What Sustainability Can Learn From the Trump Era

Amidst the chaos in the aftermath of the 2020 US election, a Twitter exchange caught the world’s attention. “STOP THE COUNT” Donald Trump tweeted, as he demanded the electoral process halt immediately. “So ridiculous. Donald must work on his anger management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Donald, Chill!” Greta Thunberg tweeted back, paraphrasing from Trump’s own reaction to TIME Magazine’s announcement of Thunberg as Person of the Year in 2019. 

This exchange was a light-hearted moment for most onlookers, but for me, it was nothing short of an epiphany. When we look beyond the surface, we find that both Thunberg and Trump represent powerful movements with the potential to impact communities worldwide and irreversibly change the trajectory of humanity at large. After reflecting on that episode, I recognized that Trumpism, despite being diametrically opposed to Thunberg in ideology, offers important lessons for us practitioners and advocates in the sustainability sector. 

In this article, I will dissect the economic, social, and psychological intricacies of the Trump era in an attempt to offer insights and recommendations for how we can reshape the climate movement towards a more inclusive and impactful future. I fully recognize that this is a risky and difficult topic, but I believe that it is one that’s worth pursuing in order to radically sharpen our approach to one of the greatest challenges facing our planet today.

Tackling Despair & Desperation

All successful movements are built on the foundation of a core human emotion, one that they effectively respond to. A common emotion in both Trumpism and the climate movement is a sense of existential despair about the faulty status quo and how it impacts one’s livelihoods and wellbeing. 

During Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the median household income of the Trump voter was just $72,000 and his base primarily consisted of working-class citizens. A recent UCSC study sheds light on relative desperation as being one of the key psychological identifiers in a Trump voter. The characteristic here highlights them as feeling deprived in relation to other groups, of their hopes and expectations. 

Similarly, the sustainability movement is fueled by a rapidly expanding group of conscious individuals and communities who feel hopeless about the climate crisis. People are growing increasingly anxious about uncontrollable wildfires, colossal floods, devastating droughts, plastic pollution, amongst many other dimensions. This despair is reflected in a study that shows that over 80% of Americans desire more radical action on climate change from governments and businesses than they are getting right now. 

The fact of the matter is that if we don’t address this sense of existential despair that has started to creep in across the climate movement imminently, a vacuum will be created that could potentially enable other radical factions and extremist elements to offer false solutions, appeal to basic emotional instincts, and ultimately corrupt the sustainability community towards a more dangerous direction. 

To tackle this despair, it is imperative that we invest in research efforts that holistically understand the emotional sentiments of sustainability supporters as well as engage in empathetic dialogue with people who are different from us. By creating safe spaces that encourage vulnerability and expression, we can dive deeper into the root causes and put ourselves in the best position to find and fund effective solutions. The time for action is now, both at an individual and institutional level. 

On an individual level, every citizen can collaborate with initiatives like the TEDx Countdown, a global initiative that works towards accelerating solutions to resolve the climate crisis. It encourages people to engage with platforms like Ted Circles that provide a unique opportunity for individuals, friends, neighbors, and strangers to gather in a safe space to discuss climate challenges that most affect them, enabling a greater understanding of how people are feeling within the movement. 

On an institutional level, governments and policymakers can follow the example of the Yale Climate Change Communications Center. Its landmark study, Global Warming’s Six Americas, segments the U.S. public into six distinct audiences based on how they respond to climate change, to inform decision-makers and aid tailor-made communications that best connect with each segment. This is an exemplary role model of what academia can do to analyze climate change attitudes and the underlying factors that impact people’s behavior. Similar efforts need to be empowered, scaled and accelerated worldwide. 

Fighting Irresponsible Narratives

The consequences of fake news and sensationalistic narratives have plagued both movements. With irresponsible reporting comes the risk of exploiting the emotional vulnerability of pragmatic citizens, especially those who are still on edge or are firmly grounded in their worldview.

During the Trump era, fake news that was being spread through social media resulted in a change in the real behaviors and mindsets of people. It created a divide in the population, causing people to retreat farther into their corners. Today, sustainability is at risk of falling prey to this phenomenon. Irresponsible and misleading coverage in sustainability is starting to break consensus amongst supporters, making it harder to agree upon solutions and next steps. It leads to confusion and mistrust, further dividing us and leaving no room for constructive feedback – hampering the progress that we can make. 

A recent example of questionable coverage is the Seaspiracy documentary on Netflix that has spread confusion within marine conservation through its attempt to “expose” ground realities. The film wrongly claimed that sustainable fishing does not exist and is not possible. It reiterated that there will no longer be fish in the ocean by 2048, a claim that has been retracted and updated by the original authors. Seaspiracy also discredited reputable innovators such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has done tremendous work in conservation through its rigid certifications. 

The truth is that popular coverage such as Seaspiracy intentionally focuses on the remaining work that’s left to be done, without acknowledging all the progress that has been achieved. The Blue MSC Label may not have put an end to unsustainable fishing altogether, but it was instrumental in recognizing those fisheries that brought down the number of bycatch drastically thanks to its commitment to ethical fish farming. From activists and journalists to non-profits and policymakers, everyone in the sustainability movement shares an obligation to present balanced perspectives and exercise truthful reporting. Nonprofits such as Climate Feedback, a worldwide network of scientists renowned for separating fact from fiction in climate change media coverage, aspire to bring credible and trustworthy news to their readers. The important lesson here is that those who have power and sway over consumer opinion and decision-makers must maturely present the progress that has been accomplished or is in the works, along with what still needs to be done.

Understanding Economic Inequality

On the surface level, a coal miner in rural Pennsylvania who voted for Trump and an informal waste picker in Bangalore, India who lives and breathes sustainability might have very little in common. One might even go so far as to claim that their occupations have polar opposite effects on carbon emissions and climate change. 

However, a closer look will show that at the end of the day, both groups are after the same goal: economic security and upliftment. It’s time that we come to terms with the fact that economic inequality is a structural problem that underpins both movements. The realities of our economic system and its associated systemic prejudices impact much of the Trump voter base as well as communities most affected by climate change, subjecting both groups to harsh day-to-day consequences and leaving them with little ability to break free from their poignant status quo.   

However, it is crucial to note that even though Trumpism is deeply rooted in economic insecurities, its supporters were at least able to exercise their electoral power. They enjoyed political representation and had a platform to voice their grievances. On the contrary, poor and historically marginalized groups in developing countries such as coastal communities, fishery workers, and informal waste pickers are disproportionately impacted by climate change – and yet, they don’t have a vote, a voice, or any semblance of fair representation at the local or global level. 

Trump successfully tapped into the economic insecurity and electoral power of his supporters to gain prominence and solidify his position, and it’s important for the sustainability movement to learn from that lesson and start addressing the economic inequality that is at the heart of our environmental crisis. Even as climate change is projected to send 35-122 million people back into poverty by 2030 in the business-as-usual scenario, today’s sustainability panels are star-studded with those who have never learned the true human impact of our consumption. There is a need to give minority voices a platform to represent their interests and bring viable solutions to the table, ones often ignored by the global discourse. Initiatives like #ColorForClimate and Reality Seat enable not only balanced economic representation but the active participation of marginalized communities in fighting the climate crisis. 

Activating Systems Change Today

Coal miners in Pennsylvania and waste pickers in India might instinctually gravitate towards their own political opinions, but it is the duty of policymakers, impact practitioners, and sustainability changemakers to look beyond the surface-level divide that has been manually constructed between communities on different sides of the aisle, truly understand their underlying circumstances, and take action that activates systems change for everyone. The need of the hour is to innovate and accelerate evidence-based, intersectional, and non-partisan initiatives that set out to solve deep-rooted problems underpinning both sustainability and Trumpism. Here are 3 examples that attempt at that. 

First, reforming the global taxation system is a critical first step in future-proofing our society and economy against climate change, populism, and economic inequality. A fitting example is the carbon tax, a policy that makes polluters pay the price for the emissions generated from their products and services. The potential of carbon tax revenues to aid wealth redistribution, accelerate socioeconomic interventions, and support victims of climate disasters across the globe is colossal and remains unexplored. I would highly recommend for you to explore and support groups such as The Citizens’ Climate Lobby who are working to get support for structural changes such as the carbon tax.  

Secondly, we must complement interest groups in the status quo that purely advocate for specific demographic segments with additional representative bodies that advocate for the needs of marginalized communities across the aisle. A good example of this would be WIEGO, an international network of informal workers. The group is focused on promoting systems change by expanding knowledge across every facet of the informal economy, building networks and capacity among informal worker organizations, and influencing local, national, and international policies. 

Lastly, I believe that creating and funding evidence-based efforts that evaluate and recommend the next steps for reshaping our economic and political systems can be a gamechanger. One such example is Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions. The project has rigorously modeled and ranked 80+ solutions based on their quantitative, potential impact on mitigating climate change, and as a result, it has brought to light effective and under-recognized climate solutions such as refrigerant gas management, contraceptives, and girls’ education into the global discourse. 

Parting Thoughts

Even though the incentives and motivations behind the two movements are starkly different, striking similarities exist between Trumpism and the climate movement. In the end, the existential despair in both movements is bringing us to a tipping point because those who form their backbone feel unheard and overlooked. Identifying and tackling the root causes, staying vigilant against irresponsible narratives, understanding the nuances of economic inequality, and activating systems change put us in the best position to counter radicalism, empower the marginalized, and ultimately combat climate change. 

But what can you do? Now more than ever, we need to engage in dialogue, especially with those we see as different from us. Invite that friend who doesn’t believe in climate change to a conversation, understand the concerns of a family member with a different political view, and open your mind to objective solutions that can benefit everyone. It won’t be easy, but with genuine intent and meaningful collaborations, we can create change beyond our wildest imagination.

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