By Sarah McKinney
Yesterday I attended the Women in Green Forum in Santa Monica, where I met inspiring women working on social and environmental issues across many sectors. Upon arriving, I joined a breakfast table of attendees and we quickly began exchanging elevator pitches and business cards, commenting with enthusiasm where interests and efforts overlapped. But, as is often the case when talking with experienced sustainability professionals, the conversation quickly turned to complaints and doomsday scenarios. My resistance when this happens is palpable, likely due to a mixture of having had a determinedly optimistic upbringing, and overcoming some personal challenges through developing a habituated focus on gratitude and solutions.
In an attempt to quickly summarize and redirect the discussion, an admittedly controlling quality honed through years of moderating focus groups as a market research professional, I chimed in with, “It’s helpful for me to think of the global population as an addict that just hasn’t hit rock bottom yet – things are likely going to get a lot worse before the majority of people become willing to change.” I looked up to see a circle of nodding heads.
My original intention was to write about authentic leadership, exploring what’s required to inspire increased engagement in this movement. Truth be told, it wasn’t my love of animals or outrage over poor corporate practices that motivated me to obtain an MBA in sustainability from Presidio Graduate School, but instead a fascination with a trend that I recognized as being important, and increasingly pervasive. I can empathize with the individuals who have been on the fighting lines for over a decade, and feel frustrated by the challenges they’ve encountered. But I see negativity as contagious, and limiting needed progress. Having grown up in the heart of Silicon Valley, I also can’t help but notice the same arrogance, righteousness and elitism that’s so often associated with the Bay Area, unfortunately, alive and kicking within the sustainability movement. This isn’t helping our cause. Who wants to join forces with a group of people that make them feel stupid, or guilty about their current lifestyle choices?
I had an interesting conversation with Sarah Backhouse, the dynamic, brainy and stunning Founder and Host of Future360, about how streaming media can be used to successfully increase mainstream engagement. I’d just finished a consulting project for Participant Media so the subject was top-of-mind. At one point we discussed reality TV, sharing our surprise at how many people are still tuning in for a quick mindless escape. Americans are notorious for wanting quick fix solutions, and I’d argue that pretty much every systemic problem we’re facing right now is due to an over-reliance on short-term thinking. Isn’t the same true of an addict? (You didn’t think I was going to drop that analogy did you?) They engage in behaviors they know to cause harm because their desire for short-term benefits outweighs the long-term repercussions. When trouble begins arising they try to monitor, reduce, control and come up with creative solutions to avoid making the changes that they know deep down will eventually be required of them to survive. I’d argue that this is largely where we are within the sustainability movement – focused on reducing harms, creating standards to help avoid the most extreme negative outcomes, and using innovative thinking and technology to identify ways that we can carry on behaving pretty much as we always have.
Several panelists spoke about the importance of willingness, rolling up their sleeves and trying something that didn’t have instructions, that they’d never done before but believed in, of the need for humility, asking for help, listening and being patient as they took needed twists and turns towards solutions. It struck me as general wisdom for life, with willingness representing the keystone. So what creates willingness? For the addict it’s likely fear or desperation. For the environmentalist it’s likely passion or a sense of being guided by purpose. But what about the majority of Americans, what does their path to willingness look like when it comes to engaging in the sustainability movement? It’s easy to point fingers and blame the Republican Party or climate change deniers, saying they’re knowingly perpetuating lies that prevent broader engagement. But I see this as an unhelpful over-generalization.
I’ve come to believe that people can only be as honest with others as they are with themselves, and that denial can often begin as a useful form of self-protection, a deluded hopefulness that quickly turns into outright refusal to see truth without the individual even noticing it. Getting people to wake up, look in the mirror and at their surroundings, and become willing to change is the challenge. And the motivating factors to do this will vary by individual, which is why I think life on this planet might have to become pretty ugly for everyone (including the rich and powerful) before we see drastic change. Did I just go doomsday on you? Hold on.
At the risk of sounding like I have wind chimes on my porch and a dream catcher hanging from my headboard, I do believe that a shift in consciousness is taking place. I’m encouraged by the exponential growth I see in the number of social enterprises, by the exploding support for local businesses and popularity of organic food, and by the number of companies now reporting on social and environmental indicators, with much of the legwork being done by volunteer-driven “Green Teams.” I love seeing how many young people are now involved in this work, and the needed hopefulness they bring to older generations. I feel inspired by the democratization of ideas enabled through social media, and by so many of the people that I’ve met who are committed to pushing for progress. I feel honored to be on this journey with them, and will continue reaching my hands out in both directions – to learn, and give back wherever I can. I hope that everyday more people join our efforts, but I also understand that willingness has a life of its own, and comes from within.
Sarah McKinney is the Founder of AMP, which is a collaborative bookmarking site and file exchange that is set to become the starting point for sustainability champions. Keep an eye out for AMP’s Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which is launching on the 10th of September! For more info email: firstname.lastname@example.org.