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Dysfunction #1: Small Thinking

I can’t tell you how many times I used to have this conversation:

“What do you do?”

I work on sustainability.

“Oh……” eyes dart, face falls in bewilderment.

I should have just said: I work on things of complete irrelevance to your immediate concerns so if you ever have the occasion to consider existential threats to human existence, give me a call.

8 Dysfunctions of Sustainability: Dysfunction #1 is Small Thinking

A small committed group of citizens won’t be enough

Margaret Mead was wrong.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

If she ever actually even said these words which it appears she did not. It is something aligned with her research and writing so people go with it. It expresses a universal truth and commends us for sticking together and sticking to it.

There are surely thousands of people with this quote in their email signature, Instagram and What’s App profile, emblazoned on Power Point presentations and as the lead quote for student papers across the country, if not around the world. If you want to get treehuggers and social justice people excited, use this quote! They will be like puddy in your hands. Their heads will nod almost uncontrollably. Their eyes will narrow and they will set their chin in stubborn commitment to their cause.

But there is a problem: it takes more than just a small group of committed citizens to change the world. It takes a lot of money and a lot of resources and a lot of political connections. Let's get real. A small group of concerned citizens is essential. Do not hear what I am not saying. A small group of concerned citizens is critical…but not sufficient.

And the only thing to change the world? Seriously? In 2008, after Wall Street had stuffed itself with money and fake money, it had a heartburn that caused 34 million jobs to be lost around the world. There is a huge list of people that have changed the world without Mead’s ideal of a “small group of concerned citizens”: Oprah Winfrey, Lisa Nichols, Jeff Bezos, Sam Walton, Tony Robbins, and Jack Ma (Alibaba Group). There are hundreds of examples.

In my experience, sustainable folks are real nice and like spending time together in small groups of concerned citizens. Small groups with small ideas reading books like "Small is Beautiful". This thinking has led us to celebrate the parochial and to denigrate the global; to eschew money for mission; and to shrink the world just so our actions look larger in comparison.


Think Like an Entrepreneur

A popular phrase in the early days of the environmental roots of this movement was “Think Like a Mountain” by Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac, but we would be better served today to also say “Think Like a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur”. Steve Jobs spoke about “making a dent in the universe” and talent flocked to his vision. These entrepreneurs have the audacity to consider products and business models that will change markets, disrupt incumbents and truly change the world.

Meanwhile, I go to sustainability conferences and we talk about using behavioral change techniques to get people to recycle and turn off the lights or take a few elective courses in sustainability or put out a better sustainability report or shave a few bunions off our carbon footprint.

These entrepreneurs have no business thinking so large, so ambitious. And we have no business thinking so small.

We have succeeded in making ourselves inconsequential. And allowed our cause to be sidelined, to become a convenient, well-behaved data point, a line in an executive’s speech about educating tomorrow’s leaders, reducing emissions, and being more “sustainable.”

Instead of being a priority we have become a pet. Instead of being a central concern, we have allowed ourselves to become cute, soft, good company, to be trotted out for entertainment, to win a grant, for a sustainability report or on parent’s weekend.

And I must say something else: we seem to be okay with it. We are treated like we are lucky just to be on the payroll. And we act like it too! After all, the institution is struggling financially and we all have to tighten our belt, do more with less, and become okay with living below our potential. Perhaps we have come to believe this and are happy just to punch the clock, make things worse at a slower rate, and stop at the farmer’s market on the home.

This is outrageous.

But instead of retooling and skilling up, we set up shop outside the big tent. Instead of developing the act that will get us in the main event, instead of reading the books, attending the trainings, gaining the mentors, and sacrificing who we are for who we must become…..we are like the men Victor Frankl describes in the concentration camps described in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl describes a certain state of despair that would come over some prisoners. It had predictable signs recognizable by everyone. Morning would come and instead of getting up, the man would stay in bed. Despite beating after beating, he would not rise to work. He would light a cigarrete if he had one and sit. He had given up and everyone knew, would soon be dead.

Similarly, don’t our dreams of a better world also die? The dissonance is painful, I get it. For self-preservation we have to either change the vision or convince ourselves we are achieving it. Neither approach works. If you can't take the global warming heat, get out of the kitchen.

And if we become really upset, we retrench. We look to the Margaret Mead quote in the signature of our email and retreat to our small group of concerned citizens and do nothing of consequence. We might have some enlightened discussion of institutional barriers (a euphemism for blaming and complaining). We won’t examine our approach, our lack of skills, and our lack of resources. We won’t even reflect on how bad we are at running a good meeting or writing an effective proposal. Even these little things escape us.

We are too enlightened to blame others explicitly. We know that is not effective. But we secretly believe that it is all the “red tape” and “lack of awareness” that is the problem. It is “them” and not “us.”

We don’t have the monopoly on BIG problems

When we say that climate change is the most pressing issue facing humanity, we sound callous, out-of-touch, and pretentious. I remember Bernie Sanders talked about climate change as the most pressing national security issue. Like others, I was glad big issues were being discussed on the national stage. Climate change is indeed a human-existence threatening issue. But...this is ludicrous.

When we sustainable folks say stuff like this we sound out-of-touch, pretentious, and privileged.

I wish it was that easy. I wish climate change was the unanimous choice of number one issue facing humankind. Unfortunately, it has to stand in line. The pushing and shoving to be #1 issue looks like a Best Buy when a new iPhone is released.

  • Opioid crisis

  • Sexual harassment and violence against women

  • Racism

  • Forced and child labor

  • Teenage suicide rates

  • Obesity

  • Eating Disorders

  • Mass shootings

  • Terrorism

  • Income inequality

All vying to be #1. How can we appear ignorant of all this suffering and push our way to the front of the line with our climate crisis headlines and requests for investments in clean energy? Do not pretend it is so simple. And do not condemn other legitimate urgencies and those fighting for their lives.

Show your genuine care and interest in other people’s problems. Become more interesting and interested.

I can’t tell you how many times I used to have this conversation:

“What do you do?”

I work on sustainability.


I should have just said: I work on things of complete irrelevance to your immediate concerns so if you ever have the occasion to consider existential threats to human existence, give me a call.

So now, I don’t work on sustainability anymore. I work on leadership, entrepreneurship, learning and teaching excellence, jobs training, business process improvement and creativity and innovation.

“Oh cool, when can we get together?”

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