The Byron Fellowship, part 2: An Aspirational Dialogue

As these few days following my experiences at the Byron Fellowship have passed, I have found myself noticing more and more facets of the experience – little things, the full significance of which are only hitting me now. One of these things was initially brought to my attention by a fellow participant who mentioned in reflection that not once during the week did we hear a negative, sarcastic, or intentionally hurtful comment out of our fellow participants. How many times in our lives, he said, do we go a day – much less a week – without hearing such negativity out of those around us, be they strangers, coworkers, friends, or even ourselves?

Upon my own reflection over these past few days, I have come to realize that this lack of negativity during the week of the Byron Fellowship extended far beyond just our comments to and about each other. The framing of the issues we discussed the entire week was what we called “aspirational” language – an aspirational dialogue of possibility, hope, creativity, and optimism. Of what we can create and inspire in this world, rather than what we need to eliminate or avoid. This simple use of positive framing and phrasing of issues was key to creating the mood for the week – the inspiring environment that all those who participated in the Byron Fellowship will carry with us throughout our lives.

Aspirational language, we learned at the Fellowship, is in opposition to the language of desperation. In the environmental movement in general, so often we resort to desperation, fear, pessimism, and anger in our plea for action and change. If we don’t stop using fossil fuels right now, the world will experience a drastic increase in catastrophic weather events related to global warming, sea levels will rise and Florida and Bangladesh and island nations will be under water! We have to stop the Big Oil companies from letting this happen! Or, If you don’t stop overfishing, soon there will be no ocean life left! Or, Can’t you see that our American consumerist lifestyle is creating waste, overwhelming the landfills, and putting too much pressure on the world’s resource supplies? You can’t buy that new flat screen TV! So often, those involved in the environmental movement phrase things in a desperate, negative way. We must stop polluting, stop emitting carbon dioxide, stop driving our gas-guzzling cars, stop buying so many useless consumer goods, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop!

But just telling people they can’t do this, or to stop doing that is not an effective way to inspire change. In fact, for most people, the words I have written above are not inspiring at all. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, founders of the BreakThrough Institute, present a critique of the 1970s, 80s and 90s negative environmentalism in their book by the same name. This type of environmentalism, they argue, includes so much negativity that people genearally turn off when they hear it, rejecting even scientific claims because of they way they are presented, as things we have to avoid and get rid of. We have to ban these pesticides, these polluters should pay to remove these contaminants from this river, we have to stop littering, etc. This type of language does not spur people to action, because what action is implied by these statements is not really action but inaction: something to stop or avoid doing. Thus (and this is me expanding on Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s ideas, now), people never really think they are the problem, that there is any action required of them because they are not polluters. The problem is thereby externalized, while at the same time no alternative positive action is suggested.

Aspirational language, on the other hand, the type we were encouraged to use at the Byron Fellowship, phrases things in the language of possibility – this is the “Politics of Possibility,” according to the subtitle of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s book. To me, aspirational language is associated directly with the principles of sustainability, while the language of desperation is associated with the old environmentalism described above. While environmentalism is about what we need to remove, to avoid, to stop, sustainability is about what we can create, encourage, and build. Sustainability involves a positive vision of what we want the future to look like. Where environmentalism involves stopping urban sprawl, removing contaminants, and limiting the effect of human activities on the environment, sustainability involves creating community, encouraging urban gardens and permaculture, designing walkable communities and livable public spaces, developing alternative energy sources, and creating products that benefit the environment, rather than just minimizing harm. Sustainability, then, is framed in a positive light, rather than a negative.

This week’s dialogues at the Byron Fellowship were all framed in aspirational language. We talked about creating communities among people deeply connected to a place so as to inspire care of that place and of one another. We talked of developing a measure of trust and faith in each other (and in God, if you wish), so that we desire to make the world a better place for all of our grandchildren. We talked about learning to understand, listen to, and have compassion for others, and, rather than trying to force them into a sustainable way of life, to be open to different ways of thinking and encourage them to do the same. I truly believe that this type of compassion and listening to others can really have an impact on the way we as humans treat the natural world and how we go about transitioning to sustainable communities.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brandon on May 23, 2010 at 10:13 PM

    Great reflection and commentary, Jess. I need to check out the Breakthrough Institute and also work to keep the momentum going within from Byron.

  2. Posted by Jess Vogt on May 24, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    Thanks, Brandon! I hope you don’t mind I used that bit at the beginning from your reflection. You said it so well!

  3. […] part, this post is in response to Jess Vogt’s post on optimism. Working for an environmental group, Jess discusses the benefits of what is called […]

  4. I know this is an old post but I’m just finding it now. Great topic though.

    I think that part of the problem is educating people enough to bring them away from the idea that they are pointedly disconnected from the very actions that are making our society unsustainable. Every part of living in a home has repercussions that extend far beyond the driveways and picket fences but those are connections between dots that are not always clearly understood or even readily available to most people. Perhaps the aspirational message is an inspirational one that revolves around individual actions making a difference (old and cliché but still very true). We are unmistakably interconnected.

    I also think the problem is often much less black and white than a disfunctional community with social neglect and ailing services. There are plenty of suburban communities that are welcoming, socially vibrant and attractive, yet still undeniably inefficient and represent the opposite direction of what sustainability would point us towards. The “problem” lies so deeply in the planning of these communities that change would result in stirring the very core of these lifestyles and their dependance on open space as well as traversing it with an automobile. In their current likeness even great suburban communities are markedly unsustainable.

    In effect, some people try to pitch sustainability as something that can be technologically fixed without serious changes to social norms, but the fact is that given our current existence change is necessary for just about all of us. No one wants to hear they are part of the problem or even that there is a problem, but there is one and we are all part of it.

    I would like to believe that the core of human nature could lead us to a better outcome, but it seems a tricky task to convince someone to change how they live if they can’t understand that something about how they are living is wrong (and yes, this is certainly a value judgement, which only makes it more complicated). If nothing is wrong, then where is the problem? Then why change?

    I champion the education route. I choose to believe that most people are actually not apathetic, simply ignorant of all of the factors. If someone has all of the pertinent information their resulting decision is, at the very least, informed without the luxury of blissful ignorance. Maybe that is all we can hope for, but even with that path, we have a long way to go to bring everyone up to speed.

  5. […] == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}This is Part 2 of my reflection post-Byron Fellowship, originally published on Adventures In Sustainability in May 2010. More recent reflections to come […]

  6. […] == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}This is Part 2 of my reflection post-Byron Fellowship, originally published on Adventures In Sustainability in May 2010. More recent reflections to come […]

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