Lessons in sustainability storytelling from the Pacific

Oli blessing delivered onstage at VERGE Hawaii in Honolulu
Kathryn Cooper
Amber Leonani Nahooikaika, Kuma Hula, Hālau Hula 'O Hokulani, kicked off VERGE Hawaii by singing a traditional oli blessing, known as the "soul of the aboriginal peoples of Hawaii."

Our VERGE Hawaii event in Honolulu this week centered around the island state's goal to be powered fully by renewable energy by 2045. Participants hoped to find wind in the sails of this trailblazgin goal and other efforts to spread sustainability in the Aloha State and beyond. Discussions among the would-be world-changers here from business, military, nonprofits and government, used plenty of oceanic metaphors.

Think of big waves of change, such as the demise of fossil fuel-based industries, as an opportunity, said billionaire Henk Rogers, founder of Blue Planet Energy. "If there are no big waves, nobody’s surfing. ...The world has been flat for a long time."

We need to draw on the ways our ancestors lived sustainably for thousands of years before Captain James Cook arrived in the 1700s, said Ramsay Taum of PBR Hawaii & Associates. In other words, to live, share and “be” the aloha spirit, we must be accountable to our relatives in the future as well as in the present; speak to those who have no voice.

“One of the greatest divides is the way we see the world," said Taum, who promotes sustainability based on Hawaiian cultural stewardship. And there’s no shortage of divisive mechanisms, including gender, geography, ideology and status. Is a glass half full or half empty? "How you answer this question for yourself may be an indication of whether you’re emptying the system or filling it up,” he said.

And beware of applying continental thinking to the island world, as European explorers did, such as Vasco Núñez de Balboa when he "discovered" the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Reframe and shift existing paradigms by thinking of Earth as an island itself, said Taum. “We can string a lei of success if we begin to look at our island home that we share.”

Safe thinking cycle

“We’re locked in a safe thinking cycle,” believing that if we just get the facts right, people will come onboard, said Jonah Sachs, CEO of Free Range Studios, an innovator in viral videos such as "The Meatrix" and "The Story of Stuff," which works with major corporate clients like Autodesk and Microsoft. But Madison Avenue learned 70 years ago that emotions, not logic, rule.

Advertising approaches have evolved in the past century, initially following Freudian psychology and based largely around base desires and neuroses. More recently marketers are paying creedence to Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, with the desire for meaning at the top. Ad campaigns aim more and more to hook consumers with positive messages.

Case in point: A 1920s Listerine ad preyed upon women’s fears of inadequacy in landing a date by creating halitosis as a medical condition. A recent Dove campaign, by contrast, became the most popular ad on YouTube by telling women, “You are more beautiful than you think.”

We're not returning to the old broadcast era where messages of inadequacy work, said Sachs. And when it comes to sustainability messaging, policymakers are not the heroes. Instead, communities and stakeholders can be the heroes to create the change that "moves the needle," and we can move people to action by making constituents and stakeholders the heroes of the stories.

The hero's journey

Business can learn from the hero's journey documented by mythologist Joseph Campbell and based around psychologist Carl Jung's ideas, he said. The principle of universal archetypes, or characters, is well-understood by advertisers and one that Sachs encourages sustainability thinkers to draw on to win people over to their cause.

In a workshop that helped participants to craft stories for their organizations' sustainability efforts, Sachs described six major archetypes: pioneer, muse, magician, rebel, jester, teacher. Which figure best represents the collective personality and aspirations of your business?

Then ask if your story includes four crucial ingredients: Is it memorable, emotional, relatable, immersive?

"Sustainability's not just about green," said Mark “Puck” Mykleby, co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University. "It’s not this lefty liberal thing. It’s not about recycling. It's about an organizing logic for the human condition."

The former Marine said bringing up the word "sustainability" within the military was like "dropping the F-bomb in church." But the "S word" should be at the center of U.S. security and prosperity. To that end, Mykleby co-wrote a book outlining how to make that happen: "The New Grand Strategy," with Patrick Doherty, co-director of Case Western's Strategic Innovation Lab, and GreenBiz Chairman Joel Makower.

If we get it right

We don't have a leader telling a compelling story about what happens if we get things right, said Makower. It's the story of how job creation, economic development, as well as energy and water security all spin out to resilience. What does it mean to be prosperous, sustainable and secure?

"That's the story that grabbed me," Makower said. "It needs to be all of our story," that security and sustainability can come together, led by business. And it brings together the best of the progressive left with the conservative right. "Washington can lead, follow or get out of the way."

Mykleby pointed out that the Constitution is our user manual. "E pluribus unum is not just for bumper stickers." After all, the first words to the preamble say, "We the People. It doesn't say 'Waiting on Washington.'" Get rid of your ideologies, he urged. "We as citizens need to pony up. That's what this document is telling us to do."

Among the more lively moments in storytelling onstage at the conference, venture capitalist Andrew Beebe of Obvious Ventures made his entire presentation in emojis (aided in advance by his children, aged 9 and 13).

And Rob Davis pretended to get advice for helping bees from Siri on his iPhone. He's the director of Media & Innovation Lab at Fresh Energy, which pushes for developing bee-friendly habitats around solar installations.