Sustainability should be colourful, not green

In the second piece of our two-part seriesJutland Station reports on the key thinking from Sustain Festival which took place at Godsbanen, Aarhus, earlier this month. Here, Argentinean educator Christian Tiscornia tells us why it’s important for the sustainability movement to steer away from ‘green’ labels.

By Mariana Campos 

Photo by Laura Myllymäki

Christian Tiscornia. Photo: Laura Myllymäki

As the Argentine educator Christian Tiscornia starts his key note speech at SustaIN Festival, he wonders whether he has something to say to the Danes. “Denmark is so developed in sustainability issues,” he announces. Tiscornia is the president of the non-governamental organization Amartya, based in Buenos Aires. He is in Aarhus to talk about his work with education and sustainability.

However difficult it may seem, and however distant Argentina might be from Denmark in terms of environmental policies, there is a common weak spot involving not only these two countries, but the entire world, and Tiscornia wisely identifies it: We are failing in passing on the message.

When he asks the audience how many people there think sustainability is a green concept, practically everybody raises their hands. He then adds: “That’s the main reason why we are doing such a bad job.”

According to him, we have to move forward from this green label in order to make the whole of society understand and act in a sustainable way, since today the ecological discourse is still limited to the small amount of people who have been interested in it for a long time.

“Every time I see my mother trying to explain to her friends what I do, I shake my head in frustration. She still doesn’t understand it and I think this applies to the majority of people,” Tiscornia says. “So why am I not talking about sustainability with her? Because she doesn’t care about it as it seems to be such a complex thing.”

Is there a way to deliver a more simple message regarding the issue then?

For the Argentine, sustainability is not a green concept at all. As the SustaIN Festival audience gets confused with the statement, he explains that the idea of sustainability is 100% multidimensional, since it involves many other issues such as culture, inequality and poverty. “Of course depending on where you are you can put a little bit of more focus on some problems in particular, but we need to have a holistic approach when thinking about solutions to be sustainable,” he explains. Sustainability, thus, is a colourful concept.

Education as the key

In Argentina, 12 of its 41 million inhabitants live in poverty conditions. Therefore due to inequality, only a small number of people – the elite – can afford to be environmentally friendly. Also, at school, children are not taught to develop sustainable practices. This failure in the Argentine education system was, however, an opportunity for Tiscornia, a former lawyer, to start his project in 2005, together with his Norwegian wife. Since then, the NGO Amartya has been developing different programmes in order to raise awareness among the population.

“We are planting our seed through education, which we believe is the key to transform society. If you don’t learn when you are a kid, the chances for you to change your attitudes and habits in the future are very small,” Tiscornia explains.

His organisation believes that sustainability has a lot to do to redefine our current model of development. In Amartya, an alternative societal configuration is offered to the participants, which is based on cooperation rather than a competitive and money-oriented way of thinking. But how to combine economic growth with sustainability? For Tiscornia, the answer lies with participation: the more citizens engage in the debate, bigger is the chance for them to create a sustainable society. Here, Scandinavian countries serve as an inspiration:

“A big problem in the Argentine society is the lack of participation, whereas in countries like Norway there is a great level of involvement and everybody shares responsibility, so this is something we can learn from the Scandinavians,” he says.

When asked what Scandinavian nations can learn from South America, he hesitates for a while, but finally answers: “Although it seems contradictory, I would say the system makes Scandinavian people very individualist. It’s like millions of people going in parallel but not together. So I think South Americans can show them how to use their emotions more often and how to connect with the others better.” This combination of mindsets, he concludes, can help make a more sustainable planet. 

Mariana Campos is a Brazilian journalist and passionate about environmental issues. Currently a Master student at Erasmus Mundus programme, she has previously worked as a press officer for the Governor of Rio de Janeiro; as a reporter for the Jungle Drums magazine in London; and directed a documentary about a north-eastern Brazilian village which later won the Best Environmental Reportage prize at Amazonia Film Festival. Twitter: @mari_campos83