Two Steps Forward

The world is going sideways. What's a sustainability professional to do?

GreenBiz collage, via Shutterstock

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How are you coping these days?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: How do sustainability professionals keep their optimism up in these extremely challenging times?

After all, the news is discouraging, if not frightening: The Amazon and the Arctic are burning, Greenland and Antarctica are melting. A changing climate is linked to everything from air pollution in China, to Alaska’s threatened infrastructure, to the rise of 100-year floods in more than 100 countries, to yet another scorching heat wave in Europe. The world’s food supply, coastal land and biodiversity are all threatened, according to recent studies.

And that’s just the climate part. Longstanding concerns such as plastic wasteair pollution and water security don’t seem to be getting better. Meanwhile, many of the world’s leaders are backsliding on their environmental commitments or are threatened politically by nationalists who want to reel in global treaties and alliances.

In short, things seem to be going sideways. The indicators aren’t headed in the right direction and the political zeitgeist is unpredictable at best.

So, as a sustainability professional, how do you cope? How do you make it through the day, let alone the night?

It’s a conversation I’ve been having over the past few months with a range of colleagues and peers — sustainability executives, activists, policy makers, climate scientists and others who spend a significant chunk of their waking hours working on sustainability issues.

Many welcomed the opportunity to discuss their own journeys — a few for the first time — and voice what they have been thinking but not necessarily saying out loud. Most of these conversations were of a personal nature, a few emotional, some explicitly off the record, so I’ll refrain for now from naming names, although I’m hoping to write a longer piece on this topic in the near future that brings some of these voices to life.

I don’t have answers, just a lot of questions. Among them:

  • How much should we ignore the depressing headlines and power forward, giving it our best, knowing that we can only do so much and that the organizations for which we work have only limited ability to tackle these issues?
  • How much do we sound the alarm about the urgency of these times, pressing anyone who will listen about the growing dangers and the risks they pose to our companies, value chains and economies — knowing that there’s only limited tolerance by most people to hear disquieting messages?
  • How much do we stop and rethink our current efforts with an eye on doubling down in order to increase impact and accelerate change?
  • How do we factor our own personal sustainability — our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being — into the equation, or do we set it aside in the name of the greater good?
  • How do we show up at work as who we truly are and how we truly feel without jeopardizing our credibility or effectiveness?
  • How much do we simply throw up our hands and party hearty?

Okay, that last question may be primarily for effect, although for some I’ve talked too it’s not that far from reality: They’re understandably frustrated and exhausted from swimming upstream and ready to enjoy the next phase of their life. After all, if the world is going to hell and there’s little one can personally do to stop it, why not enjoy life while you can?

And yes, there’s plenty of hopeful news and trends: the continued growth of renewables (and the continued decline of coal); the large institutional investors factoring climate risk into their investment decisions; the rising youth movement and its shaming of grown-up leaders' failure to solve the world's challenges; the rise of carbon farming and other techniques and technologies designed to draw down past emissions of greenhouse gases.

But the scale and scope of these developments continue to be plodding, and the forces supporting the status quo are stubborn, to say the least.

Countless heroes — of all ages, ethnicities, political leanings and belief systems — are working to address the challenges and accelerate solutions. They are, individually and collectively, inspiring. But few of them control the levers of power, not to mention the purse strings, necessary to affect systemic change.

So, do we accentuate the positive, shining a bright light on solutions and the people behind them — and bad news be damned — in the hope that we can scale these solutions through pure will? (And is it even possible to will things to scale?) Or do we embrace the challenges and more directly confront head-on today's sobering realities?

As I said: more questions than answers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts: How are you coping? How do you stay optimistic and keep from getting discouraged? I’ll share the best ideas and insights in the coming weeks (but won’t identify you without your permission).

For now, hang in there. The world needs all of us.