We need to be inspirational realists to tackle climate change & sustainability

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Positive visions of a sustainable future are making me increasingly uneasy. Of course I know why such visions are used: to engage people — to win hearts and minds. And at one level I agree with this strategy.

But this approach sits uncomfortably with me for two reasons. Firstly, it’s dishonest; secondly, it actually constrains our collective and individual responses to problems facing us.

Addressing climate change, reducing humanity’s ecological footprint to a level the earth can sustain, and avoiding overstepping other planetary boundaries, will require significant changes in the ways we live and the ways society operates — ‘business as usual with green bits’ will not do. (If you don’t share this view, you don’t need to read any further.)

Longtime environmental activist and scholar Joanna Macy writes:

We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs.

Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society.

And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning.

“If there is a livable world for them.” How rarely we see that if.

Many argue that even acknowledging the possibility of failure is to invite failure. After all, would a successful coach invite the team to consider the possibility of defeat before the match? This tactic may be appropriate in some circumstances; but life is a little more complicated than football.

A few examples:

And let’s not forget that many indicators of health and wellbeing are stagnant or only rising slowly, while the expectations of development put even more pressure on the planet.

Even in the face of all this, very few public pronouncements from governments, NGOs and others on sustainability will admit the possibility of failure.

Just one more push they so often say.

We need to stop pretending

It’s time to embrace uncertainty and accept that our hopes might be dashed and our fears realised. Privately people often tell me they share these views, but feel unable to air them. Too many of us bottle up our fears and live a lie.

Some people will argue that such honesty will put back the cause of sustainability, because we can no longer ‘sell’ a ‘positive vision’. They will point out that fear as a strategy for change has little chance of success. I agree that fear is a bad strategy.

Courageous campaigns of the past are often held up as examples of inspirational campaigns that the sustainability ‘movement’ should emulate. Unfortunately sustainability is fundamentally different.

Campaigns for racial equality, votes for women, the abolition of slavery etc may face significant reverses — but they nearlyCampaigns to prevent cultural genocide and save endangered languages would be exceptions. always have the potential, in time, to bounce back and breakthrough, even if the change may be too late for individuals in a particular generation.

With sustainability we risk crossing the point of no return for the systems that sustain us on our planet. The systems may not bounce back — indeed they may breakthrough to create an environment that human civilisation has never experienced.

Without recognising this possibility, all ‘positive visions’ of sustainability are incredible — literally, impossible to believe.

Anyone concerned enough to pay attention only has to look at contradictions in government policies and actions, and the way as a society we are locked into unsustainable systems that are remarkably resilient (in a bad way), and the latest failures of international climate and sustainability diplomacy to have very real doubts about the chance of success of the various versions of business-as-usual-with-green-bits that we are usually offered.

Being honest about the situation is not giving up

It’s about opening up the space for more credible ways to transform society towards a flourishing future — while also developing our skills to support ourselves and each other in the hope, but no certainty, of success.

It’s only when we face our fears and in doing so accept the need for radical change that truly inspiring — and credible — dreams of the future can emerge.

This opening up to uncertainty may be challenging; I’ve certainly been on a journey to arrive at this point, and I’m still working this through.

It is, I feel, particularly difficult for those of us professionals and practitioners who are under implicit or explicit obligations to clients, employers and stakeholders to be ‘strategic optimists’.

Can we be inspirational realists?

Can we find ways of working and being that are true ourselves, while inspiring and supporting others to build our collective capacity to flourish in the face of uncertainty? I believe we can and I have some ideas — if you share these dilemmas I’d love to hear your thoughts.