Stereotyping Sustainability

Moustadam #7


This article is also available in Arabic
يمكن قراءة هذا المقال أيضاً باللغة العربية



Stereotyping is a form of ignorance. Stereotypes are impressions and opinions that individuals or groups may form about other people, races, ethnic groups, religions, professions, industries, and concepts. They exist all around the world. Stereotyping involves a misunderstanding of others, and it can lead to discrimination. As a Middle Eastern living in Vancouver, Canada, I am shocked by the stereotypes that exist here about the Middle East, even though Canada is a multi-cultural country. I also am shocked by the stereotypes about sustainability that exist in Vancouver, a city that is working so hard to become a model sustainable urban center.

To explain common stereotypes about sustainability, I looked at the humorous “What I think I do” visualization series, which has become ubiquitous on Facebook pages. I searched for a set of images that addresses sustainability but could not find any. I therefore decided to create my own set through six different impressions about sustainability and sustainability advocates. The attached figure is what I came up with.

1. What society thinks sustainability is.
Society often stereotypes sustainability advocates as green hippies trying to save the planet. Sustainability advocates may share similarities with green hippies, but the two groups are different. Sustainability advocates have nothing against wearing suits, and they often are hard to distinguish from the people around you. They belong to all walks of life. 

Sustainability is also mixed up with the concept of “green.” Whereas green is about the environment, sustainability is about the environment, society, and economy. This may be the most widespread misunderstanding about sustainability. 

2. What governments think sustainability is.
Governments often view sustainability either is a radical proposition to be shunned, or as an opportunity to raise more revenue through mechanisms such as carbon taxes or penalties on pollution. In both stereotypes, sustainability is misunderstood, and an opportunity for implementing solutions for many social and economic challenges is missed. 

3. What corporations think sustainability is.
For a number of corporations, sustainability is an image to be projected to the public that can help improve their reputation and present them as do-gooders, even though they may continue to engage in unsustainable practices. This is unfortunate since while adopting truly sustainable practices will improve a corporation’s public image, it also provides for sound long-term administrative and economic practices. 

4. What sustainability advocates think they do.
Some sustainability advocates think they are heroically and selflessly saving the world. Most, however, simply believe that they are promoting easily-adaptable principles and lifestyles that can create healthier communities. 

5. What sustainability advocates really do.
For those from the outside, sustainability advocates may seem as if they engage in more talk than action. However, they engage in educating others about ways of implementing sustainability principles. Moreover, many of them adopted the principle of “be the change you want to see in the world”, and therefore seriously change their lifestyles, as with using public transit systems rather than driving or supporting the local economy through buying local products, thus bridging the gap between theory and practice. They also carry out advocacy efforts, thus urging governments, corporations, and various other institutions to change their policies and strategies. 

In order to accomplish all of the above, they build communities of advocates, volunteers, and supporters; they create platforms for discussion; and they engage public opinion through the media and other public forums.

6. What sustainability is really about.
Some definitions of sustainability are vague and general. Other definitions limit sustainability to natural resources and the environment. Sustainability is much more than developing renewable energy or carbon offsets, and the articles of the Moustadam series very much have been about explaining this. In one of my previous Moustadam articles, I mentioned that in 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Wikipedia defines it simply and elegantly as “the capacity to endure.” 

Sustainability is not simply about the environment. It also gives equal weight to economic and social issues. Therefore, while it is about making clean water and clean air available, it is also about ending unemployment. It is also about developing strong and healthy communities where crime dissolves because of high moral standards and a lack of hunger. Adopting sustainable practices can create a better planet for all of us. It is simply the right thing to do.


Nourhan Al Kurdi
July 30, 2013

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