The secret life of the sustainability professional
It is undeniable that the financial returns provided by effective sustainability strategies and behaviors are a necessary objective if we are to succeed in scaling up sustainability as the smart mainstream operating system. Without a healthier economic engine driving what we do we won’t be around that much longer anyway. That said, we appear to be paying insufficient attention to the role of human consciousness, our inner operating system, in generating the behaviors necessary to create profitable and at the same time truly sustainable products, services, and communities. We appear stuck in the dilemma of trying to break away from business-as-usual while reinforcing profitability as the most important magnet for engaging in sustainability work.
If, for the sake of argument, we are at least willing to entertain this premise, the radical shift to integral rather than fragmented sustainability that is urgently needed may occur only in the face of catastrophic events that leave us with no viable alternative. A case in point can be seen in the massively supported but isolated global decision to phase out chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) in the 1980s to halt the depletion of the ozone layer. Perceived at the time as a potential human extinction event, it has been considered by many, including former UN Secretary Kofi Annan, as ‘perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date’ (see UN Montreal Protocol at http://www.theozonehole.com/montreal.htm). Can a generic term such as sustainability become an equally powerful and proactive call to action without a similar extinction-threatening event that forces us to react? Without a widespread return of our attention to developing ourselves as fully conscious beings who exercise our free will in a balanced pursuit of individual and common goals in harmony with natural law, the answer appears to be no.
The secret to this challenge lies in where we place our focus, on the driving inner forces that support this attention, and only then on the behaviors that emerge from the process. Focusing on behaviors rather than on where they are generated is hopelessly inadequate. Of course, if we are unaware or choose to ignore the multiple effects on others and the planet of a choice or a behavior, then we are able to continue exercising our intention to satisfy our needs and desires without a concern for consequences. In contrast, if we are fully aware of the effects of each and every one of our choices and behaviors, even to how they will affect us, then we are in a better position to exercise our conscious intention to amend and improve our behaviors in our personal lives, in our organizations, and our systems.
Why is it so hard to shift our attention from the external, measureable reality of the objective world to the inner reality where everything that happens outside is engendered? The easy answer is that it is hard to quantify the ROI, particularly short-term, of investing time and effort on intangibles that may or may not generate revenue. Also, it brings into play problematic dimensions of human experience such as spirituality, ethics, and consciousness development, which many consider as outside the scope of the sustainability professional’s work, particularly when we are told that financial returns are the most significant indicators of success.
This paradox of focus is at the heart of our crises. Whether we look at business, government, industry, education, healthcare, agriculture, we see failing systems grounded in a linear, mechanical, limited understanding of the universe’s operating system, and the fallout from this misguided view is clear to see. It has allowed us to lose sight of and interfere with the underlying operation and interconnectedness of natural and social systems, even when they are perfectly able to function in an abundant, healthy, and sustainable manner. Whether it’s a fiscal cliff, renewable energy, or new educational standards, we develop fragmented, temporary solutions that postpone rather than address the real issues that face us. In fact, we may not even know what these are. For example, the field of sustainability is often understood to work on integrating the principles of the triple bottom line – environment, society, and economics. This is only partly true, since the real purpose of sustainability is to secure wellbeing for present and future generations, and the triple bottom line is simply some of the means to get there. In reality, sustainability should be the operating principle of these systems that would make it possible for all living things to develop fully in accordance with their individual and collective purpose, free from economic, political, religious, ideological, or environmental injustice. If nature ever develops its alternative to Twitter, the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements will quickly fade from our collective memory as the planet rises up against us all.
An understanding of this paradox would lead us to the conclusion that the single, most effective way to restoring the health of the planet and of attaining human wellbeing may well be found in the inner work of consciousness development through our personal work, our education systems, our communities and the workplace. While not devoid of contradictions, organizations like Google have begun to embrace this concept by seeking to free up individual and collective creativity and imagination, faculties that have become marketable commodities more valuable than reason and logic. Meditation at Google is encouraged, and empowerment of the individual is matched with collaborative sharing of ideas to advance the company’s mission. This generative process, grounded in the spiritual work of individual transformation, may well be the next phase in our journey as a species.