Building Bridges: Scarcity vs. Abundance

French outdoor market with an abundance of applesFrom biodiversity loss to peak oil to the need for recycling, many of the messages coming from the environmental community have one common underlying theme: scarcity.

Messages of scarcity take their power from the fear they produce. As marketing guru Seth Godin points out, fear is a powerful emotion that can make people act. Tell people that there isn’t enough of something to go around, and you can bet that many will act quickly to make that they get theirs…

That may be one of the supreme ironies of environmental messages involving fear: it may ultimately lead people to desire those things we claim are in short supply. Can you say “Drill, baby, drill??

Finally, there are no shortages of fearful messages out there, and since people seek security when they’re scared, they’ll probably embrace the message that produces immediate comfort… or, at least, validation. “Energy independence” works as a message in one instance because it ties directly to a fear many Americans find familiar: the fear of violence from outsiders. We have vivid images associated with this fear — it’s something we know. Tell people that we take money out of the hands of “state sponsors of terrorism” by leveraging domestic energy supplies, and they start listening closely.

But fear isn’t the only emotion that causes people to act, according to Godin.Β  Hope and love also have the power to move us. As I’ve argued before, I believe that’s what we saw in the presidential election: Barack Obama didn’t win simply because of the economic meltdown, or a focus on domestic issues.Β  He won because he provided a very consistent message of hope.Β  While fear ties into messages of scarcity, hope almost always promotes a vision of abundance. “Energy independence,” whether accurately or not, offers alleviation from a specific fear and a promise of abundance. Look at the messaging for the Pickens Plan: we can undermine threats against us and have the lifestyle we know — we just have to realign our use of existing energy sources. We can argue about the validity of these arguments, but there’s no doubt that they pack a very substantial emotional punch.

As I’ve repeated time and time again, the concept of sustainability really piqued my interest because it offered a vision of abundance: economics and environmental concerns aren’t mutually exclusive, but can work together to the benefit of both. Want to make sure that energy doesn’t become scarce?Β  Look to the most abundant sources: sunlight, wind, the earth’s heat, etc. Want to insure quality of life for our descendants, as well as developing parts of the world? Implement methods for using resources more efficiently and sustainably. Want to get people excited about these concepts and practices? Show them how they can create prosperity, health and joy.

The bonus: we also get to address climate change, loss of biodiversity, water shortages, etc.

In many cases, scarcity is very real… but it doesn’t have to be the message we send to people who are already feeling insecure. People worried about their economic livelihood probably won’t be receptive to more messages of fear.Β  Show them how dealing with these issues can address these other fears, and create abundance for their families and communities, and, at the very least, we’ve probably created a much more receptive audience.

There are still questions of what abundance means to people. If it’s simply more of the same in terms of consumption, we may not have helped our cause, or our planet, much… and that’s an issue we must address. But we still have plenty of shared visions of abundance — health, prosperity, joy — which we can use to start conversations with those who’d immediately turn their backs on our own brand of scarcity thinking.

What are some of the messages of abundance that have worked well to communicate green values effectively? How can we replicate that success? I look forward to your stories and ideas…

Image credit: Rhian vK at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Steven Earl Salmony

    Building bridges by refusing to extoll the ‘virtues’ of greed……

    Perhaps it is time for the same ol’ business-as-usual, pin-stripe-suited leaders, the ones who adamantly espouse and religiously exemplify an apostate’s creed of greed, to be replaced by new leadership.

    Too many leaders of this patently unsustainable culture of avarice evidently define the culture’s efficacy by the endless accumulation of material possessions; by the unbounded acquisition of more money, money, money, money; by recklessly overconsuming and relentlessly hoarding limited resources. They demonstrably declare to all the world that greed is good.

    Are we not members of a culture that worships consumerism? Are the products of greed nothing more or less than the objects of our idolatry?

    Are the pin-striped suits, fleet of cars, chauffeur, private jets, McMansions, distant hideaways, secret handshakes and exclusive clubs…… all “signatures” of success in a culture promoted by the ‘goodness’ of greed?

    Consider for a moment what perversity greed has wrought.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  2. Nathan Schock

    This is a serious challenge for green communicators. Too many don’t stop to think about the messages that work with the broader public. They only use words and strategies that work with the people they talk to…the ones who already agree with them.

    I just finished reading Tom Friedman’s latest: “Hot, Flat and Crowded and in the book he notes a similar paradox, writing:

    “People need hope to undertake a challenge this big, this long-term and this daunting. You can’t stimulate and sustain a broad political movement without it. If you tell people, ‘Look, let’s face it, we’re cooked.’…then they’re natural reaction is: ‘Well, if there is nothign we can really do to stop this train, let’s party.’

    Butt if you tell people that the solutions are really at hand, or that with 205 easy ways to go green from your latest gardening magazine we can produce a whole new energy system and lick global warming, the attitude of many will be: ‘Well, if it’s that easy, then let’s party.'”

  3. Concetta

    I think if we go a little retro and look back at what has worked in the past we might have something.

    Victory Gardens from the World Wars would be a good example. The message? Raise your own food and we’ll all have enough in this time of war-induced scarcity. Neighbors exchanged with neighbors.

    The reason it worked? It was some work, not so much that it seemed like people would never have enough food, but not so little that the majority of people didn’t just shrug it off.

    That’s the problem with green right now. People respond well to fear because it has a component that you can do things to alleviate that fear. When everyone is starting to spout the same 205 easy ways to go green, it makes it seem like there’s no work involved and if everyone else is doing it, you don’t have to. There’s a definite danger of the “it was sent to the herd, so someone else in the herd will do it for us”.

  4. Rayne

    what do you think will happen when the fear of necessary food, water and other consumables peaks (especially in the states)? 232 years ago it happened in the states and there were riots and wars.

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