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Taking Risks on Our ‘Pioneering Journey of Sustainability’

lawrence, gary, aecomIn 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.

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2 thoughts on “Taking Risks on Our ‘Pioneering Journey of Sustainability’

  1. For many advocates of sustainability, a large motivation is the precautionary principle. With the risks we are facing, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so let’s get going. But there is a certain paradox to risk taking (whose absence you lament) which is motivated by caution. This is not a criticism – just an observation. Our pioneering forefathers were leaving a “known” bad situation for an unknown. This makes the risks easier to take. In “Natural Capitalism” Amory Lovins has a chapter on the automobile which opens by speculating about society’s willingness to proceed with the auto if they knew it would require paving arable land equal to the states of Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania and cost $200 million per day to maintain; or that it would kill or maim 250 million people. He gives several more statistics along the same line. I can only conclude that ignorance of the risks is what emboldened them to proceed. Knowledge seems to bring a certain paralysis we call cautionary. The analogy between us and the pioneers breaks down when you see that they experienced their present lives as deficient – and so they set out. On the other hand, we THINK we KNOW that our lives are fine, and so we choose to stay put. As I said – it’s a real paradox.

  2. I would like very much to agree yet based upon the number of times that the risks were known and we proceeded anyway, I have my doubts. Knowing the risk is often a means by which you can generate greater profit because success means greater returns.

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