You see the madness, you’re not buying the endless growth narrative, and you want to help. Now what?
This is no time for recycling and double-sided printing
If you read another sustainability report touting 25% emissions reductions by 2025 when you know what is needed was more than 100%, decades ago, along with a complete rethink of business’ relationship with the rest of the natural world that isn’t hyper-focused on carbon and is hyper-focused on supporting life, you will… [insert exploding head emoji here]. And let’s not even talk about waste reduction in the company’s operations. We can’t even.
I’m with you. I feel you. I feel your mind exploding at the realization that the corporate climate ambitions — maybe even the ones we’ve helped design — are a mystic paraphrasing of a mass suicide chant. It is existentially painful, and often paralyzing.
I can’t fix it. But I can offer three things any of us — all of us — can do to make it better. I’m not saying they’re easy, but they’re available.
First, a quick bit of context.
Sustainability agrees that sustainability is unsustainable
Normally I am an afternoon napper. My regular 15 minute snoozes energize me, help me shift gears, or simply give me fresh eyes for a piece of work that’s puzzling me.
But the other day, fighting a bit of a cold, my nap was not happening (na’appening?). The world was kind of vibrating all around me. Everything felt peculiar. I shifted to meditation. Still, a kind of mental jitteriness persisted.
So I wrote instead, setting aside my ambition to focus on the latest Matereality assessment and letting flow what was pushing up against my mind. What came out was this piece, “Why I Wish I’d Followed My Instincts As a Climate Denier”, which I wrote and published in under two hours, something I literally never do (I am nothing if not an over-egger — it’s taken me days to finalize this).
And then what followed was an unprecedented amount of traffic on my usually rather sleepy LinkedIn page and on the Medium article itself. The corporate sustainability community signaled loudly: “Yes. This is the thing.”
There was broad agreement that the current “ambitious” corporate approach to climate change is deceptively ineffective, and the only viable alternative is wholesale transformation of all industrial activity to serve life.
Thank you for hearing. Now, to the doing.
It was very encouraging. It’s always nice to be heard, to be validated.
The thing is, we’re talking about the transformation of all industrial systems so that they are forces for healing, not destroying. This is a mouthful. A brainful. An intergenerational-lifetimeful, in fact.
So I want to hone in more precisely on what I propose we DO about this. Because once we see the problem we need to move quickly into transformation mode or we join the chorus of rubber-neckers watching the train wreck, clicking, liking and meming ourselves to death.
Of course, I am but one humble and relatively ignorant human, not unlike that bug clinging to the bus window in the photo above. I don’t have “the answer” and it’s not for me to tell you what to do. Still, I can assemble a bit of cognitive kindling to throw on the fire. (I welcome yours, too. Please comment away!)
Here are three things all of us — any of us — can do, now to put legs under the thing and get a move on.
1. Recognize what’s happening The word choice here is intentional. We have to recognize — as in, cognitively integrate — what’s going on. This is a huge step because it quite literally alters your mind — your perception of what’s coming at you and what’s coming out of you. It’s trippy. Make it part of you — don it like your own personally monogrammed Cloak of Reality. Not in the, “annoy everyone who will pay attention to you” reformed vigilante ex-smoker way, but in a, “Oh, I see how this is connected to that, and that, and ooooh THAAAT…” way.
As your mind alters, know that you are not crazy. Those feelings you’ve been having about something big happening are because something big is happening. What is crazy is the economic system into which we’ve been shoe-horned, which is threatening all life on earth. I won’t unpick its insanity here — many have done a fine job of that elsewhere.
But if you need reminders to fortify your Cloak of Reality as you step through the minefields of gas-lighting and grooming that allow us to pretend it’s all okay, normal, desirable even, to economically grow ourselves (and every butterfly and sea otter we’ve ever loved) to death, here are a few touchstones to tuck into your cloak pocket:
Tune into as many Global South voices as you can, to understand solutions, experience, histories and legacies long buried by the current corporate climate approach. One portal into this space is here. There are many — find them and experience them so you can fully recognize.
This 32-minute video by Nate Hagens, The Great Simplification (with thanks to Nenad Maljković for bringing it to my attention) clarifies what’s happening in very simple physical terms. I wish for a different ending that contemplates the diversity of the human experience better, but I can’t ask for everything in one 32-minute video and the first three quarters offer a dogmatically neutral explanation for what’s behind that feeling you may have.
The “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” (from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) offers useful recent data and key messages. I could pick dozens of zingers — here’s one:
An average of around 25 per cent of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened, suggesting that around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss. Without such action, there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction, which is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.
Go outside and walk around or sit somewhere for a while. Imagine you are a migratory bird or a salmon or a constellation of soil micro-organisms — all of which keep us alive. Ask your bird-salmon-soil-self how you are currently served (or undermined) by the professional and personal communities that regular human-you inhabits.
In sum: Let yourself know. It’s okay. It’s good to know.
2. Vocalize what you know Whatever role you’re in — corporate sustainability professional, policy maker, graphic designer, student, teacher, office temp — use your voice to say what you know in the best way you can.
There is something very powerful about vocalizing ideas, especially ideas that are deeply resonant and have a bearing on our collective well being. If you need to practice, say it to your cat, your houseplants, the wind — anyone who can receive your vocalizations without resistance. Putting voice to what we sense, to our ambitions, is incredibly powerful even if you’re the only human who hears for a while.
I wrote about the power of voice in one of my newsletters a few years back and I now realize I was planting little audio-seeds in my own vocalizing self that have born fruit again and again.
In sum: Give voice to what you know about what’s happening.
3. Do one thing differently, then another, then another… Pick one thing that you can adapt now, based on what you recognize and vocalize. It doesn’t have to be “everything, now”, just “something, now”.
Rinse and repeat.
For some this may mean a major career change. For others — like what Garry Turner is doing — it may mean staying put in an industry that is desperately in need of transformation, and radically altering how you show up.
It may mean applying what you know to policy development, inviting different voices to the table to inform the way forward. It may mean different conversations with your kids.
It will undoubtedly involve some distress, confusion, dismay, paradoxes found, and paradigms lost. That’s okay — it’s how transformation happens. To state the obvious: by definition things look different in transformation. It stands to reason that it feels strange as you move through it. Hold your intention nearby (which for me is: transform all industry to create the conditions for life to thrive) and proceed. Some wonderful surprises — people, places, possibilities — most likely await, even in the kerflooey.
In sum: Change your actions, informed by your intentions, as much as you can.
Bonus round: stay open
None of us really knows what to do. It’s uncharted territory and the stakes are high. I think I’ve unlearned more than I’ve learned every day for the last few years and I am probably only barely aware of how clueless I still am.
To mitigate this, I stay open to new information, ways of being and possibilities, even (especially?) if they fly in the face of what I thought I knew. (Remind me to share the story of how I learned my height, at age 50, after being wrong about it for my whole adult life.)
I hold ideas as gently as I can so they don’t become ossified beliefs, since that is where problematic paradigms leach in under the door and gas us into believing our own nonsense. I will undoubtedly muff things up at least as many times as I already have. Maybe even telling you these “things you can do” is a mistake? I hope not.
In sum: Know there’s always more to know.
Go forth and transform I can’t really tell you what to do but I can share ideas about what you might consider doing.
You can be honest with yourself and others about what you’re sensing, and you can change your actions — again and again — in response.
You might be in the middle of revising your company’s sustainability goals, paying off a student loan, picking the appliances for your kitchen renovation, or finally getting out of Dodge on that beach holiday you promised your kids six months into the homeschooling mayhem of the pandemic. Or something else. You might be feeling that the timing of this transformation thing is a little tricky.
I follow. But I’ll underscore my list above with a reminder that massive changes to our economic structures are not optional. What is optional is how we act now.
Make sure you aren’t just spitting out excuses.
As my fantastic coach of a while back, Laurie Gerber, will tell you, excuses just get in the way of your dreams. Focus on what you actually want and move towards it. For instance, I want to end the corporate climate insanity and reconnect industry with it’s all-giving source: life!
How am I living this guidance? I see my role as hospicing the dying aspects of industry that simply do not serve us, and in parallel, connecting with more life-giving economic activity. I stepped out of mainstream sustainability work that was part of the problem, even though I could charge more and work less, given the demand for sustainability and ESG (environmental, social and governance) professionals these days.
Now I use my skills to (publicly) disclose to companies how they are impacting the future, and what could be done instead, in an effort to recognize and vocalize transformation. That’s my (unfunded) Matereality project.
I have a more precarious financial future (you can support me if you like — reading and sharing articles like this helps, and/or you can tip me here) but this personal transformation — unscripted though it may be — does not feel optional.
I am no hero. But I would rather contribute to the best possible outcomes than watch the worst unfold. Plus, it’s interesting. Feeling my way along the path to industrial healing is somehow cosmically elegant to me. Maybe that’s delusional. But I actually think working in service of endless economic growth is delusional, so there’s that.
Onwards! There is plenty of work to go around. Let’s get on it.
If you still need more nudges, I wrote about our various roles here, and I even include a handy instructional video of sorts (haha, brace yourself — it might be easier to just get busy recognizing, vocalizing and changing).
Anyway, I hope you find this useful. Keep us posted if you can.
Banner image: bug clinging to a bus window, photo by me, 2018