Stickiness: Building up cumulative impact

Andrew Gaines | March 28, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Image by wxwillett | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Those of us who have lived in snow country will recall rolling balls of snow to make snowmen. The wet snow sticks, and the ball becomes larger.

How to Build a Snowman via GIPHY


Such snowmen can last for weeks after the weather gets warmer, whereas a single snowball will melt right away.

This illustrates what I call stickiness. Stickiness is about building up cumulative impact. It is analogous to adding energy to a flywheel. Many small inputs can add up to massive momentum.

Most events put on by the environmental/progressive movement have little stickiness. For example, I imagine that you have been to brilliant talks about environmental and social issues. I observe that most people who come to such talks are already au fait with the topic. The presenters are ’preaching to the converted’. The audience may be temporarily inspired or edified, but in terms of catalysing transformative cultural change there is little cumulative effect.

Giving a talk to thirty or a thousand people in a city of say four million people has relatively little effect, unless there is some way to align it with a larger initiative to shift public consciousness. The talks produce just a ripple, when we need to build a tidal wave.

There is a great wave of positive change already going on. Some call it the Great Transition. The tidal wave we need to build is inspired, intelligent, passionate mainstream commitment to accelerating the Great Transition to a life-sustaining society. People who intentionally work at this are Great Transition Champions. I regard myself as a Great Transition Champion and encourage you to become one as well.

Marketers sometimes comment that people need to hear a new idea seven times before it begins to register with them. And business leaders are advised to constantly reiterate the company’s purpose to their staff. At the point where the leader is tired of saying it, the staff are beginning to hear it. Constant repetition from many different voices builds stickiness.

The elite certainly have stickiness in their media campaigns. When they are running a communication blitz, many different voices all use the same language to make the same points. Thus the public hears the message from many different sources, and this affects public attitudes.

Perhaps the stickiest of all power structure messages is the mantra economic growth, economic growth. It is so sticky that almost everybody takes it for granted, and many people are surprised or frightened when growth is questioned. The importance of growth is reinforced by daily reports on the stock market on air and in newspapers, and through regular political calls for jobs and growth.

Compared with how effective the power elites are at creating stickiness to affect public attitudes, we are such amateurs! We have such a diversity of organizations, each with its own brand and message. Our diversity is a great strength, but we need a way to align to shift mainstream consciousness in a way that benefits us all.

Making communication sticky

What might stickiness look like in terms of catalysing a cultural shift to a life-sustaining society? I think:

  • Top level: we would embrace a common meme.

The meme I propose, which many people in the environmental/progressive movement are already using independently, is variations on the theme ‘We are transitioning to a life-sustaining society, rather than continuing on our present course of ecological self-destruction’ and ‘We are in a Great Transition (or Great Turning) to a life-sustaining society’.

Transitioning to a life-sustaining society is an umbrella term that can encompass a multitude of the diverse specific projects that people in the environmental/progressive movement are working on. It provides a counter to the mainstream mantra of economic growth, economic growth, and indeed articulates a goal that our entire global civilization should be working towards.

  • We would see not just a few organisations, but hundreds of thousands of organisations and their members championing the Great Transition (the Great Turning) to a life-sustaining society. People would see it everywhere.
  • At the end of presentations, panel discussions, and workshops presenters would assert that we are in a Great Transition to a life-sustaining society, and we need to greatly accelerate it. They would encourage members of the audience to communicate with people they know and their wider networks about the Great Transition. Members of the audience would be referred to the net website for ready-to-use communication tools.

Perhaps only a few people would respond actively to such calls at first. But everybody in the audience would be introduced to the idea that we are in a Great Transition to a life-sustaining society. And they would hear the call to lift their game and become active communicators, even if at first they do not pick up on it. In time many more will respond.

  • Writers who post blogs and articles analysing environmental and social issues would conclude by encouraging their readers to communicate with their networks about transitioning to a life-sustaining society.


An event has stickiness to the extent that it contributes to building momentum for large-scale transformative social change. In other words, an event has stickiness to the extent that:

  • Listeners hear the common message ‘transitioning to a life-sustaining society
  • And to the extent that some members of the audience are moved to act as Great Transition Champions in their own right.

The great challenge of our time is to transition to a life-sustaining society, rather than continuing on our present course of ecological self-destruction.

Aligned we can become far more influential than we ever imagined. So I urge you to personally embrace the goal of transitioning to a life-sustaining society, and to communicate about the Great Transition at every opportunity.

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  • Rob Harding

    Great post, Andrew. I’m fully on board and consider myself a Great Transition Champion as well. Achieving stickiness is key, and to your point I agree that embracing a common meme is an essential element of this initiative which has been lacking.

    I also agree with Mike’s comment – uniting thousands of organizations around a common overarching issue (or set of issues) is a major challenge for a variety of reasons; however, defining and articulating this goal and communicating the importance of stickiness is a valuable contribution to our efforts to transition to a life-sustaining society. Thank you.

  • Mike Hanauer

    Excellent. I believe if we could get many environmental organizations to sign-on to this, we could turn the situation around and have a fighting chance to get to honest sustainability. How to get these groups to get to an Overarching issue instead of only their river, climate change, their species, or whatever their cause, is the major challenge.

  • Chuck Woolery

    Andrew, Thank you for getting this “great” ball rolling! I am completely aligned with you and it. I would like to add a slight but I believe an important twist based on the 37 years I’ve been involved in the effort to get this vital transition in motion. The twists I would like to add is the word “justice”. If one really understands that sustainability is not possible without ‘justice for all’ then there’s no need for it in your introduction. But my experience in each of the progressive movements I’ve been heavily involved in suggests that it isn’t. Not even in the ‘peace’ movement which mentions the word often…but rarely works for it as a fundamental foundation of sustainable peace. Conservatives obviously think peace is a function of armaments. But, Liberals mostly think peace is a function of disarmament. Wiser souls than I have said for centuries…peace is a function of justice. Two years ago I attended a Pachamama “Awakening the Dreamer Symposium”. I was so blown away by it’s content and vision of an “environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling” future. I became a symposium leader and fully support others in experiencing it if for no other reason than to see how masterfully this symposium was put together — to inform, inspire, and motivate personal action and involvement. Nothing is perfect…the Symposium still lacks a serious focus on the injustices we humans inflict on one another in the form of war, terrorism, torture, and repression but it does focus on ‘unsustainable systems and structures’ in the environmental context. (Reading your writings it sounds like you have done the symposium…or helped develop it). My latest and greatest personal ‘turning’ was meeting with Joseph Carson (a MAHB member). He taught me a number of things about engineering but the most profound was the ‘reality’ that everything is made up of “Systems and Structures” and unless ‘fundamental principles’ are consistently applied…bad things…catastrophic things happen. Now, with our so called ‘new’ “end of truth” era it made me think “is there anything that everyone could agree is a ‘truth’. That question led me to the Declaration of Independence and the “Truths” that we hold to be “Self-Evident’. And thus the realization that this ‘truth’ is a fundamental principle – essential for sustaining human life on this tiny planet. I’m hoping you and others agree and see the value in building any new systems and structures at any level of life on earth – that this fundamental principle must be incorporated. Without it (justice for all) I don’t see how “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for anyone or anything will be sustainable.