Why environmentalists should stop taking Martin Luther King’s name in vain 6

This is a guest post by Jon Alexander, who writes for Conservation Economy, a blog about what the marketing & communications industry should do in an economy not based on consumption. This post appeared in its original form back in October 2010.  Jon’s view has shifted somewhat since then, so if you want to engage more with this discussion, please do see what you think of that post as well.

Over the last year, we’ve been hearing references to Martin Luther King in the sustainability debate with increasing regularity.  King, we are told, didn’t inspire change by saying “I have a nightmare”; the implication being that the environmental movement needs to stop being so down in the dumps and instead describe the promised land if ‘it’ wants to motivate change…

This isn’t a new notion.  It was first put forward by Ted Schellenberger and Michael Nordhaus in their essay The Death Of Environmentalism (well worth a read) back in 2004.  Since then it has been picked up by Jonathon Porritt in Capitalism As If The World Matters (2005), regularly by the sustainability communications agency Futerra, and most recently called out by Nick Marks in his TED talk to frame his discussion of the link between the environment and wellbeing economics.

When I first wrote about this idea, I was highly critical.  I think it is important to recognise, however, that the approach has achieved major successes.  Although it has for now gone relatively unnoticed, David Camfetyeron’s decision to brief the Office of National Statistics to investigate the means to measure happiness in our society represents a considerable victory for Marks in particular, and could well lead to very interesting developments in the future.

As the innovative economic thinker Hazel Henderson puts it, though, nothing breeds failure like success, and there are dangers ahead down this path.

Referring back to the full text of King’s speech brings some useful lessons.  If you do, you find that it’s not quite as uniformly positive a vision as is often made out.  You can check it out here as a film, or here as transcript.

The speech begins with a searing indictment of the current state of affairs, of the “bad cheque” of the Emancipation Proclamation.  I think this is the fundamental that we’re lacking in our discussions today.  The danger of focusing too wholeheartedly on “selling the sizzle” (as dream disciples Futerra put it) is that you can easily be too accepting, and allow fundamental barriers to remain in place.  King by contrast is very clear indeed that the situation is wrong.  He is not afraid of context.

The second phase is even more telling.  King now describes the task ahead, leaving no one in any doubt as to just how hard the work will be to right the situation.  He respects the intelligence of his audience, and gives it to them straight – “There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights…”

Perhaps the point that has most resonance for the present, though, comes when he invokes “the fierce urgency of Now” (a phrase most do not even realise comes from the same speech).  “This is no time,” he says, “to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism.”  The tranquillizing drug of gradualism?  How many of us are taking that right now?

I do not argue here that we should not paint a vision of the future that is positive and inspiring.  That work is important, and is making headway.  But as we do it, we must not shy away from just how difficult this situation is, and we must not take that tranquillizing drug.

As we do it, we must understand that the truly motivating vision of the future is not saccharine.  It lies the other side of full engagement with the realities of the fundamental inequities we have created, the other side of global inequalities, climate change, and species extinction, the other side – and here I stand with Nic Marks – of consumerism, the social system that has engendered all these things.

The truth from a proper engagement with psychology (or even a session with a two-bit sports psychologist) is not simply that a positive vision is inspiring and a negative vision is disempowering.  It is that the most motivating situation is created by a shared challenge that is difficult yet possible to overcome.  It is this that King recognised (and indeed, that Cameron and Osborne have thus far successfully harnessed with the communication of their economic strategy here at home), and that the current crop of environmental ‘visionaries’ – and here I include Marks – risk overlooking.

What does this mean in practice?  Well, as the measures of happiness in our society start to gain meaning, we must make sure we’re looking at the things that affect them negatively, not just positively.  In particular, I believe advertising needs to come under the microscope.  We will have to recognise that the 1600 (or 3000, or 5000, depending on who you talk to) commercial messages a day we all see, that all as a foundation tell us that consumption is the route to happiness, are engineering our society.  If we want to give ourselves the real space to think differently, something will need to be done here.  And it will not be easy.

I want to finish this post by quoting the author and multi-issue activist Alice Walker.  “I have a theory that Martin Luther King, had he lived, would have become a violent revolutionary rather than a non-violent one simply because he would have perceived that he had met an object, this country, that is not going to be changed non-violently.  I think his dedication was so intense that he would have tried other strategies.  I talk about his love in front and his necessary fist behind.”

Martin Luther King was a great man.  Let’s not take his memory lightly.


  1. Ed gillespie

    Jon if you had actually read ‘Sizzle’ or watched my TEDx talk on ‘Sustainability the reinvention of progress’ you wouldn’t oversimplify & misrepresent Futerra’s approach…

    ‘Sizzle’ is ALL about contextualising a positive vision alongside the difficult challenges & choices we collectively face & the plans & actions needed to deliver change…it’s not about happyclappy unrealistic idealism – so stop positioning it as that, it does you, ‘us’ & the environment movement no favours to polarise tactics in this way…and you know it

    I’m all for a polemic or two (as anyone who has seen me speak will testify!) but show me where I have advocated ‘gradualism’ & I’ll take a tasty bite of hat…

    ; )

    If quoting civil rights activists is your thing (& I don’t accept that any of ‘us’ have ‘taken MLK’s name in vain btw) then how about Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’? We’re all in this challenge together, deploying every evidence-based tactic at our disposal to deliver change. Sniping at each others approaches demeans & undermines ‘us’ all. Let’s get on with the task in hand & focus on the bigger targets…not each other…

  2. Jonty Whittleton

    Interesting post Jon. My internal compass has swung between sustainable revolution and evolution more times than I care to count, and it’s currently sitting somewhere in the middle.

    The tension is simple – some pretty massive lifestyle changes need to be brought about *but* these changes need to be wholesale. This is no mean feat when you consider how complex people’s lives are. Furthermore, we’re essentially asking less-developed countries to forego the ‘luxuries’ that we’ve already experienced (this is how it looks).

    So what’s the recipe for success? Hardcore action will likely push the mainstream ‘head’ further into the sand. Softcore action won’t quite cut it. The answer, as any investor will tell you, is to have a diversified portfolio; we need to employ a diversity of strategies and tactics – some technological, some behavioural – along with a pinch of blind faith thrown in for good measure.

    These will all need to be carefully scrutinised to ensure that they achieve that vital balance between greenwash and Gaianism.

    On the specific subject of MLK, I don’t think any of the people mentioned in your post have taken his name in vein. He had a positive vision that he clearly states is achievable but will require bloody hard work to do so. Same argument that I’ve seen being used by sustainability comms pros for some time now…

  3. Melissa Sterry

    One of the sustainability pros who has used the Martin Luther King metaphor I agree with the statement ‘the best thing to do if you really want to learn from King’s speech is to read it’.

    Having sat on a think tank with a 12-strong team of depth psychologists, cognitive scientists and communications strategists gathered from the US, UK and EU to spend 2 years researching the psychology of sustainability communications, I also agree with your statement that ‘The truth from a proper engagement with psychology is not simply that a positive vision is inspiring and a negative vision is disempowering’.

    However, the tone of your article patronizing and deeply mis-informed. Certainly none of the sustainability comms pros I’ve had the honor to work with take MLK’s memory ‘lightly’ and be assured we have all ‘read’ the speeches, indeed several times.

    Your statement that only Marks ‘has the slightest right to use it’ is quite honestly absurd to the extent several colleagues laughed out loud having heard it. If you’re going to fire insults at sustainability pros you’d be advised to do your homework and use a little diplomacy in your tone.

  4. Nic Marks

    I think it is quite funny you somehow think only I have a right to use MLK inspirational speeches in some way for another context. Obviously one of the reasons people like MLK are inspiring is that they appeal to our highest and noblest aspirations. That is why I framed my TED talk with his quotes – I had obviously picked up this from others and in our Happy Planet Index report we referenced Nordhaus T and Shellenberger M (2007) Break through: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility . However, we also noted that we would question whether their dreams are a realistic solution to the problems of climate change!

    There is so much good work on in the sustainability field and I am only really critical of an over obsession with fear images as they simply do not work in motivating people to change behaviour.
    Your tag says you work on marketing – perhaps then you understand the tension small think tanks face with trying to communicate ideas – I am quite sure that no one would have heard of the Happy Planet Index if it had been called Sustainable Well-being Index – which was my first name for it! It simply would not have grabbed attention in a crowded media. So to be taken seriously maybe you sometimes have to be playful. To see our more policy orientated work – which the Office for National Statistics are more interested in – look at http://www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org

    All the best

    Nic Marks
    new economics foundation

  5. Shaun Chamberlin

    Before I comment I should note that, judging from the comments, this post appears to have been edited significantly from the original before I found it.

    However, I enjoyed and valued the post that I found when I arrived.

    I think the saccharine dreaming Jon Alexander calls out is a genuine problem, within society at large and yes, even within the environmentalist movement (although as others have highlighted, it certainly isn’t what everyone means to encourage when they talk of invoking dreams rather than nightmares)

    I have had this very “I have a dream” example thrown at me in the past as criticism for bringing up challenges that may get in the way of achieving the positive visions being discussed around me.

    Combining positivity with realism in a world faced with serious predicaments is of course the very essence of Dark Optimism, and I found this piece a useful reminder to us all not to slip too far away from realism.

    And as Jonty says, taking this seriously leads us into another run-through of the classic late-night environmentalist discussion that I’m sure we’ve all had many times:

    “If we wait for radical change we’re toast.”
    “But without radical change we’re toast.”

    So where does this leave us? As toast? Or maybe simply living with this difficult tension within us as we work for change the best way we know how? Perhaps the diversity of strategies Jonty suggests? Perhaps ‘being the change’ in an attempt to work on both levels at the same time?

    Here I, personally, turn to Wendell Berry:
    “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success, namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”
    – Wendell Berry

  6. Harold Forbes

    My problem with dreams and visions is that they will always be limited in their effect by the number of people who “buy-into” them when with climate change we need action by virtually everybody, everywhere.
    In my analysis, the root of the problem (and the solution) lies in the most powerful and universal tool devised by humans: money. The capitalist system has been an effective (though not perfect) system for delivering present day pleasures but it has done so by fooling us into thinking that destroying the future is “rational behaviour” through the simple error of omitting to place any cost on using the Earth’s resources and services. The source of that error is partially our shared imagination of what our relationship to the rest of the planet is (dominant) and partially time related. Capitalism only became possible following the invention of double entry booking in 15th century Italy. Unfortunately, at that time there were many fewer humans around and they had not discovered how to use fossil fuels in any great way. So, the system that seeks balance is, in fact, tilted. Businesses are well used to the idea that capital items used for production need to be depreciated to provide for their replacement at the end of their productive lives but the destruction of natural capital is ignored. We use the natural world because it is valuable and destroy it because it is free. There are some people working in this area like the Prince of Wales (and some nice “sizzle” at http://bit.ly/susacctg) and the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity but what we really need is for restocking oceans, protecting biodiversity and taking carbon out of the atmosphere to become economic activities.


Leave a comment

  • (will not be published)