Generative communication to overcome the paradox of sustainability
Beyond the Sustainability Paradox
One of the pillars of the CfGC’s research concerns the relationship between knowledge and its application, between knowing and knowing how to do something, between scientia and usus. This is particularly relevant in the context of sustainability and the increasing distance that exists between the scientific knowledge we possess and our daily behaviors is proof of its importance.
Ever more frequently, we find ourselves in the position of knowing what would be the right thing to do but not knowing how to do it, or not wanting to or not being able to. One of the objectives of communication is to bridge this gap so that we can live sustainably as an innate condition that belongs among our daily behaviors, and not as just one more weight to shoulder.
Even though sustainability is a universally felt need and a hotly debated topic in very diversified contexts (scientists, politicians, and normal citizens talk about it), we still have a long way to go before we can reach sustainable development at systemic level. Initiatives within individual sectors may be positive and successful but it’s difficult for them to promote change on a grander scale.
The “sustainability paradox,” as we define it at the CfGC, is the fact of never having had so much knowledge about sustainability and, at the same time, never having been so far from actually practicing it. Our research work consists precisely of designing and implementing communication that favors sustainable behavior in individuals and within organizations, behaviors that obviously concern people but also encompass the automation systems that increasingly guide our doing, thinking, and feeling.
A complex approach to sustainability
Taking steps toward sustainability means redefining relations between micro and macro environments. Just speaking about sustainable management in one sector or another is essentially useless: what is needed is a systemic point of view, a complex approach.
Adopting a systemic approach to sustainability means redefining concepts of time and space. It’s no longer possible – assuming it ever was – to think of sustainability as something that has to do with an undefined future and place. Sustainability has temporality and spatiality that are different compared to the past.
For this reason it’s necessary to analyze the relations that link the different elements, including those that appear to be distant in time and space, and act on them to trigger transformations in the entire system.
This is the case at all levels we take into consideration, whether it’s global interconnections between ecosystems or, on a much smaller scale, the reality of a single company where it’s impossible to consider and act separately on single parts due to the potential loss of comprehension and control of the overall system.
Limits versus resources, growth versus development
The concept of resources needs to be completely rethought, and communication plays a fundamental role. Resources are not only those that already exist but are also those created through the generative process, activated by communicating with other subjects, whether they’re living or nonliving. This means that through communication it’s possible to generate energy (resources) that either didn’t previously exist or that wasn’t considered as such. In this sense, the only limits to resources come from the human capacity to create new relationships and add value to single elements within the system in which and for which we are working.
It’s also necessary to carefully analyze and study the concept of carrying capacity (the capacity of an environment to sustain a certain number of individuals) and evaluate its meaning in view of the above redefinition of resources. The risk is that of putting quantitative and qualitative aspects on the same plane. No less dangerous is the widespread confusion between growth and development. It’s worth recalling the Club of Rome report (1972) that incorrectly translated from English The Limits to Growth into Italian as I limiti dello sviluppo (The Limits of Development)!
If the finiteness of Earth keeps us from thinking of (quantitatively) infinite growth, the same is not true for development which is a qualitative concept. For this reason, it’s important to act in the here and now to reach beyond what currently exists.
Our research mission
The role of the university in promoting sustainable development
There are at least two reasons why the university plays a fundamental role in promoting sustainable development:
- it is the seat of knowledge production par excellence;
- it is the training environment for future ruling classes.
For this reason, CfGC researchers have always been involved in university activities aimed at communicating sustainability, both in terms of research results and initiatives and projects of innovation and that raise awareness. The university is an extremely complex institution whose community is made up of tens of thousands of students, teachers and employees: to have efficient communication between the university and the territory, organizational and internal communication must be well structured and efficient.
Activating community-building dynamics, sharing ideas and obtained results, and aggregating skills from the most diverse areas in support of a common project are all fundamental activities to strengthen the leading role that the university can take in the sustainable development of a territory (intended as the physical territory of proximity, but also the global territory of research and definition of policies).
Only in this way will it be possible for the university to promote a revolutionary process of reducing the distance between scientia and usus, and thus helping to overcome what we have called the sustainability paradox.
Agriculture as a vector of sustainability
Agriculture is one of the sectors most greatly affected by the challenges of sustainability because the relationships that link it are twofold: on the one hand, the agricultural sector (intensive and industrial agriculture) is one of the main causes behind the environmental crisis and climate change; on the other, agriculture itself is one of the main victims (due to environmental, social and economic consequences).
For this reason – and for its systemic nature – agriculture is, for the CfGC, one of the main areas of intervention in promoting sustainability. An example in this sense concerns analysis of the communicative efficacy of the massive investments allocated by the European Union to promote innovation in agriculture and favor development of sustainable and resilient European agriculture (i.e. the agro-climatic-environmental measures envisaged by Rural Development Programs – RDPs).
From persuasion to community building: promoting sustainable behavior
The CfGC applies communication strategies based on the generative paradigm to overcome the currently dominant mechanistic and transmissive communication model. This is because communication based on the presumption that the solutions are already present and on the idea that we must persuade people to adopt them is counterproductive. The results from this kind of approach are evident all around us.
On the contrary, we are convinced that the diffusion of sustainable behavior (by individuals, groups, companies and institutions) and overcoming the sustainability paradox are possible only through a reduction of the profound gap that has formed between scientia and usus.
One important area of experimentation of this approach to communication within the sustainability is the dissemination and application of regulations aimed at reducing the use of products in agriculture that are harmful for the environment and health. The findings of our ongoing research confirm the idea that strategies based both on the forced application of restrictions and persuasion techniques are not effective in spreading intrinsic – and therefore lasting – motivation to adopt sustainable behavior.
On the contrary, strategies based on community building and active listening are the only tools able to guarantee real, conscious and proactive adherence to a sustainable, and innovative way of interacting with nature, the rest of the community, and future generations.