3 Species of Environmental Cynicism

Have you ever been frustrated by the cynicism and apathy that you encounter when trying to convey our environmental challenges to a non-believer?   If you answered yes, then keep reading.

I’ve discovered three major species of environmental cynicism infecting target audiences for virtually all of my sustainability-oriented clients. These ’species’ are actually three highly popular mental strategies that everyday ordinary folks use to avoid taking environmental action.  As we cover these below, revisit your own experience and see if they don’t ring true.

Sustainability Cynic # 1: The Non-Believer

Description: The non-believer has decided that the jury is still out on global warming. These folks tend to eagerly dismiss the idea of man-made climate change (and the sustainability movement in-general) as some sort of grand opportunistic hoax perpetrated by fear mongering opportunists. Facts and arguments do little to change this deeply entrenched, highly irrational belief.

Deeper causes: The non-believer mindset is animated by one underlying force: repressed fear. Individuals who think this way are terrified of uncertainty and have uncommonly strong need for security. They tend to form strong, black and white opinions about a variety of social, economic and political topics, and crave absolute clarity from their chosen authority figures. They tend to believe that – in any given situation – there is just one absolute truth, and one leader qualified to dispense it.

Favorite world-shaping metaphor: Life is a test.

Communication strategies: Reasoning with this sort of cynic is hopeless. Don’t even try. Any scientific facts you give will fall upon deaf ears because they are not willing to consider that they may be wrong. Understand that – because these folks view life as a pass or fail test – they are clenched tight against being on the wrong side of the truth. To these folks the implications of being wrong are far too disastrous to even consider.

So what can you do to get through to them?

First of all, listen That’s right. Ask questions, sit back, and listen. Let them tell you all about their opinion. As they speak, do your best to feel grateful and compassionate for what they are telling you – realize that they are confessing their deeper fears to you under the protective guise of steadfast clarity and resolve. Don’t judge, don’t argue, don’t rebut – simply ask questions and listen.

Once you’ve listened thoroughly, you’ll usually find that these folks will relax their opinions slightly. Due to the laws of reciprocity, they’ll then usually ask you what you think. At this point it’s usually most effective to talk on a very personal level about your reasons for being interested in sustainability. Talk about your children, your family, your love of nature, your country, or the world – the “we’re all in it together” universals. The non-believers take heart in the basic universals of being a human, and the notion of duty and shared purpose. If you can help them see how your commitment to sustainability stems from a deeper longing for a meaningful purpose, you will access their humanity and win over a new dutiful, disciplined ally.

Sustainability Cynic # 2:The Hard-Boiled Capitalist

Description: The hard-boiled capitalists have decided that sustainability cannot coexist with profitability, and tend to dismiss sustainable visionaries as romantic idealists. Highly competitive and pragmatic, they will usually express these beliefs not through overt tirades, but rather through a business strategies that focus almost exclusively upon the financial bottom line (with little or no homage paid to environmental and humanistic implications, except insofar as they relate directly to financial or legal interests). When cornered, these cynics will often claim that it’s too late to fix the problem anyway, so why bother?

Deeper causes: Hard-boiled capitalistic cynicism is hard-wired into most business people in the U.S. through years of white-collar brainwashing. This perspective frames the business world as a zero-sum game in which only unsentimental realists survive. (“Nice guys finish last.”) On a deeper level, this world-view is kept in place by a deep mistrust of other people’s motives and a crippling fear of being inadequate.

Resonant world-shaping metaphor: Life is a game.

Communication strategies: Whatever you do, do not start by citing the nobility of your cause! To these cynics, noble causes are for those poor saps who never put away childish things and entered “real world.”

Instead, present your initiative first through a financial lens. Do your homework! Show how your initiative will help create a sustainable competitive advantage in your particular industry or niche. The key word here is “competition.” Hard-boiled capitalist cynics frame the world as a game in which the most clever person wins. Use this metaphor freely in your communications with hard boiled capitalists. Find a competitor in your industry. Are they beating your on an important sustainability issue or dimension? If so, bring this up as leverage. Let this person know that unless they take action soon, they may be left behind for good. Nothing gets a hard-boiled capitalists blood boiling more than the fear of losing. Use this knowledge to strategically ignite their passions towards your worthy cause.

Sustainability Cynic #3: The Environmental Elitist

Description: Unlike the earlier types, this cynical species has a passionate interest in the environmental movement. Unfortunately (and ironically), this passion is often expressed in a way that undermines the very movement they seek to promote. Deeply mistrustful of large organizations (and of capitalism in general) these cynics seem to regard all human institutions as cancers on butt of mother nature. They tend to favor low-tech environmental solutions that bring people together in a spirit of community, and are prone to make strong value-judgments about “non-believers” and “hard-boiled capitalists” who might not immediately share their cherished values.

Deeper causes: The psychology of the Environmental Elitist is held in place by a naggingly constant inner upwelling of frustration and guilt. These folks are the ultimate romantic idealists, and are often disappointed by the great disparity between their ideals and the cold hard facts of reality. What’s more, they tend to feel personally responsible for every bit of suffering in the world. They usually deal with this guilt by projecting it outwards onto others who don’t share their lofty ideals. They also have a strong distaste for authority. Looking around the world, they are painfully aware of the damage caused by people who blindly buy into the rules and prescriptions of the properly sanctioned authorities – be they political, religious or economic.

Core world-shaping metaphor: Mankind is a family.

Communication strategies: When dealing with this species of cynic, it’s important to first let them know that you are ‘on the same team’, and that you share their basic values. By doing this, you will engender a level of trust that allows for a much deeper rapport. Once trust is established, your challenge is to call these folks to see how they may ultimately undermine their own agenda by being so quick to judge. Are they willing step down from the ivory castle of Platonic ideals and accept their flawed fellow human being as is, without indictment or reproach? Would they be willing to trade an ounce of ideology for a pound of pragmatism?

Ask questions and listen. Where does their core guilt and frustration lie? Usually you’ll find that they unconsciously vilify the very corporate leaders that they would need to get buy-in from to get their pet projects up and running. The irony of this self-sabotage is blaring – use humor to make such contradictions evident. Be straight. Be authentic. Don’t let the pie-eyed idealism fool you – these hard core cynics are seeking for truths that would leave most other ordinary cynics quaking in their boots. Existential weaklings they are not! Show them that you can see the inherent value of their sometimes scoffed at environmental quest. Use the “mankind as family” metaphor whenever possible. Appeal to their inherent belief in humanity. Question their assumptions. Leave no stone unturned. But at the end of it all, focus on the need for concrete, measurable results. Show them that their lofty ideals are achievable if they only had the gumption to stop complaining, buck up, and start trusting other people. Inspire them with a grandiose vision, yes, but then show them the immediate next step that must be taken to translate that vision into tangible reality.
John Marshall Roberts is an applied behavioral scientist who has crafted his career around communicating with cynics.  His book “Igniting Inspiration: A Persuasion Manual for Visionaries” delivers an new paradigm for creating inspirational media and messaging using the science of worldviews.  http://johnmarshallroberts.com

  • graham

    I am surprised that you think that “Hard-boiled capitalistic cynicism is hard-wired into most business people in the U.S. through years of white-collar brainwashing”.

    There is quite a large different between those in the US that believe Capitalism is the best system for our economy, and those that believe dumping hazardous waste and then building a play ground on top of it is good business…

    In my opinion, you have lumped these two peoples into one group and thus promote a negative bias towards any white-collar business person. I don’t know a single person who is a “hard-boiled capatilist” as you have described, and I am born and raised white-collar.

    I am however a cynic when it comes to “climate change”. It should be noted that your statement is as true with the “non-believer” as with the “believer” or, most certainly the “Elitist”. “Facts and arguments do little to change this deeply entrenched, highly irrational belief…Any scientific facts you give will fall upon deaf ears because they are not willing to consider that they may be wrong.”