Our Sustainability Challenge: What Does It Take for Us to Thrive Within Earth's Finite Resources?

The following is an excerpt from Parachuting Cats Into Borneo and Other Lessons From the Change Café by Axel Klimek and Alan Atkisson (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016): 

Practicing sustainability involves expanding our focus to consider the long term and the whole system. But our current culture, in most organizations, in most of the world, pushes us to do just the opposite. We tend to focus almost exclusively on the success of individual people, departments, companies, and so forth when we also need to think about the success of the whole context on which these things depend: nature and its resources; people and their well-being; the social and economic systems we have built up around us over generations.

Practicing sustainability means learning to think outside the box of our immediate concerns. Making a profit or meeting a target in the next quarter year is fine. But how do we make sure that we can keep doing that, over years and decades? How do we make sure that success today, for us, is not actually leading us to serious problems tomorrow, for us and for many other people?

Obviously, once you start asking questions like this, many issues come up, and many of these issues have to do with environmental and social concerns. These are the classic issues that sustainability change agents are usually working with. This list of issues includes things like global warming and the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. It includes other environmental problems, caused by organizations (and people) that believe they have to take resources out of nature, or dump wastes back into nature, or even destroy nature, just to survive. And it includes a broad range of social concerns, including issues that seem very far away from us in both space and time, such as how people on the other side of the planet are doing, and whether their children are growing up with a chance for a better quality of life.

In a business or organization that is focused on short-term, immediate success—and that is also embedded in systems that keep pushing it to think this way, supported by the well-established habits of millions of people—facilitating change for sustainability is certainly not easy. And successfully bringing about real transformation can look almost impossible.

And yet there are many stories we could tell that are similar to the one about Paul Polman and Unilever. Sustainability transformation happens.

But how does it happen?

The answer is deceptively simple, and it builds on everything we have been talking about so far. It’s all about having a clear vision, a good idea (or set of ideas) to promote, a solid strategy for implementing them, a lot of courage and flexibility . . . and the willingness to look inward, listen deeply, and spend time listening to others. It’s about getting to know yourself as a change agent and getting to know the people you are working with as well as you possibly can, then working together. Sustainability is a team sport.

This is neither the time nor the place to get into the science of sustainability. Nor do we want to tell a lot of stories now about companies, cities, governments, NGOs, and other organizations that have successfully implemented a sustainability change or larger-scale transformation. There are many other books and websites full of such stories, and one of us (Alan) has written a few books about these topics.

Instead, we would like to use this part of our conversation to dig a little further into the idea of sustainability transformation and to think with you about what’s required of us as change agents when we are trying to make transformation happen.

Transformation = Changing System Structure

When an organizational system is unsustainable, it means that if it keeps doing what it normally does, it will eventually have big problems.

Consider a company that is very dependent on fossil fuel energy (there are many of these, including car companies, airlines, and the financial companies that serve them). The company might look quite healthy and strong today. But if you adopt a long-term perspective, and a broader field of concern than the company’s own boundaries, the picture changes a lot. The world as a whole has woken up to the inescapable reality of climate change. Governments are slowly changing their policies and incentives to steer more and more toward renewable energy. Investors and big banking institutions are starting to worry that most of the oil and other fossil fuel will have to be left in the ground, placing doubt around the future value of those economic assets.

From a sustainability perspective, a company that is very dependent on fossil fuel energy will not be able to keep doing what it’s doing in the longer term. Small changes will not be enough, either: just getting a little more efficient, or creating a greener profile, or becoming a little more engaged with community issues will not help. They are nice things to do, and they might even be important to do. But they are still just tinkering in relationship to the real issues.

Let’s look at another energy example. Earlier in the book we mentioned the Energiewende, which began to be implemented in Germany (where Axel lives) as a reaction to the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima. To some extent this Energiewende seemed very sudden, and it was even initiated by a conservative government that was not known for promoting green ideas. But actually, there was a movement toward renewable energy and green thinking in German society that had been going on for many, many years already—to such a degree that the Green Party had sometimes been leading the country in a coalition with the Social Democratic Party.

Even though the issues of energy and climate were already on the table in Germany, the decision to implement Energiewende—the nationwide transition to energy efficiency and renewables—hit the biggest energy companies totally by surprise. Nuclear power stations were their cash cows, and they didn’t have a plan B in their desks for this sudden turn of events. These companies were among the biggest in Germany, and suddenly they were in very big financial difficulty—because their cash cow was unexpectedly slaughtered.

There is another layer of public catastrophe connected to this: a likelihood that these companies have not put aside enough funds for rebuilding the existing nuclear power stations or handling the nuclear waste—and definitely not enough for the tens of thousands of years that this extremely dangerous, radioactive, toxic waste will be around, demanding very special attention and high levels of technical skill and investment.

Milking the old cash cow seemed to be fine, but taking care of the side effects and long-term impacts was not part of the plan. This is just one example of a deeply unsustainable pattern, but it is not untypical of our times and our current economic mind-set.

To be sustainable, energy companies will have to start reconsidering the whole system structure: what kinds of products and services they sell, how they sell them, all the economics around that, and all the communications to people about what the company is doing or intends to do—not to mention the mind-sets (mental habits) and skill sets of its employees.

Here’s a small example.

Alan: One client we’ve worked with is a large company that sells, among other things, cars. (I talked about them previously.) But they were slow to adopt the new technologies that are making cars greener, such as hybrid engines that combine battery power with traditional petroleum-based combustion engines.

Of course, hybrids are well established in many parts of the world. What was the obstacle in this particular case? It turned out to be a mind-set. Most of the people working at the company believed the hybrid cars were somehow inferior to “normal” cars when it came to performance. As this was also the prevailing mind-set in their market, it was hard to start changing customer buying habits if the people selling the cars had this kind of mind-set, too.

As it happened, the new hybrids were actually better (faster in acceleration, for instance) than the “normal” cars, but nobody believed that yet. Then the sustainability director came up with a great idea: he used his own budget to upgrade the cars that all the senior managers drove to work. They already had pretty nice “normal” cars, but he made sure they all got nicer luxury models—which were also hybrids.

This changed the mind-set: suddenly hybrids were an “upgrade” that everyone in the company used and appreciated. This made them easier to sell as well.

Remember the process we described around coaching, in the last two chapters? Maybe it’s easier now to see why we think there’s such a strong connection here. The idea in the above story emerged out of a coaching relationship with that client that involved many sessions of thinking together about all the many aspects that were standing in the way of progress and looking for creative new options.

Sustainability transformation usually involves changing many aspects of a system, in terms of physical processes, social routines, and mental habits. It brings up many challenges that can only be solved if we adopt a very reflective, open, learning attitude—individually, but also in our work groups, change teams, leadership roles, and other professional relationships.

The first thing that sustainability transformation requires of us is the recognition of the scale of the change: big; comprehensive; containing within it many smaller changes, opportunities, and problems to solve. Facilitating a sustainability transformation means facilitating many moments of change—and supporting others to do the same.

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