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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.

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