I recently turned the big three-oh and it looks like the rumour was true, that transitioning into a new decade sure enough generates a fair share of personal analysis and reflection. The past couple of weeks I’ve found myself spending a lot of time looking back at the preceding 10 years of my life in search for clues, events, and ideas that have helped shape my current outlook on life. There have of course been many, and in an attempt to string them together into a cohesive story I figured I’d share them on this here blog… So what you’re about to jump into is a map of my own trajectory and development… it’s not gonna be a big melodramatic piece on loves and loves lost, rather it will be a piece which channels my experiences and insights through the lens of my passion and field of work: sustainability.
So my learning journey within sustainability has been pretty remarkable, bringing me through many iterations and evolutions of understanding, from near eco-illiteracy to explorations of enlightenment itself… looking back at this past decade, I can identify an incredible amount of growth that has emerged… my view of the world and how I relate to it has radically shifted over these years. And it is from this evolving story that I feel a lot can be learned in regards to larger institutional or societal scales in regards to sustainability… the second half of this article will be drawn from this insight.
But this particular story starts like this… about 7-8 years ago I was fresh out of college and looking for a gig within the design world… fashion, graphic, interior, at that point it didn’t really matter. I spent some time hopping around from city to city, job to job, feeling out the ‘real world’ before coming across green design. This nascent concept scratched many of my inquisitive itches and acted as a catalyst for further exploration. I found myself wanting to learn through experience and began embodying many of the things I was reading about: recycling, buying organic food, using canvas shopping bags and reusable travel mugs, being energy/water/waste conscious, offsetting carbon emissions, etc… The result of this lifestyle trialing was an increased sensitivity to not only my own actions but also those of others. I noticed myself accumulating hostilities towards others whom I’d catch throwing recyclables in the garbage, using plastic bags at supermarkets, leaving faucets running too long, etc… I quickly realized that menacing glares wouldn’t do much good in these situations, so I decided to be a bit more outspoken about my newly acquired views and openly discuss with friends and family how they might themselves consider living greener. It didn’t take long to figure out that trying to tweak others’ behaviours and personal consumption patterns was about as effective at addressing sustainability as trying to drain an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an eyedropper… ie, not so much!
So building upon and somewhat transcending this initial phase, I started my own green design business. I decided to use residences and small organizations as platforms to apply sustainability in tangible ways. I quickly became an expert in green products and material procurement and how to creatively use them within the built environment. It was great, I was making waves, getting projects in publications, making a decent living, and leading lectures on green design throughout the country… but alas, I ran into the same problem of scalability and influence. I was still merely nibbling at the edges with what I was doing and communicating to others… I needed more.
I followed the thread deeper… I followed it to systems thinking, quantum physics, natural capitalism, and eco-psychology (amongst other things) in an attempt to better understand the interconnectedness of everything and our relationship with the earth at personal and cultural levels… I fully sensed that beneath this sustainability thing was a much deeper undercurrent of existential questions that were rarely asked within mainstream thinking… things like: why do we consume? why do we separate ourselves from nature? and, how do we relate to the future? At this point I began uncovering the flaws, setbacks and ineffectiveness of traditional sustainability initiatives and began exploring more creative and regenerative approaches to driving change… I started championing thrivability and the Living Building Challenge as attempts to distance myself from sustainability-as-usual… I became increasingly disinterested in things like The Triple Bottom Line, Corporate Social Responsibility and LEED certification… too friggin’ boring and in all honesty, not nearly good enough anyway! Professionally, I began offering consulting services to small businesses in addition to aesthetic design and product recommendations. I lusted for the whole organizational pie, not just a single piece of it… I wanted to effect supply chains, marketing campaigns, energy, water, and waste operations, and yes of course, work cultures. I wanted it all, and guess what, I didn’t find many who were interested in what I had to say… too general… I was no longer a specialist.
So feeling somewhat frustrated and stagnant, I picked up and moved to Europe to challenge myself in a new environment. Once East of the Atlantic, my learning journey accelerated… I began experiencing in relative frequency the powers of collective intelligence, interdisciplinary collaboration, appreciative inquiry and deeper reflection. My mind and correspondingly my work began to be much more focused on influencing change at scale… I was delving headfirst into big issues and theories like placemaking, behavioral economics, chaordic systems and integral philosophy. And the projects I found myself taking part in were equally exciting and substantial… urban regeneration projects in London, groundbreaking trans-disciplinary higher education programs, etc… By this point I had fully realized that changing rules and shattering assumptions were prerequisites for any chance at meaningful change… I gathered that if one was truly serious about herding the proverbial cats, they would have to tilt the floor… no more chasing those bastards around one by one!
While in Europe, I found myself wading through a steady stream of deep and meaningful conversations with resonant, international, and trans-disciplinary social innovators and changemakers. A new language seemed to arise within this collective: co-creation, emergence, presencing, harvesting, thrivable… and accompanying this group’s unique vocabulary was a somewhat standard set of interactions… hugs instead of handshakes, conversations in circles instead of long tables, deep listening and confident eye contact instead of drifting ears and wandering gazes… there were many more vegetarians, bicycle riders, chefs, intellectuals, gardeners, authors, yogis, musicians, and storytellers… it was beautiful, and IS beautiful, because this is my reality now… : )
And it is here that I’ve come to realize the extent of my journey… in a mere 7 years, I’ve effectively navigated a tumultuous landscape of information and influence and consciously evolved my awareness from that of an eco-laymen to a level well beyond the rest of the sustainability pack. This new level finds me in somewhat uncharted cultural territory, piloting regenerative philosophies, realigning artificial with natural at scale, exploring the leading edge of our collective potential, etc.
Ok, ok… so what gives?
Well a lot actually… certainly much more than one dude’s personal and professional development. You see, what I’ve come to recognize is that this learning journey of mine can be used as a fantastic lens into the type of evolution that needs to take place in much larger contexts, institutional and even cultural ones. Yes, quite a bold and seemingly narcissistic statement. Why might I say such a thing? I’ll let you in after the break…
Ok, I say such a because society is in one hell of a bind, and that massive changes in perception and understanding of how we relate to the world are imperative for our survival into the future. It is from this change in perception (or mental models) that I feel my own journey can provide some insight… and it can’t happen soon enough.
Basically, what we’re up against in the coming years will be unlike anything humanity has ever faced before… the sustainability challenge will absorb, transcend, complicate and magnify a wide ranging spectrum of tests and trials we’ve confronted over the millennia. Imagine taking the energy crisis of the 70′s, the ongoing struggles of preserving ecosystems during rapid globalization of the 19-20th centuries, the cultural oppression of imperialistic regimes of the 19th century (think big oil fighting to maintain the status quo), the financial climate of the Great Depression, the political tensions of the Cold War (think geoengineering in 10 years time), and the social fatalism of the Dark Ages, and putting them all into a bag and giving it a good shake… look inside and guess what you’ll see? Bingo, the sustainability challenge! And let’s go ahead and throw a nice little time bomb into the mix… we have a single generation to fundamentally figure this one out.
It’s difficult enough getting everyone to understand what’s going on, but imagine the coordination effort necessary to actually implement the changes that are necessary. Let’s not think the Manhattan Project… let’s think the whole of World War II, only with all the antagonists on the same side! Long story short, we have our work cut out for us, and an immense amount of contemplation, collaboration, and action are required in the years ahead…
With a bit of global context now, let’s now go back to the changing perspectives bit… As I’m sure you picked up from the first several paragraphs of this piece, the trajectory of my perspectives and mental models expanded quite significantly over the years from an individualistic approach to a collective and regenerative one. A particularly fascinating discovery I made several years ago was that my expansion of perspectives was not unique to me or that of any other individual, but is very much culturally driven and evolutionary in its nature. Essentially, I realized that cultures can be seen to evolve in a very similar manner that individuals do with corresponding phases of infancy, adolescence, and adulthood. Starting a couple hundred thousand years ago, humans roamed the lands as hunters and gatherers and were very much driven by survival. This was very much a mental model of infancy, with concerns primarily being that of meeting daily needs. A long and ongoing phase of adolescence then found us banding together as groups with self-interests, ie tribes, kingdoms, and empires. This can correlate to the personal development of teenagers, who primarily emphasize only with others that look, act, dress, and think like them… the majority of concerns for teenagers deal with what’s best for one’s own group. And it’s from this adolescent phase that it appears our contemporary cultural story resides, as nation-states feuding for resources and power is still the de-facto model of development. The unfortunate reality is that this current worldview or mental model is quite literally incapable of dealing with global challenges like climate change, ocean acidification, and deforestation. By focusing on self or group interests, the rights of those who suffer from global inequality, the rights of nature and biodiversity, and the rights of future generations continue to be unheard… these rights, when brought together, essentially encompass sustainability.
So in this cultural context, sustainability can ultimately be seen as a developing phase of adulthood. In individuals, adulthood emerges out of adolescence through a naturally maturing process of shifting morals, responsibilities, and perspectives. Cultural adulthood is no different, as it too requires an incorporation of broader morals, responsibilities, and perspectives. But of course transitioning civilization into sustainability, or adulthood, is much easier said than done if it’s not ready or willing to change itself… imagine trying to pull a 13 year old away from playing video games to go voluntarily pick up litter in a public park. Damn near impossible, eh? Now try getting several billion people mostly set on satisfying self-interests to consistently think from biodiverse and future-based frames of mind… hoowee, that’s a whole other type of challenge! But that is exactly what the world needs to appropriately address the challenges ahead.
And at the most basic of levels, this story of evolving cultures is perfectly in line with Darwinian evolution. One of the greatest travesties of modern times is the distortion of Darwin’s primary message, ‘survival of the fittest’. It was never intended to represent natural selection, rewarding the bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter. It was rather said as a metaphor for ‘better acting in a local environment’ which if reinterpreted as ‘survival of the fitting‘ can quite accurately encompasses the core of the sustainability movement… how can we fit in with the natural environment of which we are a part of?
Understanding this evolutionary process is massively exciting, but conversely daunting as we have to be fully aware of the paradox of our current standing… this slowly emerging cultural condition is running full speed into the unrelenting sustainability challenge that was mentioned earlier. We fundamentally do not have the privilege of sitting back and passively waiting for the process to unfold itself, because quite frankly if we do, it would be civilisation suicide. To meaningfully address the challenges in front of us, our institutions and cultures must consciously accelerate their own growth to encompass broader and more unified perspectives. They must transition out of isolated self-interests (adolescence) and into sustainability thinking (adulthood).
I feel that clues from my own learning journey can provide meaningful insights to this expansion. Before I launched into this sustainability thing 8 years ago, my own worldview was very much aligned with traditional mainstream thinking… I ate a whole lot of meat, spewed garbage everywhere, drove 15,000 miles a year, cared little about the consequences of my actions, and often treated those that were different from me rudely. Seeing this as a starting point from which so many people currently reside, I sense that my experiences and insights may be able to provide value by mapping and accelerating the development of others yearning for transformational change themselves.
So, winding down with a few queries here…
What practices can you as an individual do to expand your perspective and be more empathic, open, and aware?
What barriers or blockages must be addressed to accelerate our collective evolution?
What philosophies, principles, or tools can be used to guide institutions and cultures in presencing their greatest potential?