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Language that unites

 Language that Unites


Words have power! Are we choosing language that heal division or ones that divide? 

In a time of divisive rhetoric, nature can be a unifying value. How can your leadership draw on language that builds trust, confidence, and shared values so that your community can strengthen its shared identity?


Nearly 35 years ago, in 1987, Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, was published. This publication was in recognition of Gro Harlem Brundtland's former Norwegian Prime Minister, role as Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Its target was interdependence and to place placed environmental issues firmly on the future agenda of all governments. The Report defined 'sustainable development' as "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." It has given rise to a whole new vocabulary the has continued to evolve since then.


Everyone is talking about how divided the country is right now. The recent election seemed to underline this for many, and both the analysis and the transition are still unfolding. How can local leaders communicate with citizens about "hot button" issues around sustainability and the environment in ways that build common action?

 Much has been written, and a number of studies carried out  that shed some light on these questions. The good news is that citizens broadly share some fundamental values :

Americans believe.

1) We all deserve a clean planet. 

76% of respondents agree that "people have a right to clean air and water." 

70% agree that "we have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it." 

65% agree that "working to try to prevent environmental damage for the future is part of being a good parent." 

2) There's a big problem happening with our environment. 

65% said they agree that global warming, or climate change, occurs, and it is primarily caused by human activity. 

 Only 14% of Americans disagree with this statement – down from 26% in 2008. 

3) Everyone bears responsibility for fixing environmental problems. 

88% agree the average person should be taking concrete steps to reduce his or her environmental impact. And 78% said they feel moderately responsible for changing daily shopping habits and practices to impact the environment positively. 

And 65% said a business’s  environmental reputation has a moderate

to very strong impact on their decisions to buy its products (or not), Americans think that companies  have  a social responsibility. 

 A substantial majority of Americans are also pretty clear that they don't think companies will do anything to protect the environment unless they are required to: 

• 67% agree, "Unfortunately, a lot of companies wouldn't do anything to protect the environment unless they were forced to by law." 











Words That Unite 

Description automatically generatedIn the current political climate, many sustainability-related terms have been taking a beating. We know from research that language matters in this area; researchers set out to get reactions to some overarching environmental words and phrases often used in sustainability communications. 

Here are ones that the vast majority rate and react to as positive

Science                       75 % positive     4% negative 

Conservation              71%                 and 5%

Sustainability             70%                 and 5% 


Words  that Divide

Environmental Stewardship  48% positive 40% natural and 12 % negative

Regulation  37% positive 40% Neutral and 23% negative 

Carbon Footprint  28% positive 39 % Neutral and 33% negative 



Words create an impact. They reflect shared values. Science is how we know there is a problem, and it provides the basis for a possible future solution. Conservation is deeply rooted in our everyday actions to protect, preserve, and care for the future. Sustainability envisions a path forward and a sharing of responsibility. It has become ubiquitous, perhaps too familiar for some, but it remains a crucial piece of our lexicon.

Uniting words are, however, only a starting point as we communicate with citizens. Using them is not enough. Leaders need to look to context and provide greater depth to connect action with benefits. It's good to tap into broader beliefs, but many begin to react negatively when the language turns to specific tactics, activities, or measurable concepts. Leaders must build on values that unite and provide strong reasons that highlight context for community action.  

Values can drive both attitude and behavior. Citizens value the environment, but  studies have shown  some require context.


Three motivations

Earth centric -- 28% 

Human centric -42% 

Economic -centric - 30%


Earth-centric Earth-centric people value the earth for the earth's sake – not for the value, it provides humans. They are consistently pro-environmental in their attitudes across all questions. When asked what concern most often drives their “greener” behavior, the earth-centric were significantly more driven than others by natural resource conservation, climate change, and resource protection. This group sees the earth, humans, and other species as essential elements that need to work together, and they feel a strong responsibility to do their part. 

A picture containing blue
Description automatically generatedDefining Earth-Centric Values: 

"We have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it." 

"Working to try to prevent environmental damage for the future is part of being a good parent." 

"Humans should recognize they are part of nature and shouldn't try to control or manipulate it." 

"Other species have as much right to be on this earth as we do. Just because we are smarter than other animals doesn't make us better. 

Human-Centric -Human-centric respondents value the environment but are more likely to do so based on the benefits it provides to humanity. Human-centric' green purchases for example are more likely to be driven by human rights, personal image, and waste reduction. Compared to the other two, this group tends to be much younger and less driven by faith-based  reasons for caring for the environment (such as "God created the natural world, so it's wrong to abuse it"). 

Defining Human-Centric Values: 

"People's only responsibility to nature is to make it serve their best interests." 

"If there is no economic, aesthetic, or other human use for a species, then there is no reason to worry much about it becoming extinct." 

The most defining demographic characteristic of the human-centric population is their youth: 51% are Millennials, compared to only 23% of the other two groups. This propensity helps explain their distinct alignment on two different statements: 

-  Human-centric are significantly less comfortable with the statement most strongly grounded in religion: "Because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it." (Only 52% of human-centric agreed with this sentiment, compared to an average of 64% for the other two groups.) This is consistent with a recent Religious Landscape Study by Pew research that found that Millennials are less religious than older Americans. 

Finally, 45% of human-centric agreed, "We should become vegetarians to reduce our environmental impact" (compared to 24% overall). This is also consistent with recent Pew research findings that vegans and vegetarians are much more likely to be under the age of thirty-nine. 


Economic -centric Economic-centric respondents are much more 

driven by economic implications of environmental policy that might hamper job growth, business success and their own personal income. They exercise a certain pragmatism about ecological activities, believing firmly that their "first duty is to feed their families; the environment and anything else has to come after." This doesn't mean they don't feel responsible or are insensitive to the environment, however. 

Economic-Centric Values: "My first duty is to feed my family. The environment and  other things have to come after that.’ "Environmentalists wouldn't be so gung-ho if it were their jobs that were threatened." A picture containing text, handwear
Description automatically generatedThey do feel a strong sense of responsibility toward the environment; however, with strong agreement that "we have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it. 


 A language for equity - Perhaps the most glaring gap among all these groups in light of recent challenges is our need to develop and disseminate  a language for justice. Inclusion and equity. Some communities have made progress, but all groups can strengthen their focus and attention on this overlooked and neglected priority.



You may be thinking as you read this: This is interesting, sure, but how does it affect my community, MY voice, and  MY leadership? 

The answer: is in an era of social media, in which our one-way public  meetings  have become a two-way dialogue, our interaction with citizens has become a developing relationship. And the key to any good relationship is aligning on values. When relating to the community, you can build on language and concepts that unite to create a deeper, more meaningful connection that includes the shared values around nature and sustainability. You can become a champion for the environment and talk aboutText
Description automatically generated how you will "govern green'.


First, identify the environmental values that embody your community -- clean water, native species, access to nature, open space, protected areas. 


Second,  work to understand the environmental values your citizens bring to the table in determining common action.  Is the focus first on benefits or costs? How do they describe responsibility? Are they earth-centric, human-centric, economic-centric, or a combination? 


Third,  meet, greet, and talk with a range of citizens about sustainability and the environment and local quality of life using language that will engage them, not alienate or confuse them. 

Armed with these insights,  local leaders can frame sustainability issues in ways that make a deeper connection. It's how you move beyond being just a political figure to becoming a trusted leader that is part of what citizens consider essential to achievement of  their values.


It’s worth noting that our language about nature has evolved  as nature does. and will do so even more in the future. This mean that new terms  well introduced, and some old ones will  shift way. But what will not shift away the environment within which we live, move , learn and shop.,  for local leaders then  it a matter of bringing  into use a vocabulary, beyond just a few buzzwords, into their mainstream usage? Is  messaging and outreach needed to show that these broader topics are a key part of the values we affirm as community leaders coupled with words like "ethical", "responsible" and "conscious communication."



Citation -The research cited here was caried on in 2017 and draws on the Book “Environmental Values in American Culture,” Willett Kempton, University of Delaware,  and work by 

Shelton Group marketing communications firm focused on energy and the environment.