Why leadership matters for sustainability

Recently a friend of mine asked me to help her answer the challenging question of why an individual or family should adopt the principles of sustainability in their lifestyle.  Her response has always been, “Because it is the right thing to do.”  This is a weak answer because it relies on a personal value judgement rather than on any universal premise that we can agree is important.  One could say, “Well, good for you! But, I don’t care to live like that and I am not convinced that it is necessary.”  As you might guess, I have thought and read a bit about this question. A couple of the leading thinkers on this are David Orr at Oberlin, and Gus Speth, presently at Vermont Law and the former Dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Another version of this question is the one that asks why the US should cut emissions when China and India are not doing their share.  Although it is questionable that China and India are not trying, nevertheless the question is one that I hear frequently.

For individuals, I have concluded that the answer is that there really is little compelling reason for one person or one family to make sustainable choices. The impact individually of such changes in lifestyle is minuscule.  My new home of Maine is a bit of an exception in that it hosts a significant population of two kinds of folks. There are hard core Yankees whose family has always been here, and there are those who came here to leave something behind and live closer to the land.  Both groups have what I refer to as industrial strength stoicism.  They are frugal to a fault, and sustainable living is the reigning ethic because it seems to be part of their DNA. Collectively such efforts can make a difference, especially with respect to carbon emissions. Individually, however, the impact is a drop in the ocean. It is rare that a significant subset of a population has the stewardship ethic that we find in Maine.

Beyond individual sustainability

Our sustainability crisis is really a crisis of leadership. We must have large scale collective action and fundamental change in our economy. This requires courageous, visionary leaders who can agree that such change is not only necessary, but in the long run will be the shortest route to wellbeing. This is our opportunity to create an advanced civilization with a sophisticated growth-neutral economy that can provide wellbeing for a few billion of us. The evidence shows that this is very possible, and we presently have the technology to reduce our carbon footprint globally by 90 percent or more. The science shows that remonstrations to the contrary are nonsense.

The role of leadership in large scale change points toward a more complete answer to the tiresome concern about China and India. The world is hungry for leadership on climate and sustainability. If in the late 20th century the US had lit the path by integrating sustainability into a vibrant economy, I believe that these and other nations would have followed.  Europe has made strides, but the collective impact has been minor and uncoordinated among the member states. The UN Clean Development Mechanism has largely failed, and the global carbon market has effectively collapsed over the last year or so. The world has looked to the US for leadership and we have been unable or unwilling to get our act together. Failure on this scale will deeply stain our historical record as a leader of nations.

At Unity College, the faculty and board of trustees have supported my own leadership and unanimously adopted Sustainability Science as a framework for our academic programming. As I noted in my previous post, this offers several advantages to the traditional focus on operational sustainability (e.g., solar panels, hybrid cars, etc.). As developed by the National Academy, this is a body of knowledge and research focused on optimal management of energy and material flows in a manner that is ultimately consistent the flow of energy and materials within the biosphere. Although the long term goal is congruence between humans and nature, along the way we will develop and discover new processes and technology that drive a green economy and create jobs for this generation of students and beyond.

What do we do when leaders won’t lead?

If leadership is so important, what do we do when our leaders are unwilling or unable to act? I am planning for a world that will be very different from the one that we grew up in. Like any dad, I am concerned for my kids (Andrew and Sachi), but I also consider it my duty to prepare the students whose lives I can touch here at Unity.  Over the last year I have come to know many of our faculty and I have found that their dedication to this mission is as fervent as or more so than my own.  I believe that like-minded people will increasingly come together to plan for adaptation and create resilient communities.  In the vacuum of leadership, we can see this already occurring (e.g., the transition movement).

I believe that Unity College has a leadership role to play on the national stage.  Recently a rather contrary individual from the community asked me why Unity College should have such a grandiose mission.  After all, we could be just another small liberal arts college specializing on certain fields in applied conservation.  Instead, we have declared that we have a role to play in the renewal of civilization through sustainability.  My answer is that, although small, we can change the world if we are an example for other institutions.  Across the US, arguably most big universities are deadlocked in bureaucratic paralysis.  Unity College has taken the lead and adopted Sustainability Science as a framework.  Although we are only a few months into developing this paradigm, we are already blazing a trail.

So, unlike our elected officials, Unity College can and must be a leader.  Because we can be innovative and foster comprehensive institutional change, we have an opportunity to produce graduates who can step up to the challenges of this century.  This is the only way that the huge investment in our mission makes sense.  There are plenty of colleges and universities that can give students the means to get a job.  Indeed, a college degree is now a commodity, like rice or corn.  You pay your money and get your degree after four years, and at many institutions learning can be a secondary consideration.  At Unity College, we must take the process one step further and produce graduates who can not only get jobs, but who can help create the new green economy.  Our graduates should not be mere workers.  They should help change the world.