By Earl W. Shank
Sustainability’s emerging popularity has enthralled many young people, interested in dedicating their lives to work in the field, developing privileged understanding of the term’s meaning. The new wave of forward-thinking professionals possess sustainability knowledge, but they treat the knowledge like a special right granted only to a select few. Sustainability professionals, by and large, need to develop empathy to understand the perspective of others and begin to work collaboratively with those with whom at first they may disagree.
This empathy-lacking sustainability ideology views education and intellect as nearly synonymous for knowledge about environmental issues and social causes, and dismisses the notion that anyone could genuinely be uninformed about the matter. However, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity (Hanlon’s Law).” Sustainability has not always been a concept at the forefront of consideration, and many people merely lack adequate exposure to the importance of thinking beyond short-term profitability.
The emergence of powerful buzzwords like “change agents” and “triple bottom line” seem to further delineate between the doers and the do-noters of sustainability. It might be suggested that only a select number of workplaces and jobs in those workplaces cater to the needs of sustainability-minded employees. In reality, every job at every business or institution working on any cause or objective could use a dose of hardworking, thoughtful sustainability.
Unfortunately, sustainability is often defined by best and worst practices; in one hand a collection of companies and actors are placed on a pedestal of what sustainability looks like, while in the other the most deplorable companies and unsightly actions are held as examples of what unsustainable looks like. It is here that the adversarial mindset about sustainability begins. This is the privileged mindset, a modern tale of haves and have nots.
Sustainability demands system wide solutions and not merely behavior confined to a single business or set of positive actions. The world needs more young professionals excited about going beyond comfort and seeking out employment at companies other than those which immediately come to mind as sustainability leaders. Success should not be confined to only finding an avenue to work for one of the pedestal companies.
Change agents, out of fear for being ostracized from their ideology, often refuse to engage with the companies and individuals who fall onto the other side of the spectrum. In the process, significant disparity is created between the doers and the don’ters.
Some of the companies whom are the least sustainable are also the biggest and the most powerful. It is scary to challenge their way of doing business. It is especially scary to challenge their way of doing business internally through a constructive dialogue for fear of being labeled a sell-out. For this reason, individuals most apt to be able to improve their business practices instead elect to complain about these companies rather than finding positions to make direct change within these companies.
Big powerful companies are exactly where change agents should be focused. The impact of even a small sustainable change to their business procedures could easily have a positive impact exceeding the largest sustainable change to one of the pedestal companies. Harry S. Truman summed up this philosophy when he said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” It should not matter whether it is an organic farm or a fossil fuel company who gets the credit if the outcome is a sustainable solution.
Building bastions of sustainability at the expense of system wide sustainability is the easy way out. To change institutions built without regard for sustainability, their practices must be challenged from the inside. We have to begin looking for opportunities to work together and not apart and stop delineating between the sustainable and the unsustainable. We, as change agents, have to stop putting ourselves on the same pedestal that prevents being collaborative for the sake of positive, sustainable change.
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Earl W. Shank is the Sustainability Coordinator at the University of New Mexico's Office of Sustainability. His work entails developing strategy to engage university stakeholders about how to incorporate sustainable solutions.