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A Sustainable Globe Depends on Local Leadership

Saybrook University | Tuesday June 1st, 2010 | 9 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By Nancy Southern & Larry Tackett

Our current thinking about sustainability limits our opportunity to achieve the results needed in the short timeframe we have to turn the tide.

We need to change that thinking – and the leadership to do it is most likely to be found at the local level, rather than the national or global. Harness that local initiative, and the kind of big change that now seems impossible will quickly come to seem inevitable.

Much of the current large-scale focus on sustainability is what those who lead change refer to as 1st and 2nd order change. Consuming less, conserving more, creating less waste are considered 1st order change, which asks us to make adjustments to what we are already doing. Second order change is a low-level system change such as manufacturing hybrid cars and generating more wind or solar power.What we need is 3rd order or transformative change. This level of change requires us to integrate all aspects of our lives, bringing our thinking into alignment with reality. Rather than see life and work as separate ways of being engaged, or schools and corporations as separate systems, we see them as an embedded whole.  If any aspect is not healthy, the other parts will deteriorate.

The best environment for transformational change to occur now appears to be at the level of community. The full engagement of citizens along with robust collaboration among education, community, business, and government organizations can rebuild our communities into places that foster personal well being, are supported by well integrated institutional structures, and care for the environment.

This work is more likely to happen in city councils than in Congress, and among neighborhood groups than lobbyists. Local activists, governments, and communities have the opportunity to lead the way by developing a sustainable system for themselves…becoming both a part of the solution and a proof of concept.

That’s a big responsibility – but step by step, local communities are proving themselves up to the challenge.

Sustainable Novato is an example of a community organization that is working to engage the local business community in conversations that build a thriving local economy and create an alliance of local businesses that support each other through a mutual rewards system. It looks at Novato’s future in a holistic way, bringing together initiatives to support locally owned business and promoting a strong fiscal base for local government with measures supporting clean, renewable energy and bayland preservation.

The end result is a new vision of both economic and environmental sustainability that is achievable through local action: cynical protests that “it’s just one community” can be met by the positive response that “it CAN happen here.”

Educational institutions have as great a part to play as community groups.

The recent proliferation of green MBA programs is an encouraging sign – but even the greenest MBA programs are challenged to achieve the desired sustainability results using business models that contributed to the problem. By contrast, programs like Saybrook University’s program in Organizational Systems are focused on supporting the integration of personal well being, community health, effective institutions, and a thriving natural environment.

Such educational programs develop systems thinking skills that help people learn how to change the parts while seeing the impact on the whole system. The ability to bring people together, to engage in conversations that address different perspectives and find common ground, is another critical change leader skill. Educational programs in sustainability can, indeed must, also actively pursue partnerships to help provide resources to their local communities.

While there are fewer institutional barriers to transformative change at the local level, there are psychological ones – organizing for 3rd order change demands a different way of thinking about the relationship between self and society.

Full engagement of citizens requires that each person and family shift their thinking from “taking care of my own” to “taking care of our community.”  This shift recognizes that without a thriving community, individuals and families cannot thrive.  This same shift in thinking is needed in business, education, and government.

Imagine If:

  • Community partnered with business to determine what products and services are needed?
  • Education partnered with community and business to bring the resources needed?
  • Government partnered with community and business to determine how best to support a sustainable community?

As a long time community activist, Larry Tackett believes that “once we come to realize that we are a part of the whole living system of the Earth, we won’t continue to go to work each day and take actions to produce profits at the expense of everything else. We will come to realize that we still live in the community that our business decisions affect. So we must take our humanity to work with us each day and bring it back home.” And we must find and demand the time to get involved in our local communities.

Empowering citizens to act together in support of community transformation is critical.  Only by providing many people with the knowledge, skills, freedom, and authority to act can we address the urgency of this need as so powerfully communicated by the Four Years Go campaign.  The time is NOW.  We are the People who can lead the change.

***

Nancy Southern is the Co-Chair of the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University.  Larry Tackett is the President of Sustainable Novato.


▼▼▼      9 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Kerubo

    Great article Nancy and Larry! I could not agree with you more on the need to start organizing, collaborating and co-creating at the local level. Providing opportunities to learn systems thinking skills and incorporating sustainability educational programs at the local would be a great way to build capacity and create space for an informed experience at the local community level. Thanks Larry for challenging us to “take our humanity to work with us each day and bring it back home”.

  • http://www.eartheart-ent.com John Adams

    A wonderful post — as Nancy knows, changing thinking as the basis for fundamental change is also a deeply held belief of mine.

    The things that most sustainability writing emphasize are reducing footprints, recycling, reusing, and reducing consumption. One of my concerns has long been that the alternatives for doing these things (hybrids, solar energy, etc.) face humungous challenges in cost and scalability!

    What seldom gets addressed is the near term unsustainability of our global fiat-money-based economic system(s), our total addiction to / dependence on cheap & plentiful energy sources, and the rapidly rising costs and risks associated with post-peak fuel and mineral extraction. I recommend the free 20 lesson Crash Course, available on-line at http://www.chrismartenson.com, as essential information for the coming uncertain times.

  • J. Paulson

    Great article. How would a community “parter” with business in the manner you suggest? I mean it sounds great, but what does that mean exactly? Who is the “community”? I can hear visions of laissez faire economists saying that the community already partners with business simply by means of supply and demand. What's your response to that?

    • John Adams

      Thanks for the “opening” J.

      In our area, we don't worry too much what economists would say in that they are for the most part encased in their differential equations, and most of the things that matter to the emerging challenges are considered to be “externalities” by most of the economics schools these days.

      In our community, we have pretty much determined that all governance serves the primary purpose of maintaining the status quo (or restoring it) at all costs. Our passion is to create a new community sense that works for the people, and that is not structured merely to funnel money to the few plutocrats at the top of the pyramid.

      By community, I would mean grass roots networking (Nancy and Larry will have to speak for themselves), mutually exploring the fact-based information that is readily available, supporting each person in making their own action decisions, learning what resources are needed and available, setting up resource sharing networks. After extensive study of fact-based material, we are building local: housing security, economic security, food security, water security, transportation security and health security programs.

      The alternative, as evidenced in Argentina a few years ago when their economy collapsed, is primarily gun-based security. In our community, we think we can do better than that.

      Locally, in the central Sierras, where peak oil is impacting early, since we are at the end of the delivery lines, raising such issues as we are writing about here — at business forums and board of supervisor meetings — causes eyes to roll, as the priority is on chamber of commerce agendas to “restore” the consumer economy and support the largest land owner in California in their race to clear cut all of their forest holdings as fast as they can. The biggest debates at the establishment level seem to be on whether to “stimulate” our economy by bringing in a WalMart or settling for dozens of smaller franchise stores.

      Thus we are developing our “community” among those early adopters with ears to hear and brains to explore and think. Those businesses that want to join in are encouraged to join in, and we have a few. Those that want to keep their heads in the sand and/or rely on minimalist green-washing, we don't try to change. When they need us, we will have made lots of progress, and be able to offer support or condolences.

      Thank you for adding your thoughts and stimulating some of mine!

    • Larry Tackett

      Who is the community? You are the community. You and anyone or any organization you can engage to work with you. This is from our website on community, “Citizen participation, dialog and service will provide the human energy to make Novato's future more sustainable. Cultivating the arts of cooperation and understanding will let us take the best advantage of the range of assets potential in our city.”

      Many in our culture have forgotten that we are citizens first and consumers by default. From your statement, it implies that people are just responders to the economy instead of authors of their destiny. We are writing the future.

      What we have accomplished so far through Sustainable Novato and the other Sustainables in Marin County is that we are changing the economic landscape to favor green businesses. Through our advocacy, we have passed a commercial and a residential green building ordinance. It was the first in the county and now has been expanding throughout the other cities as a model for them to create their own.

      Our Green Schools program has been successful in replacing all toxic cleaning supplies in the Novato schools, thus reducing the toxic load on our children. These cleaning supplies are now being favored over more toxic cleaners.

      We held 14 community forums on different aspects of sustainability. One was on supporting local businesses and opposing a big box store from coming into town. We were successful in preventing this and was able to preserve our local builders supply lumber company and our local hardware store.
      Our, “Sustainable Community” forum, presented a systemic approach to community development. This gave the city and county planners, county supervisors and city council members a broader way to hold development and the dynamics inherent in their choices. The “Environmental Toxins and Community Health” forum revealed the hidden ways toxic chemicals flow through the environment and how it affects our health. It was presented in a way that the attendees had an understanding of how they could make different choices in their lifestyles and preserve and protect their health and the health of the community. We have also held forums on watersheds, transportation, air quality, local clean energy, zero toxins, zero waste, and climate change.

      We have been successful in advocating and getting passed an improved, Integrated Pest Management, program in Marin County.

      All of this has come about because 9 dedicated people have gotten clear on what they want for our community and have shared the vision with others. We continue to collaborate with any and all other organizations that have an interest in the work we are doing. Each of our forums are a collaboration of aligned stakeholders, changing with each area of interest.

      We all can make a difference. Most people stop because they think they don't know how but the truth is, it is not about knowing how, it is about getting clear what you want and engaging. Waiting to know how will kill all initiative. Don't wait, just get committed and get going. Everything will unfold before you.

  • Mary Chase

    Good article laying the foundation of thought. I look forward to hearing more about the “how-to.”

  • Amanda P

    Do you see any overlap between this system and Mazlow's hierarchy of needs? I kept thinking of that as I was reading. Perhaps systems have their own hierarchy of needs that must be met.

  • j. Batesmeyl

    There seems to be a certain sense of futility sometimes when it comes to what “local leadership” really can accomplish. I'd agree that it needs to be there, but without at least some vision from the top (ie national or global) I think the job is a lot harder!

  • Larry Tackett

    Who is the community? You are the community. You and anyone or any organization you can engage to work with you. This is from our website on community, “Citizen participation, dialog and service will provide the human energy to make Novato's future more sustainable. Cultivating the arts of cooperation and understanding will let us take the best advantage of the range of assets potential in our city.”

    Many in our culture have forgotten that we are citizens first and consumers by default. From your statement, it implies that people are just responders to the economy instead of authors of their destiny. We are writing the future.

    What we have accomplished so far through Sustainable Novato and the other Sustainables in Marin County is that we are changing the economic landscape to favor green businesses. Through our advocacy, we have passed a commercial and a residential green building ordinance. It was the first in the county and now has been expanding throughout the other cities as a model for them to create their own.

    Our Green Schools program has been successful in replacing all toxic cleaning supplies in the Novato schools, thus reducing the toxic load on our children. These cleaning supplies are now being favored over more toxic cleaners.

    We held 14 community forums on different aspects of sustainability. One was on supporting local businesses and opposing a big box store from coming into town. We were successful in preventing this and was able to preserve our local builders supply lumber company and our local hardware store.
    Our, “Sustainable Community” forum, presented a systemic approach to community development. This gave the city and county planners, county supervisors and city council members a broader way to hold development and the dynamics inherent in their choices. The “Environmental Toxins and Community Health” forum revealed the hidden ways toxic chemicals flow through the environment and how it affects our health. It was presented in a way that the attendees had an understanding of how they could make different choices in their lifestyles and preserve and protect their health and the health of the community. We have also held forums on watersheds, transportation, air quality, local clean energy, zero toxins, zero waste, and climate change.

    We have been successful in advocating and getting passed an improved, Integrated Pest Management, program in Marin County.

    All of this has come about because 9 dedicated people have gotten clear on what they want for our community and have shared the vision with others. We continue to collaborate with any and all other organizations that have an interest in the work we are doing. Each of our forums are a collaboration of aligned stakeholders, changing with each area of interest.

    We all can make a difference. Most people stop because they think they don't know how but the truth is, it is not about knowing how, it is about getting clear what you want and engaging. Waiting to know how will kill all initiative. Don't wait, just get committed and get going. Everything will unfold before you.

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