What makes someone a sustainability leader?
I believe being a sustainability leader is fundamentally about saving and improving as many lives as possible. It’s about helping life on earth to consistently thrive.
The best way to do this will inevitably change over time as circumstances change.
But right now, in 2021 and for at least the next few decades, humanity is faced with an accelerating climate and ecological emergency.
So science-based climate action should be our top priority.
Because if we get this wrong, nothing else will be right.
To help save all that we can, here are a couple of key questions to ask yourself:
- What is my net impact on greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere? Am I helping to prevent or remove more emissions than I am putting in?
- How could I do more with what I have and who I know?
By helping to minimize the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere you are minimizing both the amount of deadly warming in the future and the amount of deadly pollution poisoning people’s hearts, brains, and lungs today.
In other words, you are helping to maximize both the quantity and quality of life on earth – for billions of people and every other living being we share this planet with today. And for our children tomorrow.
Sustainability leaders understand…
“Committed emissions” of our existing infrastructure alone will take us over 1.5°C.
“At this point, to hit any reasonable climate target, you need 100% adoption [of emission-free cars, power plants, heating systems, etc.] at everyone’s next purchase.” – Saul Griffith
The goal is to reverse global warming “as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible”.
Project Drawdown has identified the top 80 solutions that already exist today and will save us trillions in the next 30 years.
They’ve grouped these solutions into three major buckets in The Drawdown Review – a useful framework for everyone to think about what we need to do:
- Reduce Sources: Bringing emissions to zero.
- Support Sinks: Uplifting nature’s carbon cycle.
- Improve Society: Fostering equality for all.
This is an opportunity to multi-solve because everything is connected.
Climate action can help to solve several major issues at the same time (human health, racial justice, economic justice, and more). Win-win-win!
Everyone can make valuable contributions in their own unique ways.
This is an all-hands-on-deck situation.
We all have a small but important role to play.
Take the time to figure out how to best utilize your skills, experiences, knowledge, network, resources, and points of leverage to tackle the problem. Then get to it and team up with others along the way!
We’re all leaders *and* followers.
We’re a very social species. You followed someone into the climate movement. And others will join because they’re following you in.
You’re far more powerful than you realize. And you’ll never know how many people you help to inspire with your words and actions.
This is great news because to limit warming to 1.5°C we’re going to need sustained action from 3.5% of people in our schools, towns, companies, states, and countries around the world to influence the policy and investment decisions being made there. These decisions are determining future emissions.
We’re all on the same team here. So keep ego out of it, welcome newcomers, do your best to help people on their climate journey, and don’t forget to take care of yourself as well – it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – William Bruce Cameron
Think like a warrior
No, not that kind of warrior!
I mean the Indigenous understanding of a warrior:
“In most ancient warrior traditions being a warrior related to a very specific code of conduct that involved respect, honor, protection, and service.
In the Wabanaki tradition being a warrior meant that you were both a helper and a shield to the community. This same philosophy is held by other tribal traditions as well.
[Warriors] do not hesitate to speak the truth about issues that pose a threat to the well-being of the people and the continuity of life. Yet they do so in ways that demonstrate respect for those they are addressing.
[Warriors] walk strong through life, but gently upon the earth. A warrior must be respectful and disciplined in their interactions with all living beings and committed to protecting the sacredness of every life.” – Sherri Mitchell, Sacred Instructions
Western society has a lot to learn from Indigenous teachings. It’s long past time to listen, integrate Indigenous wisdom, and begin healing relations.
Be like a tree
Trees seem to understand that what is good for their forest community is good for them.
They are known to communicate and collaborate across species via pheromones and underground root networks connected by mycelium (aka the wood wide web).
Trees share information and warn each other of danger.
They also share resources with each other, often sending resources from where they are more abundant to where they are less abundant.
Amazingly, if they know they are going to die soon, some trees will give away all of their remaining resources to help strengthen their neighbors.
Research in this space is still in its infancy. I can’t help but wonder how much more we can learn from these species that have been around for hundreds of millions of years longer than us.
One last thing trees do: they lower the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
And they remove more and more CO2 over time. Every year brings a new ring. And each new ring is larger than the last.
These ever-widening tree rings make me think of Leah Stokes’s chapter in “All We Can Save” where she writes about continually widening our circles of impact:
“Do not demand that your smallest, personal circle be pure before you start working on the broader circles of community and policy. Because that day will never come. Let’s dig in today to shift the system – and tomorrow and the day after.When I come to the end of my life I want the scales to show that I prevented more carbon emissions than I caused. There’s no way to make that happen if I work only on myself.My offset plan is activism.” – Leah Stokes
The more you help, the more of a leader you are in my book.
There are millions of leaders already. You’re probably one of them, or on your way to becoming one, whether you think of yourself that way or not.
Let’s keep stepping forward together. And get millions more to join us so we can do what needs to be done.
Further reading you may appreciate
“We Can’t Tackle Climate Change Without You.” – Mary Annaïse Heglar
“I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” – Mary Annaïse Heglar
Leah Stokes’s “A Field Guide for Transformation” chapter in All We Can Save (the whole book is worth a read).
And, finally, these are some critically important concepts I did not explicitly spell out by name but are on my mind thanks to everyone sharing their thoughts on this topic: Adaptation, regeneration, resiliency, the sustainable development goals, circular economy, walking the walk, long-term thinking, storytelling, flexibility, and many more.