From 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. 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. He won because he provided a very consistent message of hope. 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? 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. 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.