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Demystifying sustainability

Cynicism and Sustainability


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Cynicism and Sustainability

How We Shoot Ourselves in the Foot

This article/column originally appeared on <>

Courtesy Simon Howden,

Courtesy Simon Howden,

People interested in sustainability sometimes respond to situations in ways that aren’t productive. I was reminded of this recently when I was on the Sustainable Tomorrow TV show in Oregon City (Channel 11), which features interviews, news, and ideas for action for work and home on a variety of sustainability-related topics. A caller was railing about corporations and greenwashing. I responded that demonizing a sector of our society is not particularly helpful.

I see this reaction often. For example, when Wal-Mart publicly adopted ambitious sustainability goals, a number of people sniffed, “Well, they’re just trying to take the attention away from their labor practices.” This tendency to point to what they are not yet doing is counter-productive. So let’s unpack this common reaction and discuss better approaches.

Reinforce Sincere Efforts

We have a love-hate relationship with corporations. We buy their products, envy their leaders’ income, and work for them. But we have a deeply entrenched suspicion of their motives. Can you think of a single movie where the corporation is the good guy? The corporation is always portrayed as the dark force: greedy, exploitive. So it is perhaps not surprising that our first reaction is distrust when a corporation claims to want to do the right thing.

No corporation is completely sustainable yet so pointing out their deficiencies before acknowledging their progress is negative reinforcement. Think about your child’s first step. Was your first response to yell, “Why can’t you dance?” No, you oohed and aahed and encouraged all attempts. So perhaps when Wal-Mart takes it’s first sustainability baby steps, we should collectively say, “Bravo! If you do this right, you could be a powerful force for positive change. How can we help you take the next step?” Our tendency to disparage corporations for their imperfections only makes them want to hide their efforts for fear of raising unrealistic expectations or eliciting accusations of greenwashing. If we can make it safe to admit to early efforts and missteps, we can add more voices to the chorus of the sustainability movement, building a sense of momentum.

Agree on the Critical Issues

Sustainability encompasses so many aspects it’s not surprising that each person or each organization targets the one or two that match their passions. It makes it easy to disregard one business’ effort to eliminate waste if your concern is greenhouse gases. Would it be so hard to agree on a list of 6-10 key issues and start consolidating our efforts? We might just see more movement if we weren’t so divided on what to do. I’m helping the State of Oregon build a toolkit for the twelve most effective actions a municipality can take to move toward sustainability. We hope this will create synergistic efforts among communities around the state. What if we had an international focus on common issues like climate change, toxins, natural resource conservation, and human rights? These may not encompass every single environmental and social concern, but who would complain if the focus made significant progress in those areas?

Establish Clearer Deadlines

Thanks to the work of scientists, economists, academics, and others, we know the unsustainable impacts we’re having on the planet and what needs to be done to correct them. But because it’s not clear to any of us how much we need to change today, we all tend to do what’s convenient. To make this point on the TV show, I admitted to driving to the studio. I drove a Prius but I still generated greenhouse gases. Could I have walked the 20 miles each way? Probably. Could I have ridden my bike and done the interview with helmet hair? I suppose. But I didn’t because it wasn’t clear to me I needed to. We’re all in this dilemma so we do what seems reasonable and hope it matters. Consciously or unconsciously, we are all hoping that we’re doing enough fast enough so that we can have a soft landing. But crossing our fingers is no way to plan for the future of civilization.

Perhaps we need our best-guess timetable for society. How quickly do we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? Just saying that faster is better doesn’t help. How fast do we need to eliminate toxic chemicals from our air, water and soil? How quickly do we need to provide food, fresh water, and family planning services to everyone in developing nations? The UN Millennium Development Goals provide a good starting place but they lack consequences for inaction. Let’s set ambitious goals with more specific sustainable end-points and interim deadlines to spur meaningful action. We also need to develop powerful incentives for meeting these goals.

It’s time to stop the sniping and finger-pointing. Let’s accept that we’re all part of this unsustainable system. Make it easy for everyone to begin the journey by supporting initial efforts, sharing lessons learned, and heralding positive results. It took centuries to get into this mess and will likely take decades (at least) to get out of it. So the sooner we all start the journey, the better.


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