Monday, October 13, 2008

Toward Sustainability: Obligation to Opportunity

Last week I talked about heading from Green to True Blue. My logic was simple: Green has become table stakes in our efforts to make this world a better place for everyone. If we can’t get the environment right, we might as well just pack up our tents. Of course while this is true, it’s very high level. Most of our environmental problems are intensely complex and their practical resolution excludes most of us. But while we might not be able to change the course of rivers or genetically recover a species, we certainly can help affect aspirations and priorities, and this is where I think there has been a real failure of leadership. We seem to be suffering from a kind of Obligation Fatigue. Even important figures like Al Gore push generalized obligation, tinged with personal failure. This is not the way to motivate and mobilize people. Scare them, yes. Inspire them, no.

Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a nightmare.” He said, “I have a dream”. I believe that until people feel inspired emotionally with the potential of sustainability, we’ll simply keep running on the spot. After all, sustainability means nothing less than a revolution in how people will live and the biggest business opportunity of the next 50 years. You sure can’t squeeze all that into the straitjacket of known obligations.

Many of you will be familiar with the tool called SWOT. With SWOT you look at your challenges through four very different lenses: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. You don’t have to have done Brain Surgery 101 to understand the Threats and Weaknesses in an unsustainable world, but I’ve found that Opportunities and Strengths are where people come alive. We can move from Green’s focus on impending disaster to Blue’s belief in the human spirit and human ingenuity. From being burdened with obligation to being inspired by opportunity. This is the only way we can reach a solution the size of the challenge. A challenge to make sustainability come alive for 6.6 billion people.


Anonymous said...

You are on fire KR.. a reflecting the deeper side of KR rather
than the one that discusses "best place to stuff your face" in some exotic location or who you trounced in tennis this week.
Strengths and opportunities focus, the lights that brighten dark times.
RobLoud BrisVegas

thirstyfish said...

Bravo Kevin! "Selling morality" is the dark shadow of the green sustainability movement. Frankly, its what stands in the way of many social change initiatives.

From a brand storytelling perspective, organizations have to learn how to connect to the universal storylines inherent in their work.

At a basic level, we all want the same things - to feel secure, loved, appreciated, connected, etc...Reminding people of what they lack and that doomsday is around the corner, only breeds further denial and narcissistic "self-preservation"

We need new stories of sustainability that get us involved in feeling more connected to people and the environment. The more we separate and make "sustainability" our personal badge of honor and self-righteouness, the further away we get from true sustainability.

I'd be curious to hear how Saatchi & Saatchi S is breaking the old hum-drum of sustainability "do-gooderism" and building an authentic story of our sustainability that exists today, in this moment, right now...

Michael Margolis
Brand Storytelling

mark mccaffrey said...

Actually, Martin Luther King did start his famous speech by describing the nightmare of oppression that black people were experiencing. He had been asked by the President not to march on Washington and was not in a good mood when he started the speech. He was about the loose the crowd with his rant on all the challenges people of color were experiencing when Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer who had been traveling with him, said "Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream." So he did, and it turned the tide.

So the nightmare has a place in the discussion-- and in the case of climate the nightmare is dire: fossil fuel (buried solar energy) emissions higher than any imagined business as usual scenario, temperatures that have a 20% chance of increasing 20 degrees F over continents which would be catastrophic, and a political and economic system that thus far seems paralyzed to really make the big changes necessary. Even Wal-Mart, which showed tremendous leadership in the past few years, has been slow at making dramatic demonstrations to what a sustainable future will look like.

I had the chance to ask Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado the other day how important he feels climate literacy is to the new energy economy (which he champions) and a sustainable future, because some folks seem to think it's not important the causes of climate change, just go to the solutions. He said he thought climate literacy was hugely important.... AND people need to know there are opportunities and options.

A GREEN BLUE alliance (rather than what feels like a new polarization in the making) makes sense to me: green for photosynthesis, blue for the sky is the limit in terms of opportunities.

Anyone read Michael Pollan's fantastic letter in the NY Times Magazine to the next President of the US: Farmer in Chief:
I love the idea of putting a garden on the south lawn of the White House for practical and symbolic reasons. This article should be required reading for this community, and folks like Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott who can make a difference on a scale that will have a huge ripple effect.


Charlotte said...

This is exactly the way I think and have done for ever. I remember going through university and focussing on the positive aspects of environmentalism, such as promoting organics as an exciting way forward for the west coast of the South Island when Helen Clark was just coming into power (yes, it was little radical i will admit, but exciting) and having my hand swatted because my ideas were deamed 'unrealistic'. Sure they were, but hey! I was dreaming, and every action begins with a dream. How else do we move forward? I mean, how else was the light bulb invented, or The Bone People finally published, or Space finally experienced? While I found that feedback from my proffessor hard to swallow, I've never lost sight of the fact that people will do anything for a cause when their hearts are engaged and their spirits are lit up with possibility. As they say in the world of Permaculture: for every one problem there are many solutions. I love this about life - there are always ways through, and it starts with a vision, or an ideal to move towards. It can all became very exciting actually. This was why I dreamed up Happyzine, to celebrate the myriad of possibilities and solutions to any one challange, to illuminate our brilliance, in a media culture where just the opposite is focussed upon. Go the brave optimists and keep on dreaming!