Crew Commentary

What Motivates People to Act Sustainably?

Jon Biemer


The central question of my upcoming book, Our Journey to Sustainability, has been “What motivates people to act on behalf of the planet.”


Here was my conundrum. After interviewing sixty people who are actually making a difference and collecting a like number of stories from other sources, I still hadn’t succinctly answered my question. Do I just say, it’s the journey that counts? As an engineer and a person who dislikes enigmatic endings in the movies, that’s not very satisfying. 


Even so, the due date for the manuscript had more than arrived. I needed to write the final chapter. 


I highlighted amazing things I observed. A woman makes and sells stylish clothing from discards at the Goodwill store. A man quits his career in the oil industry to pioneer a way to drill deep for geothermal energy. A woman rescues eagles. A married couple beta tests a custom prefabricated zero-net energy home. 


I reported how people came to their worthy work. Al Gore and his movie An Inconvenient Truth motivated some people. One person rewilded some of his property after Hurricane Katrina left his lawn, trees and house in shambles. Threatening freeway development gave an artist the moxie to engage other artists in opposition. My earlier book, Our Environmental Handprints, moved one interviewee to put solar panels on her roof


Still, there was not one shining catalyst that I could say effectively and predictably motivates folks to find a way beyond other-than-environmental priorities. 


The manuscript was done and accepted by my editor. But still, I asked myself, what did I learn? What essential message would I tell a TV interviewer? This question vexed me for weeks.


Piece by piece, an answer came to me.


Several of the heroes’ stories include time spent in nature as children. Awareness is important; we don’t take care of something that we don’t know about. But something deeper is needed. Indigenous people emphasize relationship with the land and all the living beings upon it. The word I settled on is caring.



Yet caring, by itself, may not motivate action. At the outset, I thought I was looking for a particular event that spurred a given person into action. Well, I’ve got news for you. Many of the folks I interviewed reported a whole series of formative experiences before they found a path forward that felt coherent and impactful. To put it more prosaically, it wasn’t one catalyst that yielded some sort of breakthrough. They needed several catalysts.


And something else is also needed. It is almost invisible, but obvious when you see it. To have a significant impact we need help. Young people need permission, mentors and/or lawyers to get their message across. The woman who would create and sell an alternative to environmentally-devastating palm oil needs biologists and investors. A publishing company supports my effort to put a meaningful book in the hands of readers. An electric car customer needs auto workers and vice versa. I call this kind of help collaboration.  


There you have it: caring, catalysts and collaboration. An accommodating editor facilitated my revision to that last chapter.


Here’s a practical takeaway. We create sustainability when we help others care about the environment, and provide catalysts to spark their excitement, and collaborate to ensure their success. Others do the same for us. I can’t do it on my own.


Bio: Jon Biemer is author of Our Journey to Sustainability: How Everyday Heroes Make a Difference (to be released August 2024) and Our Environmental Handprints: Recover the Land, Reverse Global Warming, Reclaim the Future (2021). Both books are available from on-line booksellers. Jon’s website is www.jonbiemer.com.