about how to talk about sustainability with friends and family.  I stated that it is difficult to convince someone who just isn’t interested in thinking about sustainability to change their behavior.

Personally this doesn’t bother me, as I find myself busy enough working with people who are ready to try to change their lives to be more sustainable.  I choose not to worry about people who “just don’t get it.” Nevertheless, some of my students continue to ask me…..

“…what can we do about them?

For an answer, I return to the iceberg model from an earlier post.  Remember, mental models influence social structures, and societal and personal behavior.

When we take the iceberg model and rearrange the components into a causal loop diagram, we can see why it is so difficult to change behavior. In this model, non-sustainable events, patterns, structures and mental models are all part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

When we look for the cause of the loop, it is like asking which comes first – the chicken or the egg.  None and all of the components in the loop are cause and effect. They cause each other.  This is how reinforcing feedback loops work – like an addiction.

When we realize that our behavior is not in our best interest  – and we still don’t change that behavior – we are caught in an addiction cycle. A systems thinker might describe it like this;

  • as non-sustainable actions increase, non-sustainable patterns increase, and….
  • as non-sustainable patterns increase, non-sustainable structures increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable structures increase, non-sustainable mental models increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable mental models increase…..
  • the cycle goes on and on……

An addiction cycle is difficult to stop….. but it can be turned around!


Lets look at what happens in addiction cycles….

When a person or society is caught in an addiction cycle, something bad always happens.  We’ll call it “something to learn. For someone addicted to substances, something to learn is often a very painful physical and emotional “bottom.”  For someone with a spending habit, something to learn might be maxing out a credit card.  For a society that is living or spending beyond its capacity, something to learn might be a financial crisis (sound familiar?).

In any case, “something to learn” is usually painful and confusing.  The good news is that pain can be a catalyst for changing our mental models…. in fact, a new vision only begins to make sense when it becomes clear that the old way of thinking is no longer working.

For someone who “just doesn’t get it” the pain-induced new vision (mental model) can begin to turn things around!

A new way of thinking might result in a person (or a society) trying something different….. like more responsible or sustainable behaviors…… and then the reinforcing feedback loop can take over – and watch out! Things that seemed impossible before can change fast as sustainable actions result in sustainable patterns, and new systemic structures.

For those of us already awake to our non-sustainable situation, I believe we have a responsibility to take action NOW.  For those who are not yet ready, pain will eventually help them wake up.  But I can’t spend a lot of energy talking to people who are not yet ready to change…. I’ve got too much work to do.  I believe that we are already well into the Great Turning (that is the inevitable  transition from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society) and this is really exciting work.

Lets see….


You are invited to join the Great Turning. We can begin now…  or we can wait.  Either way, we are guaranteed that “something to learn” will eventually convince us all to think and act in a more sustainable manner.  The longer we wait – the more pain we will experience.

So “what can we do about them?” If we are talking with people in which we already have a trusting relationship, we can speak from the heart as I described in an earlier post.  For the others……  well, I’ve got too much work to do to worry about that….

What about you?  Do you want to join the Great Turning?


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

3 thoughts on “What can you say to people who don’t want to talk about sustainability?”

  1. I feel that each person has the right to choose to "do" or "not do". Unless those "do's" or "not do's" affect me or a loved one. We then have to ask if this is the right governmental situation that will allow a meaningful new vision to overtake the non sustainable action. In a country of freedoms and many peoples relationships with consequences on massive delays(in regards to global health), the "not do's" seem to happen too much.
    How about a totalitarian structure? That would make people to something instead of choosing the unsustainable option. But, that thought doesn't sit well with me either.

    You mentioned, John, that you don't bother with the people who choose "to keep their heads in the sand". What if we, like ant colonies, made them "do"? That would be one person more to affect change.

  2. Right there with you. I don't bother with the "persuading" role anymore. What a painful experience that was, when I used to try! Now I just let people know what I focus on and care about, and if they're ready, they ask more questions, or I can connect them to activities or groups that are working towards sustainability/resilience. If they're not ready, it's my job to practice non-attachment and surrender to that which is truly out of my control. Big lesson in how to be a fully functioning, mature adult. There is no enforcing, no way to pry open somebody's eyes or mind or heart… they have to want it.

    What I hear in your students' question of "what can we do about them?" is pain at a loss of control, pain at loss of connection, and pain at witnessing self-destructive and other-destructive behavior. My heart aches over that pain and bewilderment. I'm so glad you referenced Joanna Macy because her work is so amazing, going straight to the heart of that pain and grief.

    It can take a good, long while to learn to let go of the persuading role with people who aren't ready to listen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s