AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Three Questions for Social Change

Copyright 2009 AXIS Performance Advisors

What’s getting in our way?
Three questions for a sustainable future

NOTE: A version of this article was first published on

By Darcy Hitchcock

Courtesy Stuart Miles,

Courtesy Stuart Miles,

The current economic crisis has given us a well-deserved wake-up call. Humans often need a crisis to galvanize our attention and change direction. But as Jared Diamond showed in Collapse, awareness is not sufficient for survival of a society. It’s not clear yet whether we are changing direction enough to change the outcome. In a recent webinar for the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, English journalist David Boyle was talking about his upcoming book, The New Economics. I asked whether he thought the current economic response to our crisis was heading us in the right direction. He said that most of what he had observed so far was putting the train back on track but still in the same unsustainable direction.

So what would it take for us to take this opportunity to create a Second Enlightenment, to use this ‘teachable moment’ to change course? Social activist Bill Moyer in his book Doing Democracy said that for social change to happen, society has to say yes three times:

  • Yes, there is a problem
  • Yes, there is a solution
  • Yes, there is an acceptable alternative to the status quo.

It seems we simultaneously have hurdles to each of those yeses.

Yes, there is a problem

Despite all the many reports from credible sources—scientific, liberal and conservative—there are still people who staunchly doubt problems like climate change. Denial is a protective mechanism. So what it’s protecting people from? Of course, to acknowledge climate change is to take responsibility for the onerous problems we have caused. But that is perhaps too simple.

I’m working with a client right now that is spending a significant sum to measure their greenhouse gases but yet they are reluctant to frame climate change as a problem! It finally came down to this: self-image. They didn’t vote for Al Gore or anyone on that side of the aisle so why would they want to acknowledge a problem that they have been promoting? That would be like saying the Left had been right (pun intended). So while this client is willing to work to reduce their greenhouse gases—for a variety of reasons—they don’t want their noses rubbed in climate change. It’s too guilt-provoking, political, and doomsday-ish.

We finally decided not to let labels get in the way, as long as they headed in the right direction, regardless of how they would explain their reasons. We’re also looking for near-peers, people they do respect and identify with, to carry the message.

Yes, there is a solution

The Industrial Revolution is barely over a century old and our current economic system—based on globalization and international flows of currencies—is even younger. But it’s all most of us alive can remember, so it’s hard to imagine something else. However the architecture for a sustainable future is becoming more and more clear.

What’s fascinating to me is how many of the principles for the future lie in the past. I was recently meeting with the former mayor of Heidelberg, Beate Weber, who has been credited with earning that German city the European Sustainable Cities award—twice. She emphasized the importance of empowerment and participation. Her approach could have been a case study in our self-directed work team publications almost two decades ago.  Similarly, smart growth principles look a lot like old small-town America. Even urban agriculture is again in vogue, with Michelle Obama digging up the Whitehouse lawn for a vegetable garden.

Let’s face it, though. Not everyone is going to want to read the professional literature. To help solve this problem, I recently released a novella and discussion course called Dragonfly’s Question: Principles for the ‘Good Life’ after the Crash. I thought that fiction might appeal to a much wider audience, much like Ishmael, The Goal and Who Stole My Cheese, all of which disguised important concepts in a fictional narrative.

We need more accessible tools like this to educate our citizens. And we need mainstream media to do a better job of connecting the dots for people, not just reporting events (e.g., warnings about mercury in fish) but also causes (e.g., the source of much of our mercury is coal fired power plants.)

Yes, the solution is an acceptable change from current norms

I think this is where our society is stuck most: is the solution better than the problem?  Most people assume that to be more sustainable, we’d have to make huge sacrifices now for the benefit of future generations. This is a hard sell with the Me-Generation as well as others. Who knows, maybe we will have to make significant sacrifices. But the longer we wait to take action, the larger the sacrifices.

In the book, Heat, journalist George Monbiot investigated whether the UK could maintain its quality of life while reducing greenhouse gases by 90 percent. In almost all situations, with relatively minor changes in behavior and existing technologies, they could still have comfortable houses, get around, have healthy food to eat, and buy stuff. (Interestingly, the one area he couldn’t resolve was air travel.)

We can’t motivate many people to change with doom and gloom; we need to make them want sustainability more than what they have now. We need to do a better job of providing a positive vision of the future. The Voluntary Simplicity movement tried this approach but it didn’t appeal to a broad enough spectrum of society.

In Dragonfly’s Question, the fictional story shows how sustainability concepts weave together to provide a higher quality of life, and just as important, it also reveals the sacrifices we’re making now that most are blind to, including our hectic, techno-addicted existence and associated lack of community.

We need to find more ways to paint a compelling picture. As Gandhi famously said, “Only give up one thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing has no longer any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired.”

So think about these three yeses to figure out where you, your organization, or the people you want to influence are stuck:

  • Is there acceptance that there is a problem?
  • Is there agreement that there is a solution?
  • Does the solution seem at least as good if not better than the problem?

Those are our challenges, to help people answer these questions for themselves.

Resources & References

Hitchcock, Darcy (2009) Dragonfly’s Question: Principles for the ‘Good Life’ after the Crash. See review by Duke Castle on Lulu.

Hopkins, Rob, (2008) The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience.  White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Kotter, John P (2002) The Heart of Change: Real-life Stories of How People Change their Organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard School Press.

Moyer, Bill (2001) Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements. New Society Publishers.

Northwest Earth Institute (source of non-fiction discussion courses)

© Copyright 2009 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc. All
rights reserved.


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