Easing Sustainability "In-" and "Out-Group" Conflict

03/11/2011 05:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Andrea Learned Thought Leadership Strategist and Sustainable Business Writer

A fantastic article by Tom Vanderbilt in the March issue of Outside got me thinking. Vanderbilt tells the story of an "extreme" bike commuter, and along the way raises the topic of the psychology behind how and why cyclists and drivers have became so polarized. If you are like me, with solid experience in both camps, it shines a light on the need for a little self-reflection. As well, if you are interested in why and how people engage with sustainability, the theory of social categorization, or "in-group" versus "out-group" conflict, as mentioned by Vanderbilt, will stick in your craw.

What if a sustainability-minded person is in the in-group, and a less convinced citizen/consumer is in the out-group? (Think fanatic bike commuter versus long-time car commuter.) It can seem that ne'er the twain shall meet. What could they possibly have in common?

If some are "in," than everyone else is "out" or "the other." That is a problem in any realm, but a really big one for sustainability. And, we need to find a way to bridge that chasm.

Researcher Terry B. Porter, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote at the conclusion of his paper (PDF) on the social categorization, "in" versus "out" topic:

In such a world it is difficult to see how the kind of broad-based collaborative action that may be needed to make significant environmental improvement can even be conceived.

Though Porter was referring to his own focused research, this surely applies more broadly. How can we get the masses to change behavior related to sustainable living and business if the believers and skeptics remain defensive with, or even contemptuous of, one another?

And, as suggested by Vanderbilt's thorough discussion with regard to cyclists and car commuters, addressing this in the sustainability realm could take something like the following (to simplify greatly):

- Figuring out how to move forward with some pro-sustainability change (through policy or rules from "above"), even before there seems to be full public consensus. Harder said than done, and one could argue paternalism, I realize. Still, maybe we could take what Vanderbilt cites to heart: As various studies have found, the more cyclists and cycling infrastructure a town has, the safer it becomes statistically, not just for cyclists but for drivers and pedestrians alike.

- Being more creative (the age old cry!) in attempts to connect sustainability skeptics with the issue. I keep thinking this with regard to Capitol Hill's "de-greening" program. How would it be possible to connect the naysayers with the idea that the long-term of environmental sustainability is worth consideration, even if it seems expensive in the short-term? The same way biking might become relevant to non-bikers: have kids, who could be their own sons, daughters or grandkids, tell the story of how they almost got hit by a car on their bike - or how biodegradable plates and cutlery now, despite the inconvenience, may well positively affect how healthy their world will be in the long-run.

- Helping both sides see the other's point of view. Through storytelling, experience or virtual experience, it may be possible to help more sustainability skeptics understand a day in the life of a believer. And, vice versa. In the bike versus car metaphor, it's true that plenty of bike believers have probably lost comprehension of how scary it is as a driver when a bike comes out of nowhere or goes through a red light, however rare or unintentional it might be. Just as it really would help if a driver could experience even one city rush hour from a biker's perspective (there may well be a virtual reality opportunity here). It's about empathy. In fact, a corporate sustainability leader I recently interviewed shared about how his college acting classes had helped him learn to walk a mile in others' shoes, which he believed may have made him better able to understand the audiences he needs to reach with his message. Food for thought.

So, what if those working in and for sustainability purposes tended to this in- versus out-group social categorization problem as part of our study and communications strategy development? The conflict could be immediately lessened, it seems. Let's face it, the mention of "green" or "sustainable" anything can make certain audiences cringe and put up their defenses. Understanding the psychology behind that reflex should help us tell stories and bridge the differences in ways that bring sustainability's in- and out-groups a lot closer together, and for the good of all.