When It Comes to Sustainability, How Do We Act?
As recent news produced a series of unsatisfactory reports from the climate change talks in Durban, I have been scanning what I think is an important new book called the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. The opening paragraph of this book strikingly and eloquently summarizes our dilemma.
“Climate change presents perhaps the most profound challenge ever to have confronted human, social, political, and economic systems. The stakes are massive, the risks and uncertainties severe, the economics controversial, the science besieged, the politics bitter and complicated, the psychology puzzling, the impacts devastating, the interactions with other environmental and non-environmental issues running in many directions. The social problem-solving mechanisms we currently possess were not designed, and have not evolved, to cope with anything like an interlinked set of problems of this severity, scale, and complexity. There are no precedents. So far, we have failed to address the challenge adequately. Problems will continue to manifest themselves – both as we try to prevent and as we try to adapt to the consequences of climate change – so human systems will have to learn how better to respond. One of the central social, political, and economic questions of the century is: how then do we act?”
Being mortal, I must admit that I am not certain what to do either. However, the opportunities I’ve had to work on issues of sustainability from a variety of institutional points of view, in a variety of communities and cultures, have resulted in some thick scar tissue that serves to remind me how not to act.
As I’ve worked with communities to try to help them figure out what to do today to get the future they want tomorrow, there are always barriers. Some of the barriers have to do with information about the present and probable futures. Some are about our views about other people’s motives and nature. There are always ideological differences complicating the discussions. In “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century,” Jonathan Glover posits that there is no single underlying basis for the choices we make. Instead, we make choices rooted in the interplay of self-interest, sympathy for others, respect for others, and concerns about our own morality.
I can best illustrate his point by briefly describing a memorable attempt to bring affordable housing to an urban neighborhood here in the U.S. After encountering an extraordinary amount of resistance, attending emotionally charged (I would go so far as to say menacing) community meetings, and finding obstacles thrown in our path at every turn, we retreated to ponder why we had failed so spectacularly to introduce much needed housing for those with household incomes below the median for the neighborhood.
Further research revealed that when you are not a planner, the term “affordable housing” translates as, “housing for people who aren’t like us, who don’t share our values and are threats to our property and our lives.” In the anonymity we had created for the people in need of housing there was no possibility for human connections. The neighborhoods did not see “affordable housing” as homes for people, but rather as repositories for their worst fears. Self-interest alone became the basis of community decision-making – and our approach to the problem had created a great psychological distance between the community and those in need of housing.
To reach across this great psychological void, we changed our language. We started talking about housing for schoolteachers, retail clerks, janitors and firefighters. Much of the housing need was for people in those income levels and these were people that the audience knew and liked. It was an amazingly different conversation when we described the issue in ways that brought the community’s moral resources to bear when making their choices.
So to return to our original question, how then do we act?
We must find ways to reduce the psychological distance between communities who perceived themselves as stakeholders in the future of a place and those who they do not perceive as stakeholders. This is not easy, but it is a necessary investment. If we can’t find formulas in which sympathy, respect for rights and concerns about one’s own moral identity balance the perceived self-interest of those that fear the change, then change is possible only at huge political cost.
Gary Lawrence is Chief Sustainability Officer & Vice President of AECOM Technology Corp.
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