Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Embrace Your Inner Hypocrite"

Today's guest blog is from Adam Werbach, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S and author of Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto. He has a blog on the book's website. Save! - KR

I once was at a small art opening at a new gallery in San Francisco filled with svelte smart-looking people who all seemed to be talking about the modern relevance of surrealism, while drinking bright blue cocktails. A forty-something man with a tightly trimmed beard approached me. “You’re Adam Werbach right?” he said, stepping into the space that pegged him as a Seinfeldian close-talker.

“Yes,” I said, stepping back slightly. He stepped in closer. “I heard that you don’t recycle,” he said, loudly and triumphantly as if he were Joseph McCarthy pointing out a known enemy of the state. I think he expected there to be gasps in the room; perhaps a woman feinting dramatically. No one really noticed. He continued to tell me that he had a friend who had seen that I hadn’t put out a blue bin in front of my apartment that week, and he wanted to know how I could be such a hypocrite.

I’ve come to expect scrutiny of my personal life as a public advocate for sustainability. It’s understandable. People want to know whether all of this talk is real or just an act. Sure, I recycle and compost. I try to bike or walk to work most days. I’ve got solar power and a solar hydronic system for heat and water. I eat very little meat. I use reusable shopping bags most of the time. I don’t drink bottled water.

But that’s not the whole story. From a carbon standpoint all of those efforts are blown away by my use of airplanes. I fly more distance than an albatross each year, clocking about 150,000 air miles, which represents about 30 tons of CO2. That’s more than the average American and thirty times what an average Indian emits. I’m working now to reduce my air travel, through video-conferencing and better trip-planning, but nonetheless I’m contributing more CO2 to the atmosphere than I should. So, am I hyprocrite? Perhaps. But I don’t spend much time beating myself up over it.

The best approach is not to try to make people feel badly for the choices they make. To tackle climate change and resource shortages we need a combination of personal actions (like reducing air travel) and structural change (like finding non-polluting fuels for planes). There are two camps of activists on this point. Some people believe that the goal is 100% personal accountability. These people source their own food locally, weave their own clothing and go to bed in a cold house warmed by their own self-satisfaction. The other group believes that small steps don’t matter at all, and are a distraction from the larger structural changes we need. “Forget changing the lights bulbs,” they say. “We need to change the system.”

We’ll need both approaches if we’re going to figure out how to live on this planet. Taking small steps in your personal life is not only good for the planet, it’s good for you. And those small steps need larger systemic changes (like putting a price on carbon) in order to ladder up to the scale of change that we need.

So embrace your inner-hypocrite, do a little something each day to try to improve, and don’t forget about the bigger picture.