Let’s start with a brief multiple choice survey. When you think of the word “sustainability,” which of the following three choices comes to mind?
- It is a left-wing, progressive concept.
- It is apolitical.
- It is a right-wing, conservative concept.
I suspect most of you answered “A” or “B.” Assuming that’s accurate, therein lies the political dilemma around sustainability initiatives. Let me explain.
Some opinion makers and every day Internet users who self-identify on the conservative side of the political spectrum assert that sustainability is a “pernicious liberal idea,” often equated with “green” environmental issues. (Sustainability: Conservative or Liberal? March 12, 2011, jvhillegas) Members of the TEA Party are troubled by sustainable development, and see it as a prime example of “government forces [that] are making their move for total control of our lives.”
Now, with Trump’s actions of his first days in office, climate change and many other federal “good for the globe” sustainability initiatives are being taken off the table. As the president begins effecting his protectionist and isolationist policies, his retreat from Obama’s sustainability path seriously discounts the longer term future. His actions undermine the lives and futures of millions of others, among them my 19, 30 and 33-year-old children, their peers, my unborn grandchildren, and those who will come later.
It scares me and I bet it scares most of you. And the good part about fear is that it can motivate one to channel their energy, flipping the negative to a positive and focusing on something entirely more productive and fruitful.
So let me share my sustainability journey and what I am becoming enmeshed in so that I can feel empowered within this current political climate.
About eight years ago, I picked up a book by one of my intellectual heroes, Peter Senge, and his colleagues. “The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World” called to me soulfully just as deeply as “The Fifth Discipline” and its accompanying “Fieldbook” had called to me professionally and intellectually.
While reading it and filling the entire book with post-its, turned down corners, and penciled scribbles, every page felt more like a sucker punch in the gut. I felt the need to act.
According to Senge et.al’s book, we know that residential, industrial and commercial buildings consume far more energy than vehicles. Taken together, worldwide, buildings double the greenhouse gas emissions that cars produce. If that was true, I was willing to tackle that problem, at least locally. I could teach people how to how to become change agents, how to develop and manage an internal project to increase energy efficiency, get the necessary organizational stakeholders on board and create momentum, regardless of their position or level in the organization. I had been a leadership educator for more than 30 years, and had been working for the last nine years for a Philadelphia-based global NGO using a positive and appreciative project-based approach. I believed I had the skill set to make a small dent in the massive climate change challenge.
Overtures I made for the next year or so with local universities and local business networks produced no takers of my idea for a leadership program that developed sustainability change agents. In retrospect, it might have been the timing. We were not far from the crash of 2008, and people were not risking much or generating new initiatives. I tabled the idea.
Then my lens changed. I heard about the original 2009 Appreciative Inquiry Summit that David Cooperrider had championed in Cleveland. This sustainability initiative imagined Cleveland as a “Green City on a Blue Lake” by the year 2019. I knew that those of us who had enough political heft in our local communities may have a pathway to affect change by thinking local, acting local, and using the 4-D Ai model.
But sustainability as a general concept still felt too “gooshy” and, for many people, too far left of a political center.
I do not need to sell or persuade others about appreciative inquiry to anyone that reads this blog. You know its potential power. Again, to quote Senge’s work — we know that sustainable solutions require institutions to work together. “The modern world is completely interconnected. It represents a complex network of governments, businesses and other organizations that affect how people live, and the energy and products they consume. This vast network shares similar, connected sustainability problems and must develop group solutions.”
So let’s speed forward to 2015.
In my own township Catherine Clark (a pseudonym), a local buddy, was being an incessant one-woman bulldozer to establish baseline metrics using a new national community rating system called STAR – Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating communities. As a citizen leader she, along with some support from her local civic association, was driving the entire process. What I loved about the STAR framework was its comprehensive capacity for evaluating local sustainability, encompassing economic, environmental, and social performance measures. It includes seven categories: 1) the built environment, 2) climate and energy, 3) the economy and jobs, 4) education, arts and community, 5) equity and empowerment, 6) health and safety, and 7) natural systems.
More than that, the framework FELT APOLITICAL. According to Hilari Varnadore, STAR Communities executive director, “STAR’s comprehensive approach to economic, social and environmental sustainability has proved to be an inclusive and transformative way for cities and counties to measure performance and make improvements to their communities.”
In March of 2015, Catherine’s energy created an invitation for my township to participate in the STAR Leadership Program. The idea was that, with extensive support from STAR Communities staff, leadership communities work through the STAR Community Rating System together, with a goal of becoming certified. Through Catherine’s efforts and those of a new township manager, my community received a three-STAR (out of possible five) rating in late June of 2016.
Hundreds of cities, towns and counties are actively using the STAR Community Rating System as their sustainability framework and certification program. Participating communities report that the program helped them gain a deep understanding of their community’s strengths and needs and has provided a springboard for civic engagement, cross-agency coordination, integrated budgeting and performance management, partnerships with philanthropy, and economic development.
Now that the 3-star (out of 5) benchmark in my community has been established, there is momentum to try and bring our 50,000+ person township together to develop a vision and next steps, using the appreciative inquiry process and 4-D model. Attempts are underway to bring four anchor organizations in my community together as co-sponsors and collaborators in the work.
We imagine an 18-month effort that:
- Involves 5 -10% of the Township, either as direct participants, interviewees, or K-12/college students that would serve, in part, as interviewers.
- Uses the STAR framework as a tool to help build on areas of strength, leveraging community resources to excel in areas where there is room for improvement.
- Creates an awareness among community leaders of the STAR rating system so that they can become ambassadors and advocates for improving our current metrics.
- Brings citizens of the township together, in collaboration with the sponsors, to take responsibility for increasing our community’s metrics in all seven dimensions.
- Develops an infrastructure and the generation of necessary resources to institutionalize STAR sustainability practices throughout the community.
Despite the current national political climate, I am hopeful and brimming with optimism, with idealism, that the effort described above can happen locally. And, it has the potential to be a generic template for communities across the nation by wedding the STAR model, the Appreciative Inquiry philosophy, and 4-D processes.
All of us must think local. We can act local. And we can be apolitical – working “across the aisle” – to move our communities forward as federal government efforts retreat. As Albert Einstein once said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.” I, for one, hope to be part of developing solutions in my own backyard.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com
Ray Wells, Ph.D., is a consulting partner with the Corporation for Positive Change, president of Wellbeing Systems, Inc., and Associate Director of the FAIMER Institute. His last blog for CPC was “So what good is there in positive, appreciative, strengths-based leadership development?”