Taking Risks on Our ‘Pioneering Journey of Sustainability’
In my last article I posed the question as to whether the pursuit of truth is even relevant anymore? We have to make difficult decisions today that will shape the future for generations to come. Is the pursuit of truth in the belief that we can actually know the future getting in the way of the decision-making process and preventing us from making progress in solving critical problems?
I left this question unanswered for a very good reason: I don’t have an answer. I was hoping that one of you may have some thoughts on the matter – and I was not disappointed. Cynthia Silverthorn made the excellent observation that individual and corporate motivation may be the key to unlocking change. She observed that we have become accustomed to fully assessing and understanding risk before committing to any action. In this regard it may be that our huge progress in science has done us a disservice. We have become so good at modeling, assessing, evaluating and documenting risk that when the data is not conclusive, or runs too broad a gamut of scenarios, we become paralyzed, unable to act. We have become too comfortable, too secure in our own knowledge – but the game has changed.
In her comment, Ms. Silverthorn referred to our “pioneering journey of sustainability.” I very much appreciated this analogy. As one born and bred in the Pacific Northwest it is extremely unlikely that I would exist today had those intrepid first settlers not been willing to set out on a journey filled with the unknown, the unforeseeable and the downright terrifying. Yet they did – why? What was their motivation?
In the simplest of terms, their motivation was to find a better life for themselves and their families. The promise of affordable land and independent living was a strong enough lure that entire families staked everything they had on completing the arduous journey ahead. I still have friends with living grandparents who came to the PNW in covered wagons. Their motivating truth was opportunity and their world was forest, fish and farm. Now it would be aviation, education and electronics. They could not possibly have known that future – just as their grandchildren and great-grandchildren cannot possibly imagine the hardships of western migration or the consequences for native peoples. They took risks within the context of their knowable present. We need to do that the same. We need to find the courage to take risks associated with a largely unknowable future.
There have been other times in the history of our country when we have taken risks in the face of huge uncertainty. The Space Race is one such moment and I have written about this in an earlier article where I suggested that tackling climate change and resilience could do for Obama what the Moon Mission did for Kennedy.
Individuals and corporations take such risks on a regular basis. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have all stepped out into the unknown, motivated by the personal belief that their idea was something that could change the way we live and work for the better. Yes, they made lots of money doing it, but I doubt that was their primary motivation. Many, many others have stepped out with the same personal grit and determination and known spectacular failure. The best of them have got up, dusted themselves off and tried again. This time armed with the knowledge of what doesn’t work.
Some of them have not lived long enough to know what they achieved. We are all familiar with the stories of musical and artistic geniuses dying in penury and of posthumous Nobel Prize awards. Just this morning I was listening to the story of Homero Castro, an Ecuadorian plant scientist who dedicated 20 years of his life to breeding a hyper-productive cocoa tree immune to the witch’s broom fungus that had devastated Ecuador’s cocoa farms. After 51 attempts he created a tree immune to the disease that produced 10 times more cocoa beans than any other – only to be told by the chocolate manufacturers that its beans tasted like rusty nails and they would never buy them. Homero Castro died in a car accident and will never know that five years ago the Ecuadorian cocoa farmers found a way of removing the bad taste by fermenting the beans in burlap sacks for a few days. Castro’s cocoa trees, some now 46 years old and still producing, are the future of cocoa farming in Ecuador.
There is an old expression – I don’t know the source – that if one is not failing then one is not trying. It is essential that we make progress on addressing the probable causes and consequences of a warming planet. However, we have to be constantly alert to indications that we have gotten things wrong. There are just too few resources and too little trust to go around to squander it on ego rather than outcome based pursuits.
Ms. Silverthorn’s words caused me to revisit my favorite Richard P. Feynman quote,
“Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.”
I usually use this quote to illustrate my belief that being certain about something is a most irresponsible approach to solving complex problems when there are necessarily many unknowns. The idea that motivation might be the key to progress leads me to reflect that faith, in human ingenuity and in a vision for a better future, is equally important.
Can we, instead of focusing on the risks associated with a decision, focus on the motivation for making a decision? It may well be that we find greater agreement around the reasons for doing something than around the reasons for not doing something. Perhaps when we all realize we are all in agreement about trying to make a better future for ourselves, we will overcome the in-fighting and inertia and be able to make real progress.
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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