Decisions About Sustainability Are about Our Lives (Not Someone Else’s)
A picture is worth a thousand words. We hear this phrase often, and intuitively know that it is true. But the translation of knowledge into practice, as is so often the case in life, can be a very difficult thing. This month has taken me back to the day when I learned firsthand the true power of a strong image and it is a lesson I would like everyone to benefit from.
I am on the Advisory Council of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) – one of a number of organizations attempting to establish an understanding of the material sustainability issues that face industries. The goal is to provide investors both large and small an accurate picture of a company’s success or vulnerability in the face of non-monetary risks such as climate change, drought, environmental degradation of resources and other external forces beyond their control.
This is a highly complicated undertaking and the resulting figures, tables, and notes in the margin are far beyond the grasp of the average investor – most of whom are individuals and small investors without deep industry knowledge.
Which brings me to my story.
In a time long ago in a land far away (Snohomish County, Washington in the early 1980s) I had the job of Community Development Block Grant Coordinator for the county government. This job entailed my being a factotum and active referee regarding the distribution and monitoring of federal funds for distribution to the county and all of the cities within.
This is the tale of the Darrington bear. Darrington is tucked way back up into the Cascade Mountains. The citizenry is made up almost entirely of émigrés from the Appalachian mountain region in North Carolina. They were the smallest city in the county and as such had almost no political muscle to apply at the negotiating table for funds. The city was of the opinion that they needed to cover their reservoir and fix their water distribution system in order to maintain water quality. To make their case, they came with presentations developed by their consulting engineers. They had water quality statistics, flow calculations, maintenance records and everything else one might need to engage in rational discourse about the investment necessity. But year after year their request was denied.
The third year changed that. That year they didn’t spend their public’s money on more engineering studies. Instead, they came into the room with a covered 4′ x 6′ photograph. They made no opening presentation. Instead the mayor, in all her Appalachian majesty, simply looked into the eyes of everybody on the committee and then flipped the cover off the photograph.
Centered within the frame was a dead bear floating in the middle of the reservoir. The suggestion was that the bear had somehow navigated the fence around the reservoir, gotten into the water, and drowned. The committee unanimously approved funding the request.
It was suggested that the bear had drowned but in that part of the world everybody knew that bears are reasonably good swimmers. Most committee members assume that the mayor or someone else shot the bear and put it in the water for the photograph. Most, I think, approved the request on political style points alone. But there is a lesson to be learned from this. And it is one that is as relevant today as I work with the SASB as it was back then in the City of Darrington.
Everybody engaged in addressing complexity before uninformed or hostile audiences needs their metaphorical equivalent of a dead bear. That one image that engages a community on an emotional level in addressing real, tangible problems that they can see directly affect them.
The notion “clean water” is in many ways an abstract to those of us who live in the States. We turn on the tap and clean water comes out. But how confident can we be that we all understand the connection between what we put down the drain and what comes out the faucet? The people of Texas found themselves thinking about his very carefully last January when this headline appeared in the Daily Post: “A River (of Pig Blood) Runs Through It.” The headline was accompanied by an aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone of a blood red Trinity River snaking away from the adjacent meat packing factory. And the good citizens of Houston learned that they were ingesting a little more iron than usual in their daily diet.
A city of political activists was born overnight.
And while I do not wish you all to rush out and shoot bears or slaughter hogs to make your case. I do urge all of us to consider the power of imagery in appealing to the emotional nature of our constituents. If we can engage them in an understanding that decisions about sustainability are about their lives, rather than somebody else’s, we can make great progress towards a better world.
Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.
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