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Taking sustainability for the masses

Research shows the potential to change how people think and act



By Andrew Mitchell

Consultant Jim Hoggan knows that people can change their ways and bring about political change — providing you can explain what’s at stake in the clearest possible terms.

Successful examples include acid rain laws, and the international movement to ban CFCs and restore the ozone layer. Global warming has also hit a tipping point, with the majority of Canadians now ranking it a priority issue.

“But the issues of global warming and climate change are a relatively easy sell, because people can see it happening,” said Hoggan. “They don’t always understand the whole mechanism of it, but at least they’re on the same page.”

The concept of sustainability, he says, is a lot more challenging.

Hoggan gave a presentation in Whistler Saturday, Dec. 16, on Communicating Sustainability, by invitation of the Whistler Forum for Dialogue. Despite the snow more than 20 people turned out, including representatives from the municipality, Tourism Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb, Lil’wat Nation, AWARE, and the Whistler 2020 working groups.

Hoggan has spent almost two years conducting research on the best way to communicate sustainability, on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation’s campaign for Sustainability within a Generation, and with the funding of more than a dozen other organizations and corporate partners.

The research included working groups, 600 surveys directed towards high profile Canadians in various fields, and a wider online poll of 2,500 Canadians.

The results, presented at the Globe 2006 conference in March, were revealing: over 90 per cent of people polled believe our lifestyle is a threat to future generations, while more than eight in ten believe government should enact stricter laws and regulations to make the economy more sustainable. On the other side of the coin, many Canadians support strong laws and regulations to protect the environment but do not take any forward actions themselves, or believe other Canadians want the same things they do.

The research also shows that there is a problem with the term sustainability itself — few people are familiar with it and those that are generally define it in the same way. Other issues facing the sustainability concept are the fact that people do not trust most messages, and the decline of credibility for environmentalists, politicians and businesses. Another obstacle is that people do not change their activities until they become socially accepted, such as blue box recycling programs.

Still, finding a consensus on the issue is not impossible — more than 80 per cent of Canadians backed the idea of sustainability and ranked it as a national priority once they were given a presentation explaining it in detail.

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