What Is Environmental Leadership?
What is environmental leadership? The answer would almost certainly vary over time and across audiences, but there are some common themes. In my view, environmental leadership can be described in five progressive stages of evaluation and insight, each one more honest and potentially impactful than the former. That said, someone else might see eight or three stages where I see five, and so the aim of this list is not so much to create conceptual buckets, but rather to give a sense for the direction we ought to head if we are to succeed in our quest for a sustainable and healthy planet.
Stage 1. Looking in the “Garden”
This is about asking yourself whether you are taking care of yourself. Are you, as a global corporate entity, using up natural resources on which you depend at a rate greater than they are being replenished? This can mean your well water or the aquifers on which your farm or industrial operation sit. At the end of the day, it’s about you and your survival. Leadership here is about performing for yourself or your company, full stop. Up until the late twentieth century, this was the dominant form of environmental leadership on the individual and global level.
Stage 2. Looking around “Neighborhood”
After looking in the garden, this is about asking how I compare with others. Is my competitor doing the same thing I am? Do I care, and should I use up as much of the resource as I can while it lasts? It’s also about asking whether there is an advantage in being better than my neighbor or competitor? Would other stakeholders like my investors or local regulator treat me more favorably if I acted better than the average bloke in my neighborhood or marketplace? Leadership here is all about relative performance, and whether there are perceived benefits in being “better than” a peer or competitor. This model has dominated the environmental leadership paradigm until very recently, and is exemplified by the many sustainability indexes or rankings of corporate actors compared to each other.
Stage 3. Looking at the Planet
After looking around the neighborhood or marketplace, this is about asking whether performing better than my neighbors is actually going to help me in the end? Is my fishery viable even if all the fisherman in the village take an equal number of fish? Given the rate of climate change, is my oil company really viable, even though we are diversifying more than my competitors into renewable energy sources? It’s about understanding the externalities outside of my neighborhood or marketplace which might change the rules of the game and turn A+ actors into failures because nobody was actually performing within the parameters or tolerances of the environment or planet. Leadership here is all about holistic performance, and whether the whole, or planet, is degraded despite or because of the actions of the parts. This model is beginning to take hold as a more viable way to measure environmental leadership at a time when we have the clear capacity to disrupt the entire global ecosystem. The COP21 result recently in Paris is a good example of this type of leadership, with the parts assuming responsibility for the whole.
Stage 4. Looking at Goals
After looking at and measuring the health of the whole, this is about asking how my actions and those of other actors are coupled with a good or bad outcomes, and then deciding what to give up. Here we understand that it is the whole which matters, but we want to understand if, for example, my rapid growth as an economy out of poverty over time is coupled with increasing damage to the environment or not? Leadership here is all about seeing a trend over time across the results of my actions and determining whether or not they are coupled together so that I can do more of what produces a win/win, or even a win/half-win, and stop doing what is actually causing the whole more damage than benefit over time. Leadership here can mean coming to some very difficult decisions such as closing down coal mines, prohibiting exploitation of ecological services such as fisheries or forests, or deciding on new, different goals which may be entirely different than economic growth or accumulation of wealth. This kind of leadership will likely be necessary to meet the ambitious and critical goals set by COP21.
Stage 5. Looking Within
After looking at our goals in the context of what is causing net benefits to the whole and being willing to devalue what we might have considered most valuable, this is about empathy, humility and imagination. It’s about asking whether there are other variables in play which might be invisible to me, which might have moral relevance, and which might matter for the outcomes I desire in ways I never imagined. It’s about the discovery of new paradigms of integration with our natural world which could involve entirely new types of symbiosis and meaning for all its inhabitants. A recently published piece by the IUCN hints at what some of this might look like. Leadership here can also be seen in some of our human spiritual and cultural traditions where our planet takes a form rich with meaning and mystery, such as in this Native American proverb:
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children. We are more than the sum of our knowledge, we are the products of our imagination. ”
This kind of figure appears sporadically throughout our history, and we have generally not been kind to it. They haven’t spoken our economic or political language, or had power in a way we could recognize it, but willingness to hear these types of leaders when they do appear will herald the arrival of the last form of environmental leadership. And this time we will need to listen very carefully.
Tim Nixon is a founder and the managing editor of the sustainability site at Thomson Reuters. He is also Director of Sustainability at Thomson Reuters, and has ongoing engagement with thought leaders across a wide spectrum of NGO and private-sector partners. He has spoken at global policy-making events, including for example the World Bank Land & Poverty Conference, UN PRI Annual Meeting and the first global meeting of UNEA (United Nations Environment Assembly). He is also the author of numerous blogs on Thomson Reuters Knowledge
Tim is a lawyer by training and has spent most of his career working with diverse collaborators to build change-leading initiatives.
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