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Thought Leader Series ASU Wrigley Institute News

November 15, 2017

Alan AtKisson wearing a dark blazer and smilingA Thought Leader Series Piece

by Alan AtKisson

When it comes to sustainability as it is practiced today, I helped get a number of things started, from the use of sustainability indicators, to the concept of training “sustainability change agents," to the search for measures of our planet’s ecological boundaries, to weaving the concept of sustainability into the practice of developing the “Blue Economy” – the economy of our oceans and seas.

By making this statement, I do not mean to imply that I take credit for those things — far from it. The emphasis is on “helped." These were processes that would have happened anyway, no doubt. I was just lucky enough to be around in their early, generative moments, and to lend a hand.

Don’t worry: the main purpose of this short article is not to reminisce, as you will see, but to look ahead and reflect on what the sustainability movement needs going forward. But sometimes, to see the way ahead clearly, we have to look back.

Sustainability people have generally tended to think of themselves as pioneers. As a certified pioneer, working in the field since 1988, I can confirm that the role has its pleasures. It’s like coming upon a covered wagon stuck in a ditch. Together with other people, you put your shoulder against the problem, and push. It’s satisfying when the wagon starts rolling away.

No one who sees the wagon roll by later is going to think much about who got it rolling in the first place. Or know just how much pushing was involved. And that is just as it should be.

But these days, the sustainability movement does not need as much “pioneer pushing” as it did before. It needs other processes, other metaphors. To stretch the pioneer metaphor to the breaking point: the movement today is more like a set of great wagon trains, rolling unstoppably, attracting more and more people to join.

People, companies and institutions are joining those wagon trains because sustainability has become the “land of opportunity.” Consider climate change: it’s amazing to me that naysayers are still given the time of day, much less a political mandate, when an army of sustainability wagon trains – all around the world – is heading resolutely, and profitably, towards a renewable energy future.

But while the movement may be rolling unstoppably, it is not rolling optimally. Time is short. The stakes are huge. We need to do more, better, faster. We need to stop being pioneers. We need to become an army.

Speaking of armies, one of the things I helped get rolling was the U.S. Army’s sustainability transformation. Working with the Army’s own pioneers in the early 2000s, I visited bases in the U.S. and Europe to kick off processes of change in how they managed their energy, water, community engagement and other systems. While drafting this article, I read that Fort Hood, Texas — the largest army base in the U.S. — is now getting more than half its electricity from renewables.

“We need to be autonomous,” said a U.S. Army spokesperson, underscoring the reason they started this transformation in the first place – to increase national security.

Of course, I’m a little proud to have helped at the start. But I’m a lot happier about where the process has gone since then — because it is evidence that it’s been both pushed and led in a focused way, by thousands of people, over many years.

One of the things that always struck me when I was consulting to the U.S. Army was how different it was from working with companies or governments. Yes, there was the obvious factor of having a chain of command: if the base commander said, “Do it,” people did it. That certainly helped with the implementation aspect.

But there were other factors that were far more important than simply following orders. I view sustainability as a mission: something we absolutely must do. Once you understand that the existential risks to ecosystems and human systems are both real and deadly serious, you cannot easily walk away from this work. It becomes a calling.

And Army people, though not all of them agree with all the tenets of sustainability, certainly understood the nature of a mission, and the focus and dedication with which a mission must be approached — much better than I did, since they were putting their lives on the line for the mission of keeping the nation safe.

So I never had to explain to them what I meant when I said, “Sustainability is serious.”

Secondly, there is a deep appreciation in the Army for the concept of meritorious leadership. Nobody achieves an advancement in rank without proving that they deserve it — not just with knowledge and experience, but with bravery, and the ability to set an example for others. In the Army, you don’t “fake it till you make it.” You either do it or you don’t, and you practice before you preach.

Finally, armies have an ability to do bold things – at scale, quickly – by mobilizing large numbers of people around a common goal. And by now, you should be able to surmise why I am dwelling on this topic: because I think today’s sustainability movement, which is growing fast but must grow faster still, needs more of just these qualities.

A deep and widely-held sense of mission. Brave and meritorious leadership at the helm of our institutions, supported by a cascade of motivated leaders at every level of service. And bold, large-scale goals, with ambitious timelines, matched to the scale of the challenges at hand.

That’s what is called for now, throughout the global movement for sustainable development. This is even more true now than when I called, in the final chapter of my 2008 book The Sustainability Transformation, for “An Army for Sustainability.”

Because starting processes is one thing; seeing the mission of transformation through to its conclusion is quite another.

Alan AtKisson is an author, songwriter and senior consultant in the field of sustainable development. He was elected into the Sustainability Hall of Fame in 2013, and made a full member of the Club of Rome in 2015. His most recent book, with Axel Klimek, is called “Parachuting Cats into Borneo - and Other Lessons from the Change Café” (2016).

© 2017 by Alan AtKisson