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.