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Erik Rasmussen Headshot

This Is Where We Lose the Future

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It's Sunday. It's raining outside and you have nothing planned for the day. You fix yourself a cup of coffee or tea and curl up in your favorite chair excited to get some reading done. Which book do you pick up? The newest crime novel? The biography of Steve Jobs? Or the report, "Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing" written by The United Nations Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Global Sustainability.

If you've never heard of the latter or couldn't dream of spending your Sunday reading the report it's no coincidence. You are not the target group -- even though you are the main character. But if it's a future worth choosing -- then who's choosing for you?

Too many reports, describing the challenges and solutions of our shared future remain in a vacuum -- where the communication is by the few and for the few. Experts and politicians have developed a complex language and communication form that doesn't include me and you -- even though we are the main change agents when it comes to creating a greener more sustainable tomorrow.

It's not that the authors of the report are ignorant of this problem -- they even address it in the report:

For too long, economists, social activists and environmental scientists have simply talked past each other -- almost speaking different languages, or at least different dialects. The time has come to unify the disciplines, to develop a common language for sustainable development that transcends the warring camps; in other words, to bring the sustainable development paradigm into mainstream economics. That way, politicians and policymakers will find it much harder to ignore.

The quote is used to describe the vision of the High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. Unfortunately, this paragraph is more characterized by irony than by follow through. Even though the Panel clearly and correctly identifies a communication barrier in the way different groups communicate about sustainability -- and the future in general -- they too fall in the complexity trap which limits the readers of the report to the inaugurated few.

The 98 pages contain no less than 56 recommendations "to put sustainable development into practice and to mainstream it into economic policy as quickly as possible." But the visions and the solutions are not getting through to the general population.

Another important report was released not so long ago -- The World Economic Forum's "Global Risks 2012" report. In the preface, Klaus Schwab describes how the context of decision making has evolved and in some cases radically changed. He lists economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and technological seismic shifts, whose "resulting complexity threatens to overwhelm countries, companies, cultures and communities."

While I am convinced that Klaus Schwab is right in the fact that the complexity level of the problems we are facing has risen to a threatening level -- it seems to also have imprinted on the language, we use to describe them. Which is why, I feel that he has left out the biggest and most pressuring threat of all: losing the direct communication with the real change agents -- the people.

The complex language and the format of the two reports are coherent with the declared recipients; both have a primary target group consisting of decision and policy makers, politicians, experts, etc. But at the same time, the paragraph of "Resilient People..." also stresses the importance of getting everyone committed to taking action:

... our recommendations will require commitment -- and action -- from citizens across all sectors of society: from Heads of State and Government and local mayors to business executives, scientist, religious leaders, civil society activists, and not least, the leaders of the next generation, today's youth. Each of us must be a part of the solution.

I doubt that ordinary people, who go to work every day, have families to prepare dinner for and friends to socialize with have had the time, the interest or the necessary background knowledge to sit down with lengthy reports, written in a complex language in order to decipher what he/she can do to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

This is where the media should play the role as an intermediary, who breaks down complex challenges, so they become relatable and understandable. But when we turn towards the media, we discover a new barrier. Even though, we can watch/read/hear the news 24/7 -- there is shorter time to convey a story. The news speed enabled by i.e., Facebook and Twitter, has decreased the time before breaking news becomes old news;this doesn't leave much time for the journalists to do additional research or give an in-depth perspective on i.e., a sustainability report. This is also why a lot of the high complexity language from the initial reports gets reproduced in the news.

At the same time, a study published in February 2012, which has analyzed the factors affecting U.S. public concern about the threat of climate change, concludes that, the media's coverage of climate change doesn't matter nearly as much as what politicians say about climate change. Believe it or not, the politicians seem to have a great say in what the rest of us think and do about climate change and sustainability. Which leads us back to the first quote -- it is essential that all groupings speak the same language.

Currently, the communication about the future is held captive in a triangle made out of weak political visions, complex and technocratic communication, which is copied by the media and hence results in a fragmented vision for the future. In this Bermuda Triangle, we lose the future, because we fail to activate the change agents in creating a more sustainable future and instead of motivation install apathy.

So what do we lose in the Bermuda Triangle?

We lose the far reaching political visions, which become fragmented messages delivered in a complex language understood only by politicians and experts -- mostly in the format of sound bites.

The politicians lose the people, because they no longer communicate with them -- thereby they also lose their trust and as a result, they ultimately lose influence.

The people lose the future; they no longer understand which challenges they are facing and which solutions are at hand. Thereby they lose their sense of influence and no longer see themselves as the important change agents they are.

So here's how we make sure that we don't get lost in the Bermuda Triangle:

First and foremost, the politicians have to reconnect with the people they represent by finding new inspiring ways of communicating. They cannot rely on the media to be the only communication channel -- they have to create their own. To give an example, I recently read that an Oxford history graduate has begun a six-year project to tweet events from every day of the Second World War as they happened during the actual war. The Twitter account has 224,735 followers and shows just how creative communication can be.

Furthermore, the experts and politicians have to stop considering reports, which are relevant to everyone -- as the end of a process. It's the beginning of one. Hence, every report should include a communication strategy -- and the social media should play a big role in conveying complex information to a broad audience.

The Bermuda Triangle's force is growing stronger as the challenges increase in complexity, and we need to dare bypass the media, think creatively and speak the same language, if we don't want the future to become fragmented and disappear.

The title of the report is "Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing."

We need to make sure you really have a choice.

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