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Here’s my latest for Sustainable Brands.

Resources for grappling when “all perspectives seem true,” and long-established categories are crumbling

In 10 earlier parts of this series, we discussed 20 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field. (Find the first 7 articles here and the last three here.)

Think you have it bad trying to accurately measure and report on your company’s carbon footprint and supply chain impacts?

Perhaps you’ll feel better after hearing this cautionary tale. The journal Nature recently reported a prank played on the publishers of well-respected science journals. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, 120 completely gibberish papers made it through peer review, were published, and then withdrawn after the prank was revealed.

How on Earth could this have happened? How could such an absolutely bedrock scientific principle as peer review fail so utterly?

The answers have to do with an all-too-human reluctance to trash the work of supposed peers. Add in the biases we’re all subject to in assuming that “experts” (or at least those posing as them) know what they are talking about. You also can’t rule out simple laziness.

We’d like to add another provocative possibility to this negligence soup: that the journal editors gave a pass to the gibberish articles because, influenced by postmodernism, they assumed at some level that the authors just had a different, alternative, but legitimate view of the world.

That’s postmodernism for you.

For those former business majors who missed it in Humanities class (likely most of us), postmodernism is a school of thought that reacts against “the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality.” What a person believes about the world comes from their own personal interpretation. There are no certain and universal truths. Everything is relative. All viewpoints have inherent validity. (Think of the perception-challenging art of Warhol and Rauschenberg, and the music of Glass and Cage.)

While this may seem like a huge stretch, we think there’s real value for sustainability practitioners to consider lessons from postmodernism. Put the simplest way we can think of, acknowledging postmodernism’s influence helps us deal with nuance. Because postmodernism prioritizes skepticism and the reevaluation of assumptions, we believe it’s a rich topic that helps us acknowledge the inescapability of prejudgments and biases in our measurement frameworks as we aim for more sustainable business outcomes.

Pitfall XXI: Don’t fail to account for your audiences’ postmodern biases & “truths” and seeing things from their points of view.

Love it or hate it, postmodernist thinking — and the perspective it brings against accepted “truths” — is entrenched in our world. (Not officially, explicitly, or necessarily consciously, but it’s there.) It’s part of our hyper-connected lives, where many individuals’ experiences carry more weight than ever before. For most of history, unless you were at the very top of business, society or religious life, your experiences and opinions probably didn’t count for much outside of your inner circle.

Even just 50 years ago, much of the world had pretty much the same New York Times front page each morning. The set of facts selected and presented by a small subset of thinkers were, for the rest of us, “objective” reality. As Walter Cronkite famously signed off his newscast each evening: “And that’s the way it was.” In saying so, publically and with the weight of his “authority,” he made it true.

Today, social media offers each of us many windows on the world that reflect our individual choices and shape our experiences. Plus, we have the power to broadcast our own personal views of reality, and what things mean, to many others.

Taken to the office, this means sustainability practitioners have to grapple with bosses, colleagues, stakeholders and customers who may have very different views of what things mean, based on precisely the same data and facts you’re looking at. They probably are just as certain of their interpretation as you are of yours.

Perhaps relatedly, you may have noticed that conventional ways of categorizing things are breaking down in area after area. Things just don’t seem to stay in their proper boxes anymore. The dilemmas that come out of these shifting perspectives are right up postmodernism’s alley.

Pitfall XXII: Don’t fight most of the mushing together of conventional categories, how you choose to address them, and then how you measure the effectiveness of your actions.

A partial list of these box-rebels includes:

Luckily for us, if postmodernism contributes in some ways to the new kinds of emerging dilemmas facing sustainability practitioners, it also offers some guidance. Here are three resources: one directly about postmodernism, one that embodies it, and one from a relatively new scientific field that takes us to a similar place.

  1. Delve into this 2001 “Bioscience” journal called Dragnet Ecology—‘Just the Facts, Ma’am’: The Privilege of Science in a Postmodern World by T. F. H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter, J. Chris Pires and Thomas W. Hoekstra. The authors argue that sustainability efforts that are modeled on Joe Friday’s forensic methods alone — “just the facts” — won’t succeed in a postmodern world because they lack the elements essential for managing problems within complex systems. They argue for scientists to become experts at crafting narratives — stories — as well as facts. By looking at things this way, the authors argue, scientists will be able to better advise business leaders and policy makers on complicated environmental problems.

    The most basic benefit here is increasing weight for an already commonly expressed need for scientists to become better communicators. This article made the case for science communication skills back in 2001, and it’s being increasingly echoed today.

    A second benefit is support for scientists who are showing a willingness to go outside of their traditional role of fact-developer, and be actual players in the policy advocacy world. This cuts against the traditional expectation that scientists do their research thing and stay out of policy/political scrums. We’re seeing increased visibility from scientists such as James Hansen (NASA & 350.org), Neil Degrasse-Tyson (“Cosmos”), and Michael E. Mann (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars).

  2. The New Journalism movement that grew out of the 1960s civil and social tumult offers notes for acknowledging nuance, or even better, grappling with it. This kind of reporting, at its best, allowed for the writer’s active physical participation in the events of the story, with the benefit of generating unique insights.
  3. The field of behavioral economics has clear lessons for distinguishing between how we like to think we make decisions (very rationally) versus how we really do (subject to many cognitive biases affecting actually being rational).

CONCLUSIONS

While these streams of thinking run (very) outside the sustainable business mainstream, we think this approach can help you with thorny challenges of moving your company further towards sustainability, and then understand the nuances of trying to measure that.

We hope they spark new perspectives on additional current, box-escaping themes such as the:

  • deepening of stakeholder relations;
  • the emergence, coming from a number of different spheres, of actually defending emotions in decision-making and even spirituality; and
  • increasing attention to “happiness” as a way to reflect human welfare and satisfaction even within the “give-me-a-number” metrics world.

It’s important to remember that we are not advocating throwing out objectivity (or its pursuit), facts, truth, and good science. Neither are we advocating an “anything goes” world. But at the very least, just citing something as, say, objective or rational, doesn’t necessarily make it so.

A helpful tip comes from author Michael Suk-Young Chwe, who notes that, all of us, not just scientists, need to accept that full neutrality or unbiasedness is impossible. It’s a burden we shouldn’t have to bear. The trick is better self-awareness, acceptance of doubt (which science, at its best, already values), and awareness that even science is “fundamentally a human process.”

Precisely because we’re all fallible people, operating in a complex world, it ultimately works in favor of our role as sustainability problem-solver to acknowledge uncertainties in the environmental and human realms, including in how we measure things.

Maybe postmodernism isn’t so crazy after all.

John Ehrenfeld’s "Flourishing" Mar. 5 Talk at FDU’s ISE

Tweets from John Ehrenfeld’s Mar. 5 talk at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise in Madison, NJ.

  1. “Important timely conversations about the possibility of the entire world #flourishing forever”– @jeanawirtenberg #sustainability
  2. “Un- #sustainability is an unintended consequence of following the beliefs underpinning our modern western culture” #flourishing
  3. Two changes needed: 1) a new vision of our goals to replace the broken dream #flourishing
  4. 2nd change: replace deeply held beliefs in our cultural consciousness that currently lead only back to growth #flourishing
  5. “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”-Havel. JohnEhrenfeld quotes in #Flourishing pic.twitter.com/NneMwlXLSo
  6. Why #pragmatism helps w/#flourishing: “Dealing w/complex systems is a lot more like gardening than driving a car” pic.twitter.com/Nv3GPGuxpi
  7. “We have to find another way to satisfy our human be-ingness. It involves caring.” #flourishing @flourish2
  8. Russell: next job for #flourishing is implementation: making it actionable in biz, family & the world #sustainability
  9. And thank you to @ISE_FDU, host @jeanawirtenberg and all the attendees for an inspiring, engaging morning. #flourishing

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Check out this new two-page fact sheet on NJ and climate change: Understanding New Jersey’s Vulnerability to Climate Change.

It puts all the most important scientific facts in one easy-to-read piece about the three biggest climate change threats facing our state.

This useful tool was developed by the Rutgers Climate Institute and the Georgetown Climate Center. You can share it with your local town council, environmental commission, and school science teams. Use it to write letters to your local papers, or to back up a discussion with a friend.

It’s important to remember that Global Climate change doesn’t cause any single, specific weather event like a hurricane or heat wave. But it does make weather events more likely to happen and more likely to be extreme when they do.

A simple way to think about it is that climate is your personality—who you are a person. And weather is your mood—how you feel on any particular day. If your personality changes, so do your moods.

In the case of our planet, the greenhouse gases that we’re dumping into the atmosphere are raising the earth’s temperature. In other words, we’re changing the earth’s personality. These changes from the generally consistent climate patterns we had for billions of years affect where, when and how weather happens. Those are the earth’s moods.

So here’s the deal: Climate change is making NJ stormier, floodier, and hotter.

1. Threats from Extreme Storms

“Power interruptions due to extreme weather, such as hurricanes, thunderstorms, and ice storms, are 10 times worse in New Jersey today than 20 years ago.”

“Heavy precipitation events in the Northeast have increased dramatically in the past two decades, occurring more than twice as often in recent year than during the past century.”

2. Threats from Rising Seas

“Scientists consider New Jersey a hotspot for sea-level rise, as waters along New Jersey’s coast are rising faster than the global average. Best estimates for sea-level rise along New Jersey’s coast show an increase of 10 inches by 2030 and by 1.5 feet by 2050.”

“Scientists are highly confident that future storms will have greater impacts because of rising sea levels. Storm surge combined with higher water levels will make severe coastal flooding more frequent in the future.”

3. Threats from Extreme Heat

“By mid-century, about 70 percent of summers in New Jersey will be warmer than the state’s warmest summer on record.”

“This extremely hot weather will increase health risks for the elderly and young children, stress rail lines and major roadways, and pose threats to agriculture.”

So now that we know—what are we going to do about it? That’s exactly what lots of people around the state are working on.

This accessible guide gives citizens, planners and policy makers another tool to make better decisions about how our state should spend money and resources.

We don’t have time to waste debating about whether climate science is 100% for-sure or merely 97% sure. It’s time to take action on the family, local, county and state levels.

Must Reads:

Grist’s Ben Adler asks: Why is Chris Christie silent on climate change, even as New Jersey is threatened by rising seas? Includes good background on how New Jersey used to be a leader for clean energy and climate action planning

New York Times front-pages leaked IPCC draft, highlighting mounting costs of climate inaction: http://nyti.ms/1asqoc3

 

Green links:

Four great (tree-free!) ebooks for your new-to-green friends & colleagues from Julie Urlab at Taiga Company http://t.co/6DcVe5pNsc

Pondering ways to connect the “Blackfish Effect” to climate action. Similar in cognitive dissonance? http://t.co/mMIhlMBGw9

Why storytelling matters. Required reading from Seth Godin for the sustainability and climate action worlds. http://t.co/aoFXqhxNSW

Great analogy for restoring & protecting: “broken windows” theory from Hudson Riverkeeper http://t.co/u47t5C6kbw

Just a super share from Susan McPherson on how to be your best on social media https://t.co/yRfnCK31RP

My take on NY Comptroller DiNapoli’s climate action win: http://t.co/TVJCuOXcFC

A solar car! Future-fiction or not-so-far-off? https://t.co/438krn5ZC0

Are your U.S. Sens on the Boxer/Whitehouse Act on Climate taskforce? Mine are. Thanks to Senators Booker and Menendez http://t.co/at5ImiqB7p

My “5 Things #Climate Skeptics are Right About” | Feb 20 event w/ Yale Center for Climate Change Communication’s Geoffrey Feinberg http://t.co/0bQ7KFcX4a

Terrific essay: The sociology of climate change http://t.co/bo1k7YuDc5

Check out this SRI blueprint from Marcy Murninghan and Bob Monk: Trusting Harvard: The Cost of Unprincipled Investing http://t.co/VGVmORLVhm

I’m all-in for climate change action.

But there are plenty of people who don’t agree with me about climate change and what we should do about it (and I count friends among them).

Honestly, this completely baffles me. How can we be so far apart on such an important issue?

Instead of throwing up my hands, I decided to write out the things I’m absolutely, positively sure they are right about. Here’s my list:

5 Things That I Completely Agree on With Climate Skeptics

1. Climate science is complicated and scary

2. We’re all worried about our job/kids/house

3. We all really hate having the same argument over and over

4. No one likes being told what to do/not to do/can’t buy/should think

5. We can and *will* figure it out

This list reminds me that there’s plenty of common ground. From astronomical property taxes to job growth to rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, we definitely agree on many of the things that need fixing. It’s the how-to-fix-it part where I get stuck. So the first step for me is to learn how to listen better and understand more about where people are coming from.

That’s why I encourage you to bring your friends to North Jersey Public Policy Network’s Feb. 20 event, especially the ones who aren’t sure about climate change or are fed up with it.

It’s called “America’s Future: Communicating with our Neighbors on Climate Change.” It will be a guaranteed friendly, flame-free evening with one of the country’s best-informed researchers on why climate change is so incredibly hard to talk about.

No judgments, no blaming.

The night will start with small group discussions about climate change conversations run by Climate Nexus. And then we’ll hear from Geoffrey Feinberg of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication and other panelists. Dr. Feinberg studies the different ways that Americans think and feel about themselves and climate change. There will also be time for your questions and comments.

NJPPN is hosting this event with the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

I’m committed to bringing 4 friends who don’t feel the same way about climate change and politics that I do. I’m not planning on changing anybody’s mind. But I do hope to hear and understand more about what they’re thinking and why.

The event is free. RSVP at enviro@njppn.org.

Ian Welsh says we’re screwed.

His new essay on what climate change is doing to our planet hasn’t a shred of good news for humanity.

Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years

For some time my baseline scenario has been as follows: we are so screwed.

We can expect a complete collapse of the Ocean’s ability to provide fish. Japan, the worst offender in this, will also be the worst hit. That doesn’t make me happy, but it does make me laugh.  This effects the oxygen cycle and worst case we could kill ourselves off entirely.  Assuming we don’t, however…

We are currently seeing a hiatus in Climate Change. My friend Stirling predicted that years ago, and predicted it would be used to simply double down on stupidity like fracking.  It is being.  If/when the sun warms up, we are fried.  Various processes are past the point of no return, we are going to see huge methane releases from Russia, for example.  We are going to have worse global warming than the worst mainstream predictions.

Climate change will continue to show up as more and worse extreme weather events, like the nasty hurricanes we’ve been seeing hitting further and further north.  We are going to also see changes in rainfall patterns, these will continue to devastate agriculture.

Aquifers are being drained dry, in ways that permanently damage them.  This is happening in China, the US, India and other places. This water will not come back.  Large areas that are currently agriculturally productive will not be, independent of climate change.

We will see huge dust bowls form, including in India, China and the US.

There will be widespread hunger, because agriculture is going to fail.  Period.  Right now hunger is due to distribution issues: we grow more than enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t care about feeding everyone.  In twenty to thirty years this will not be the case: we will just not have enough food.

All of this is baked into the cake: we are past the decision points on all of these items—they will happen, they can no longer be stopped.  Even if you take the most optimistic scenarios we would need to act radically, right now, and we aren’t going to.

It makes me think of this:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

–T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men 1925

Welsh’s vision is  dark, and sad, and scary. And yet, I’m optimistic for change, breakthroughs, and transformation.

New rule: One solutions post for every teeth-knasher.

Here’s a positive, upbeat, solutions-focused article on what UK-retailer Marks & Spencer is doing to make the world better.

And a list of circular economy ideas that can be applied across other industries.

Via The Guardian:

The 10 ways sustainability professionals can scale up the circular economy

I’ve never met a sustainability professional who doesn’t agree that the circular economy is critical to our future in a resource constrained world. It’s not a new concept, 10 bob for your old pop bottle was big when I was growing up in the 1970s, and there are countless examples that prove the business case.

 

So what are we going to do about Climate Change?

We’re going to tell the truth about it. Until people hear it. And then join us in doing something about it.

I’m hearing a lot more truth-telling. Calling out of deniers. Naming names.

Three recent links.

1) Bill McKibben and 350.org. This Salon interview about his Climate Change activism captures some of what I’m feeling.

Via Salon.com:

Bill McKibben: “Being green won’t solve the problem”

But this [Climate Change] is a systemic problem. It’s going to be solved or not solved by a systemic solution. It’s past the point where we’re going to manage to do it one light bulb at a time.

Right. Climate Change is a systemic, global, planetary, issue. Not one or a million of our individual dollars or works will solve it.

Including business.

2) The Guardian newspaper has been knocking it out of the park with dead-on Climate Change coverage. Last week, journalist Jo Cofino covered the Carbon Disclosure Project’s surprising move to call out the names of blue-chip non-reporters. See, CDP can only report on global emissions if the business world give them the information. And if they won’t, how can we know if they are really doing what they say they are doing?

Via TheGuardian.com:

Shame on you, Apple, Facebook and Amazon

There comes a time when naming and shaming is the only way to get some businesses to start taking their responsibilities seriously.

This is why CDP, the respected global NGO, has for the first time compiled and published a list of major companies around the world that are refusing to disclose details of their carbon emissions.

In the US, that includes household names such as Apple, Facebook, Amazon.com, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Caterpillar and General Dynamics.

Shame on all of you and the other 90 of the 500 largest listed companies in the world that chose not to give CDP the data it requested.

3) There’s been some terrific individual-action climate change coverage on the Daily Kos site recently, including the outstanding Hummingbird blogathon series.

Via DailyKos.com:

Hummingbirds – Hopeful Voices in Our Midst

The “Hummingbirds” Blogathon held this past week was our humble attempt to accentuate the positive and explore what all of us can do as individuals.  After all, successful collective efforts are so deemed because the whole ends being greater than the sum of its parts.  The diaries posted this week were not only inspiring and uplifting, but based on several diary comments I read, opened many eyes.

Why did the blogathon’s writers, journalists, and activists choose a hummingbird?

This is why.

On a visit to Japan, Wangari Maathai learned the story of the hummingbird and the forest fire. While the other animals run in fear or hang their heads in despair, the hummingbird flies above the fire time and again, releasing a few drops of water from its tiny beak.

“Why do you bother?” the other animals shout at the hummingbird. “I’m doing the best that I can,” the hummingbird replies.

That’s all, and everything, we each must do.

“That’s just how we do things here.”

I wish.

My town is not the greenest city in America, and it’s definitely far from the worst. I wish we recycled more, made less trash, saved more energy and used less water. It’s darned near impossible to ask people to change how they live. And I know better than to pick Quixotic fights with my good neighbors.

But I still want to change my neighbors’ minds about we use energy, spend money, and protect natural resources, as a town, state, and country.

Endlessly awesome Seth Godin nails behavioral economics in 229 cool words.You want people to change? Make it easy, make it the norm.

He also neatly captures the core insight of the late Donella Meadows, the Grand Dame of Systems Thinking. In her classic article “Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system,” she ranks 12 strategies by how well they work to actually change a system fundamentally.

Meadows said that the most powerful way to change a system is through paradigm change. Not by inches, but by whole.

So forget about small potatoes like swapping out some light bulbs or reusing grocery bags. The kind of change we need would look like this: Everyone in my town decides overnight to decrease our municipal energy use by 50% and funnel those savings into renewable energy investments.

Is it doable? Seth says yes.

Via Sethgodin.typepad.com:

Change the culture, change the world

Plenty of marketing, particularly the marketing of social-change groups, focuses on educating people and getting them to make different (and better) decisions.

But most actions aren’t decisions at all.

In Reykjavik, shopkeepers keep their doors closed (it’s cold!) and if they were aware that in Telluride most stores keep their doors propped open (even in the winter) they’d think it was nuts.

In China, the typical household saves three to five times as much of their income as a household in the US. This is not an active decision, it’s a cultural component.

The list goes on and on. A practioner of Jainism doesn’t have a daily discussion about being a vegetarian, and a female graduate of Johns Hopkins is likely pre-sold on the role of women in the workplace.

If you ask someone about a cultural practice, the answer almost always boils down to, “that’s what people like me do.”

Powerful organizations and great brands got there by aligning with and accelerating tectonic cultural shifts, not by tweaking sales one at a time.

There are two lessons here. The first is that the easiest thing to do is merely amplify what a culture is already embracing. The second is that real change is cultural change, and you must go about it with the intent to change the culture, not to merely make the easy change, the easy sale.

So much bad news.

So bad. And so much of it. About sea level rise and species extinction and massively destructive storms that change lives forever. 400. 

It’s a veritable Pandora’s box of bad.

So much bad that it’s tempting to push it aside.

But just like we teach children, the truth sets free to make different, better choices. Telling our friends and family and customers and colleagues and suppliers the truth about the real, imminent dangers facing humanity is the only way out.

And moreover, this is about respect.

Do I respect myself, and every person I meet, enough to act with integrity? To think beyond my own needs to what they need? And what our children need?

Via sehn.org, authored by the world’s preeminent scholar on the Precautionary Principle, Carolyn Raffensperger:

Why We Should Tell People the Truth About the Environment Even When It Is Bad News

I think unless the people are given information about what is happening to them, they will die in ignorance. And I think that’s a big sin. I mean, if there is such a thing as a sin, that’s it, to destroy people and not have them have a clue about how this is happening.”  Alice Walker

When people find out what I do for a living—addressing climate change, toxic chemicals, and loss of species—they ask me if I am optimistic that things will turn out ok. They ask, do I think there’s a viable future for their kids and their grandchildren? They are asking me for my professional judgment about the state of the world since I live and breathe each new study and every fact.

And my colleagues and allies in the environmental work have the same kinds of discussions about the science of endocrine disruptors, rising levels of carbon dioxide, and the acidification of the ocean. My colleagues say “that’s too negative. Focus on the good news! The solutions! We can’t tell people the bad news because it will turn them off!”

But here’s the deal—we are in deep trouble. Recent data suggest that humans will suffer more chronic debilitating diseases, most of our own making; climate will ricochet from one calamitous weather pattern to another; and frogs and pollinators will not survive the predations of industrial civilization. I write this essay from central Iowa where in 2010 we had record flooding. In 2012 we had record drought. And now in 2013 we have record rainfall and flooding, again.

Here is my list of reasons for why I have come to believe that people need to know the truth about the bad environmental news.

Raffensperger’s closing thought about “looking to the birds” reminds me of the famous Mr. Rogers quote. When asked how to talk to children about horrible things, he said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Remember what’s at the bottom of that box.

Hope.

“Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”