Turn sustainability cynics into believers! An interview with John Marshall Roberts

If you need to sell the boss—or the World—on your vision, your public speaking skills will help, but a little understanding might get you further. At least that’s what applied behavioural scientist John Marshall Roberts suggests. In an upcoming webinar [date TBA], John will map out how sustainability advocates can use a worldview lens to understand and more effectively reach cynical audiences. I recently had the chance to chat with John about what it means to be a change-maker and how his method will help sustainability visionaries lead the way.

Julia Barnes: You often speak and teach about how sustainability advocates can overcome cynicism and apathy. What’s unique about your approach to overcoming cynicism?

John Marshall Roberts: The most unique thing is probably that I’m even doing it! I’ve never seen another marketing or communications professional frame their challenge that way—as overcoming cynicism. So I guess that’s unique. But what is also unique – and what I’m particularly proud of about my approach—is that it’s based on a rigorous, scientific developmental model of the human mind and how people think. It’s a tough battle-tested model that’s been tested and proven to work around the world with people from every culture. And it works.

JB: You’re going to be walking through how to overcome twelve different forms of cynicism in the upcoming webinar. Can you introduce us to one of these?

JMR: Where do I start? Sustainability advocates are usually dealing with an individualistic form of cynicism, where people are looking at sustainability and saying, “Oh, we don’t have money for that, and it’s already too late, and what’s the point, and I don’t even think global warming is real to begin with.” But the type of cynicism that I think is most damning for the sustainability movements actually comes from people who want to make change but have grown cynical towards mainstream people. They’re looking at the mainstream as a bunch of idiot morons who just need to “get with it”. It’s not to say that there isn’t truth to the fact that the mainstream doesn’t get it. It’s more to say that if you’re looking at the mainstream through that lens then you’ve already lost them at “hello.”

JB: That must be hard for some people to hear.

JMR: I’m not popular for saying that in certain rooms. But it’s the truth.

My work is ostensibly and literally to help people become more effective at talking to them, to get them on their side. However, what we quickly realize when we’re doing that work is that the biggest problem isn’t really them, it’s our ideas about them. It’s in us. I strongly believe that we need to be a little more responsible in how we think of the so-called mainstream and maybe a little more compassionate. If we do that we’ll be more effective, and if we’re more effective we’re gonna be better at keeping the ice caps from melting quite so quickly.

  • My environmental mentor taught me to start with my learner in mind, when approaching the cycle of transformation. When we can guide another to reflect on their unique needs, and self interest and move them toward action is a sustainable model for behaviour change. They have made the decision, the choice and the effort. No shame, no guilt, no anxiety. One small step of modelling behaviour creates many ripples in the pool of social change!