George Bernard Shaw saw two sorts of people. Those that “see things as they are and ask why” and those that “dream things that never were and ask why not." When it comes to sustainability, Paul Hohnen thinks there may be five sorts of people and explains why the differences are important to the future

Everyone wants to create a world that is fit for their kids and grandkids to live in, right? That’s the premise that governments and business have been acting on in advancing the ‘sustainable development’ debate for two decades.

In this they have been bolstered by the growth of the green voter and opinion polls that show – admittedly with the odd peak or trough – that ‘future of the planet’ issues are things many care about.

The problem is that there are not just two sorts of people when it comes to sustainable development: those ‘for’ and those ‘against’. There are at least five sorts and the huge differences between them make the politician’s business leader’s life a nightmare.

Happily ignorant?

The first type are the ‘happily ignorant’. These – whether by lack of access to information or education - have little interest in sustainability issues.

‘Here- and-now’ concerns preclude any space for ‘day after tomorrow’ matters.

Worse, they have little confidence in governments, markets or nature to fix things.

Copenhagen and ‘climategate’ just provided more evidence of this. Because they don’t vote, buy or invest on the basis of ‘green’ or ethical issues, they are not courted by politicians or business on these grounds.

The second type are the ‘disempowered and disengaged’. They know a bit about – and might be concerned by – the problems we face but cannot see much point in doing anything. What can they hope to achieve alone? They point rather to China or India, with their large populations, as the primary threat to the planet’s future.

This group would typically fill in questionnaires showing ‘moderate’ concern about sustainability problems, but indicate that they would not change lifestyles unless given incentives. Not a demographic group that represents an attractive green market.

Or unhappily informed?

The third type are the ‘unhappily informed’. They understand what trouble we could be in for and are actively talking steps to improve the situation.

These are the sort of people who look for eco-labels on products, who may invest in SRI products and whose vote is influenced by sustainability considerations.

While conscious of ‘doom and gloom’ considerations, they remain (not always happily) optimistic, their purchases, NGO donations and votes being personal expressions of activism and hope.

Sustainability-driven politics and industry would like to see this group grow, but worry that it still is in single digit figures in most countries.

The fourth type – the empowered and disengaged - differ from the second in two main respects. They know the scale and urgency of the issues but see the situation as already hopeless.

They assume that the world has either already passed a ‘point of no return’ or will imminently do so. Being often in a higher wealth category, they see themselves on the ‘Titanic’ and have resolved to ‘go first class’.

While not personally disposed to make lifestyle changes, ironically this type may be involved in marketing planet-friendly products and services, responding to government subsidies and pressures at home.

Armageddon anyone?

The fifth type are the calamitists. They see current problems, including climate change, as evidence of the error of man’s ways and predict an apocalyptic end. In some countries, such as the USA, polls suggest this demographic might be more than one in five.

This type is, by definition, not looking for solutions to sustainability issues and so does not represent an interesting political or consumer market. To the contrary, some may actively oppose measures to make economies more sustainable.

While not everyone fits neatly into one of these groups (where did you see yourself?), the taxonomy can be useful in making two points.

The first is that it is wrong to assume that everyone is in favour of sustainable development. Indeed, the profound differences in perspective might help explain why progress on the sustainability agenda has been so slow and hard.

The second is that efforts to ‘sell’ sustainability must now be customized to address the different audiences. The uninformed need to be informed, the disengaged engaged, the activists acknowledged and the hopeless given hope.

For too long, governments have largely relied on NGOs to convey the hard messages. New skill sets are now needed, including those of sociologists, psychologists and communications experts.

If the sustainability agenda – or its successor the ‘green economy’ - are to be sustainable, their demographic drivers need to be urgently reassessed and addressed.

Amsterdam-based, Paul Hohnen consults, speaks and writes on sustainability and CSR issues. Hohnen is a member of Ethical Corporation’s Advisory Board.

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