Peter Madden, chief executive of Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.

We have a problem, we greens. It has to do with the way that we talk about the future. We do need to have a more plausible account of what the kind of world we are recommending would be like.

I can see clearly now. Photo: iStockphoto

However, our main narrative about the future talks of apocalypse and doom and gloom: the earth is dying; species are disappearing; the planet is overheating.

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If people want to do something about it, too often they’re told they’ll have to lead a life of sacrifice and constraint. And if they won’t, we’ll guilt-trip and scare them ’til they repent.

And even if they do as we say, they also worry that it probably won’t make much difference anyway because the Chinese, Indians, and North Americans are all busy ignoring the issues.

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I’m painting a caricature, of course, but you get my point. Our story isn’t very attractive to lots of people: it is too grounded in fear and negatives. We need to stop peddling what one recent report called “climate porn.”

The majority of people want positive things they can aspire to. We need to paint more attractive visions. This, however, is easier to say than to do.

Recently in my organization, senior staff were sharing the first five minutes of the presentations we give externally, the bit where we explain sustainable development, climate change, and so on to a skeptical audience. The idea was to compare notes on our best presentation techniques. But guess what? We all started off on the negatives. We opened with different variants of “We’re in real trouble, guys.” We then mostly had some graphs, facts, and predictions showing how “we are going to be in even more trouble soon.” Sounds familiar?

I’m not saying we should go too much in the other direction. If we are too optimistic and cheery, we can come across as all Panglossian, implying that we can solve the world’s challenges by some easy “green consumer” choices or the development of new technology.

Of course we still need to scare people a bit, to grab the attention. But we risk paralyzing and de-motivating people if that is all we dwell on.

When greens do paint visions of the future, they are often utopian, hippie, bucolic, and frankly unbelievable. They either seem to think that everyone will live in some variation of rural France, on a small-holding complete with small vineyard, goat, and squeaky bicycle. Or they describe the kind of world that most normal people would run a mile from. I certainly don’t want to live in a future where I have to hold hands with strangers and wear flowers in my hair.

At Forum for the Future, we are trying to play a small part to change the way we talk about the future. We always try to tell the good news in our magazine, Green Futures. We have recently set up a futures program that is running some interesting projects. For example, we are doing a “positive futures” project on climate change. This is of course a scary subject; but we are trying to paint a picture of all the ways our lives will genuinely be better if we get the responses to climate change right — through healthier lifestyles, more time, better functioning communities, a cleaner local environment, and so on. We want people to look at a more sustainable future and think: “I want that!” Over the coming years, we intend to pick off some of the key sustainable development challenges, and try to tell aspirational stories of what the future might hold.

I know that people in the U.S. have been thinking along the same lines. I remember that a couple of years ago the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism” argued for a positive, transformative vision of the future as a necessary part of renewing the movement. I would agree with this, though I think it would be wrong to try and fashion a single story for the environmental movement. That would probably be too constraining and too easy to attack. It would risk alienating as many people as it attracted. Our stories of the future should be multiple and competing, but positive.

How are you guys handling this need for attractive and believable visions of a sustainable future? Have you got some good stories to tell? And if you shared these down at the local pub, do you think that ordinary people would listen to them, and then want to be part of them?